top of page

John Adams Through the Looking Glass

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2021–22 subscription concert "Jeremy Denk Plays Adams," and in the winter 2022 issue of the orchestra's quarterly Spotlight magazine.

John Adams.png

As the Cleveland Orchestra musicians start to perform John Adams’s Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, listen closely to the instruments on stage. Among the many you’re accustomed to hearing, from the spry piccolos and violins down to the thunderous timpani and trombones, you’ll encounter a curious sound: a honky-tonk piano.


A fixture of dance halls of the American South in the early 20th century, the honky-tonk piano and its tinny, out-of-tune timbre might seem a better fit for an evening of ragtime and fiddling, rather than a concert of orchestral music. But this is the work of John Adams, who for nearly half a century has been seamlessly integrating the forms and colors of 19th-century European classical music with the colloquial sounds and musical stylings emblematic of the United States. So when he refers to this concerto as "rollicking barrelhouse piano funk," we should not be surprised to find a keyboard, intentionally detuned to mimic a honky-tonk piano, on the stage.


In addition to serving as composer and conductor for this week's concerts, Adams hand-picked the works featured on the program. What goal did he have in mind when putting together this concert?


"Establishing a strong, confident repertory of American orchestral music is still a work in progress," Adams wrote over email. "I've chosen five pieces by Americans of more recent generations that I think are not only representative of the many currents afoot in our own time, but also are full of that same sense of extrovert energy and joy embodied by previous generations of American composers — like Copland, Bernstein, and Barber — who usually dominate today’s programming." 


Indeed, one could think of few composers whose works have been fueled by more relentless energy than Steve Reich and Philip Glass, chief scribes of the musical style known as Minimalism, which they began honing in 1970s New York City. With no interest in producing the dissonant, microtonal music that composers of the European avant-garde had been creating since the end of World War II, Reich and Glass remained committed to tonal harmony. Their musical rebellion lies in how they experimented with rhythm and pulse.

For Reich, studying the traditions of African drumming in Ghana gave him new ideas for how to work with phase shifting, whereby two identical phrases are played at slightly different speeds. And for Glass, a collaboration with Ravi Shankar and extensive travels through the Himalayas and North India sparked interest in the ways Indian improvisers systematically remove or add rhythmic pulses within a repeated series of tones, a technique that became the foundation for much of his music.


With this varied mix of sound worlds and compositional architectures at work, the music of Reich and Glass quickly became the sound of New York's downtown lofts, galleries, and clubs in the 1970s and '80s. For Adams, that period was a watershed moment for American music.


"Masterpieces like Reich's Drumming Music and Glass's Einstein on the Beach brought many listeners back from the brink of giving up altogether on contemporary music," Adams said. "Ultimately composers, performers, and listeners crave the broad emotional and sensory bandwidth that the great music of the past — and the great pop music of the present — provide." 


Adams’s emphasis on pop music is meaningful, given its importance in his own musical development. Growing up in rural New England with musician parents, there were no distinctions between high- and low-brow culture. The symphonic music of Beethoven could be heard in the Adams house as often as big band and swing music, Americana songs, and Broadway musicals. That meant once Adams arrived at Harvard University, having such a wide array of musical tastes — including a budding interest in the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix — was at odds with Harvard’s faculty, who preached a strict musical austerity that left no room for displays of emotion.


For a composer like Adams, who believes "music is above and beyond everything the art of communicating feeling," that overly intellectual, anti-expressive approach to music wouldn’t cut it.


Adams wanted to create music that wasn't only melodic and tonal but emotionally gripping, and he found inspiration in the orchestrations that composers such as Wagner, Mahler, and Sibelius developed in the late 19th century. To this he added minimalism's rhythmic drive and a healthy dose of American wit. His humor is apparent in cheeky titles such as Short Ride in a Fast Machine or his breakthrough orchestral work, Harmonielehre, whose title references Arnold Schoenberg's ponderous 1911 music theory textbook of the same name but instead turns its back on the twelve-tone composer’s principles.


And while Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? calls for a similarly large orchestra as a Mahler symphony and follows the standard fast-slow-fast form of a Mozart piano concerto, the swagger is quintessentially American. Over the course of 25 minutes, the concerto moves seamlessly among elements of gospel, jazz, blues, and swing.


The presence of such distinctly American idioms is a signature of Adams’s approach to composition — one inspired by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

"I think often of Bartók, who used the folk music of his native Hungary and Romania as the basis for works of astonishing originality and vivid musical imagery. I've tried to do a similar thing with my music. Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? uses tropes that come from my experience of listening to all kinds of American piano music, but it is not imitative of those styles. Rather, it integrates them into my own language, in much the same way (and hopefully as successfully) as Bartók did." 


Reshaping established musical styles to fit a composer's personal voice is by no means a new concept, but certainly one Adams has championed in his music — and one younger composers seem to relish more confidently today.


"I've spent more than fifty years performing, premiering, and commissioning music from young composers," Adams said. "Over that time I've witnessed a refreshing change away from concerns with style — writing 12-tone or 'neo-Romantic' music, or following John Cage or Elliott Carter — to the current scene, in which composers are more concerned with the communicative power of music.


"When I was a student in 1970, the model was not to care about your audience — but the younger generation, as we hear in the music by Gabriella Smith and Carlos Simon, seems completely liberated from those counterproductive obsessions. Their music is expressive, energetic, and expansive." 


Forging a meaningful connection with the audience is certainly of paramount importance to Smith and Simon, whose works bring diverse new perspectives and experiences to the legacy of classical composition in the United States and speak to social issues today's audiences face outside of the concert hall. In other words, they're writing the music of right now.


For Smith, an environmentalist with a deep interest in biodiversity and the health of our ecosystem, shining a light on the climate crisis is critical to her work. Her Requiem for string quartet and vocal octet, for example, doesn’t follow the text of the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead; instead, singers intone the scientific Latin names of every species that has gone extinct over the last 100 years. And Tumblebird Contrails, featured on this week's program, was inspired by the hallucinatory sounds of the Pacific Ocean she experienced while backpacking in Point Reyes in northern California. Embedded in the beauty and exuberant energy of her music is an appeal to the audience for awareness — and action.


Simon's music similarly speaks to matters both individual and universal and is inspired by the forms and harmonic vocabularies of European classical music. Works like This Land and Warmth from Other Sons explore ideas of immigration, migration, and what it means to call a place "home." His Elegy for string ensemble speaks to the systemic violence against Black bodies in the U.S., honoring the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner with musical language reminiscent of Richard Strauss's mournful Metamorphosen. And the work featured on this program, Fate Now Conquers, uses the harmonic structure of the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony as the foundation for a meditation on fate and the human capacity to prevail.


Considering the kaleidoscopic range of sounds, perspectives, and experiences presented within this program, a view of the state of classical composition in the United States begins to emerge.


This vision recognizes American composers eager to look for inspiration both within and well beyond their country's physical borders. That forging new paths of musical expression means striking a balance between respecting established forms and rebelling against others. And that the development of American classical music mirrors the nearly 250-year development of the United States itself: an expansive, ever-evolving cultural experiment, and therefore always a work in progress.

bottom of page