ADAMS: Harmonium

by Walter Simmons

ADAMS: Harmonium. San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart. ECM 1-25012.

John Adams (b. 1947) is the resident composer of the San Francisco Symphony—the West Coast’s answer to Glass and Reich. Although he has been somewhat slower to attract attention, he has generated quite a bit of excitement lately in many quarters, partly, one gathers, because the pulsing aspect does not dominate his music completely, and partly because Adams is not averse to reaching for gestures, colors, and effects found in more traditional orchestral music. Although I had heard only one of Adams’ works–Grand Pianola Music, which I found to be pretentious and empty—my interest was provoked by a number of highly enthusiastic reactions to Harmonium.

Several listenings have left me disappointed. Not that Harmonium is unpleasant at all—it simply raises expectations that remain unfulfilled. Like the Grand Pianola Music, Harmonium presents itself in a way that prompts awed anticipation of a revelation of some kind. This impression remains throughout the work, but the revelation never happens. Another way of saying this (and I know I have said the same thing about Philip Glass) is that the music sounds like an accompaniment track without the solo part (maybe the listener is supposed to supply one—Modern Music-Minus-One). The music lacks content; too much time elapses and too little happens. That makes it b-o-r-i-n-g. Now in fairness to Adams, the uneventfulness of this music is fully acknowledged by him as part of his expressive intent in conjuring a sense of vastness and eternity. Perhaps my perceptual processing system is too impatient. If others do not feel as I do, I’m willing to take some of the responsibility.

I also find that many of the undeniably attractive aspects—certain moods, colors, and feelings—have been expressed more effectively by other composers. Because Adams dips into the traditional musical language, to some extent his work can be related to existing repertoire. Aside from the pulsing texture, which clearly identifies Harmonium as a work from the past decade (and which I find has become a mannerism to be outgrown), one is reminded of the spacious, ethereal, and emotionally detached choral works of Gustav Holst—the Choral Sym­phony, for example; Howard Hanson’s Lament for Beowulf is another work that comes to mind often during the piece. Whether Adams is familiar with this music I do not know, but I think this is the crux of the matter. Of course, resemblance to one’s predecessors is no detriment; but ignorance of one’s predecessors, so that one is engaged in similar problems without the per­spective gained from familiarity with previous solutions—that is a different story. One often feels that many of today’s younger composers, in an earnest effort to create music offering something meaningful to an audience, find themselves “re-inventing the wheel,” because they are simply unaware of what expressive realms have already been mapped out during the first half of this century—realms that the standard academic syllabus of 20th-century music (Stra­vinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Webern) cannot account for. Thus handicapped, their work seems regressive.and tentative. Perhaps to many in the audience—and to many conductors as well—the simple notions of rich orchestration and consonant harmony are sufficient to induce ecstasy. But I suspect that Fanfare readers who have kept abreast of the various currents in 20th-century music will share my reaction.

Furthermore, there is the matter of Adams’ specific intent in this work. As texts he has chosen three poems: John Donne’s Negative Love and two by Emily Dickinson—Because I Could Not Stop for Death and Wild Nights. I find the concept of these three poems ill-conceived and unconvincing as a sequence, but I am not certain about this. (To Adams they sug­gest “a completed unity of form and meaning.”) But aside from this, the chorus has been mixed with the orchestra so that the words are completely inaudible. Adams himself is credited as a participant in the mixing and editing process, so one must assume that this was not an accident. Now I ask you, if a composer selects poetic texts, but doesn’t intend for the words to be heard at all, then why did he select texts? You tell me.

This recording is recommended to contemporary-music fans, just because one should know the music that captures the limelight at a given time.