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John Adams: Genius or Boring? (or something in between)


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- Batter My Heart from Doctor Atomic.

Right there, above here, is my favorite Adams piece simply for its emotion. You should listen to it before you even start to judge from the Name alone. John Adams is a living, breathing, successful, ridiculed American composer. His music battled serialism and promoted expression in music with the use of independent line and a minimalist approach. It's not about rules, it's about breaking them just like the other 20th century composers did to obtain an effect...

Now. This is the ultimate question in music in this day and age... Where does Minimalism fit?

Personally? I LOVE John Adams and he is NOT a minimalist composer. But, others put him in that category, which is why this topic has been brought up. What separates him from Minimalism and what makes him unique from that style. Is he brilliant? Or, is he just another composer who hashes out random, meaningless melodies with mostly orchestral color? Or, is the fact that his music is so environmental make him a genius? These are all things to consider.

If you DON'T know him, I suggest reading a bit about him here: http://www.earbox.com/biography.html

Then, listening to some key works:

- On the Transmigration of Souls. This is his Pulitzer piece... It's not my favorite, but an important one for a discussion on Adams' technique.

- Phrygian Gates. Just ONE of his piano pieces that are BEAUTIFUL. The way is subtly mixes harmonies is the way Philip Glass SHOULD have composed. ;) This is where his minimalist side comes out the most.

- The Death of Klinghoffer previews: Her song is SO emotional and beautiful.

- The Night Chorus from Death of Kling. is very good. It shows off his sense of "beat" and power in a choir. Not the best recording of it, but still a nice exposure.

- A little bit from his famous opera Nixon in China.

- of course an excerpt from Dharma at Big Sur. He has a lot of Eastern influences in this piece, apropos to the title, of course.

- a String Quartet movement that would put Corigliano in his graveeee. haha. jkjk, but really, it's genius stuff here. John has a knack for orchestration, so give him limited instruments and he goes CRAZY.

- China Gates, some more avant garde of his stuff. :D

Feel free to search around Youtube for more deliciousness. He has MANY compositions that are simply breathtaking. But, a lot of people don't find them enjoyable and they call him a cop out or a "minimalist". But, in my opinion, and in his too, his music is so incredibly complex, that minimalism is almost an insult rather than a complement. Now, others will argue that it means he takes very limited material and does a lot of complicated stuff with it... you decide and tell me what you feel about John Adams, the American Composer.

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Yeah, I agree. That's kind of what I wanted to discuss in this topic. Is Adams a minimalist? Or, is he part of the start of that next big movement? Hence, the genius versus minimalist question. He, himself, HATES being labeled a minimalist because he doesn't believe that's what he does.

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I consider John Adams to be a post-minimalist composer. His early music, such as Phrygian Gates, was clearly influenced by Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass but in general he seems more like a neo-romantic with some minimalist tendancies. Harmonielehre has some development and climaxes you'd expect in a romantic symphony. I find Adams to be a much more sophisticated composer than Glass. For example, where Glass might write an extended passage with 16th notes, Adams would write a passage with offset rhtyhms that result in a 16th note feel. I just find Adams to be more skilled and dynamic and also fit within a tradition while using minimalism as a technique rather than a goal. Overall, I find his music to be very good. I love Nixon in China. It is a very effective piece and probably one of the great American operas. Is he a genius? That's hard to say, but I would certainly describe him as an effective, intelligent, communicative, relevant contemporary composer.

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You forgot this gem!!!

Like it or not, John Adams is in the mainstream (as in, a normality in classical music!) Anybody who is composer has to respect that because we all want our music to be habitually played. I will admit, I don't find it genius or boring, He's just accepted and played which is fine.

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Very cool! So, who are other "post-minimalist" composers? Is he the only one? Forgive my naivety.

I'd consider Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Torke, and Kamran Ince to fall in this group. Probably David Lang but I'm not that familiar with his work. Probably Julia Wolfe. Coincidentally, a group of composers a generation after Phillip Glass.

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I'd consider Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Torke, and Kamran Ince to fall in this group. Probably David Lang but I'm not that familiar with his work. Probably Julia Wolfe. Coincidentally, a group of composers a generation after Phillip Glass.

Ok! I'll check them out.

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I'm not too well acquainted with Adams. I've heard "Short Ride" a few times, but not much else. Listening to the link to "Batter, my heart" I find myself on the fence. For me personally it's nice to hear something that is relatively tonal, compared to most modern classical music. However I find myself lost in the progression of the piece; for me the ideas he uses are too spaced out, at least in this piece. I can't really follow it as well as some of my other favorite composers/pieces whose music is more thematic, and the melodies are more concise. But this could be due to unfamiliarity. Also generally there are very few pieces sung in English that I like, probably because I don't like musicals, and so classical singing in English usually reminds me of a musical, even if it isn't in the same musical style.

I had forgotten about "Transmigration". I've listened to that once in a theory class, and to be honest this to me is just another weird thing that contemporary composers do; combine multiple mediums in their composition, some musical, some non-musical. Rather than aid the piece I found the voices and other effects to be both distracting and annoying. I don't want to sound insulting, but music like this seems really "gimmicky", if you know what I mean.

I might listen to all of these eventually, but the last I chose to listen to was the string quartet. That was pretty much what I would expect from a modern composer, although I will say it is not by any means extremely dissonant, and there were moments that I actually liked a LOT (2:02 to about 2:10 for example), it just sounded to random and offsetting for my personal taste.

But like you already mentioned about Mozart, I recognize his achievements and respect him for his accomplishments. I just don't find his style to be very interesting or capturing. So IMO not a genius, and boring. However, in art genius and boredom is COMPLETELY in the eye of the beholder. There's no universal "right" or "wrong" way to compose, there's only what you personally believe to be the "correct" way.

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The Batter MY Heart I find rather repetitive and overwrought ... and the orchestration just OK. For example in the opening with the repetitive pattern being tossed quickly with brass string and percussion --- seems it needs some glue to sound fuller and bring home better the battering (as battering something implies a consistency of a particular motion). The Verdi like vocal lines repeated often don't work for me ... I get the point and seems to just get the drama stuck in one gear.

Phrygian Gates is much better - maybe because he had such a clear overall structure and is an excellent composer for piano. Must be a pain to play due to the repetitive patterns. But I do have to be in the mood to listen to the whole thing. A piece I would return to.

String Quartet, hmm interesting direction - Bartok meet minimalism.

Honestly though never was a big Adams fan ... but I need to explore more of his work. What I hear it is OK from a man with his education, experience and stature. Well made overall and he knows his stuff. This may sound a little mean but it could be I just am not into his primary materials he works out due to taste differences.

For now I'd say he will be noted in the history books for a few interesting works but I don't think he will be remembered as one of the finest of our time.

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