America's greatest living composer turns to 9/11.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Aug. 8 2002 1:04 PM

The Sept. 11 Symphony

Why New York asked composer John Adams to commemorate 9/11.

CD cover

By Sept. 19, 2002, many Americans will know John Adams. On that day, the San Francisco-based composer—who's known for tackling American political themes in his controversial operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer—will hear the premiere of his 9/11 eulogy, On the Transmigration of Souls, at the opening-night gala of the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra that commissioned him to write a piece commemorating last year's attacks. America at large will have already seen Adams in any number of magazine pieces and perhaps listened to him and some of his work on Peter Jennings' 9/11 special. He will be, despite his luck of sharing a name with a famous ex-president, a recognizable personality, officially linked to the Zeitgeist of our nation. And throughout it all, he'll remain a composer of so-called serious music.

Not since the days of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein has a classical-music composer been so primed to ascend to the highly visible position of America's musician laureate. In fact, to many American fans of concert music, Copland's folksy and brilliant populist works (Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man) still signify what America sounds like—even though Copland died in 1990 and hadn't written a note of that brand of Americana for decades before that.

Now, though, new American music is about to get a jump-start. Adams represents a chance for Americans to hear serious but accessible work—no disrespect to strong composers like the lauded John Corigliano of Red Violin fame and celebrity minimalist Philip Glass—and say: That's American Music. That's my culture. (Translation: I have a culture, and it's not just about slutty teen pop stars and rappers formerly known as Puffy.)

Adams is more than qualified for this promotion. U.S. orchestras program and repeat his works more than those of any other living American composer. His records don't only sell more copies than that of his colleagues; they sell well. Carnegie Hall recently named him composer-in-residence for 2003, an international honor previously held by French new music icon Pierre Boulez. And he's also been branded as "a man who is never going to die" by the The New Yorker's deservedly eminent music critic, Alex Ross, who not long ago wrote that his music "unlike so much classical composition of the last fifty years, has the power to enchant."

So just what is it about John Adams' music that touches American people so directly? Why did the New York Philharmonic turn to him to symbolize our nation's sentiments about our most tragic day? And why is he slated to appear on ABC News in front of millions? Consider Adams' newest CD, a recording not of the piece to be performed on 9/11 (fans will have to sit tight for that one) but rather of Adams' longest and most substantive work for symphony orchestra:, a virtual X-ray of his talent.

Naive and Sentimental Music, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the perfect diagram of Adams' earthy constitution: Like Beethoven's Fifth, it is sound-art with the power to move anyone. The music is easy to follow and full of recognizable symbols; emotional and dramatic yet smart; learned yet experimental; and, best of all, memorable. In short, proof that the American Symphonic Statement cannot only still be made but can also still hit home.

(Adams took his title from an essay by the 18th-century German writer Friedrich von Schiller, who drew a distinction between the "naive"—free, organic art that occurs naturally in the artist's mind—and the "sentimental"—art that is aware of itself and the canonic tradition. "Sentimental" in this sense isn't a variation on "sappy" but rather a synonym of "intellectual.")

Adams' art offers a pioneering take on cultural synthesis in the way it sews together diverse American experiences and influences. The self-titled first movement opens with humble American folk sounds: the strumming of an acoustic guitar below a flute singing a tonal, searching melody. Yet thankfully the exposition is more complex than that: In the guitar's chords, you can hear uneasy harmonic progressions that echo those of Dmitry Shostakovich, the war-inspired Russian whose superficially happy tunes masked inner frustration.

As the movement progresses, the string section enters with waves of Romantic expression. We could be listening to the orchestral writing of Johannes Brahms, except that beneath the melody are pulsing woodwinds repeating simple accompaniment lines (or "cells," as they're called) in the minimalist style Adams was trained in. Soon, the strings' off-beat stabs remind us of Adams' love for the angular modernism of Igor Stravinsky and Copland. Then the movement wraps up with a series of mini-explosions, leaving damage that's collected and swept under the rug for a future that may bear a more serious conflict.

The second movement, "Mother of the Man," is haunting, elegiac, and boundless. Here, as in Copland, we feel the vastness of the American landscape and the depressive silence of empty superstore parking lots. A profound mournfulness infuses the entire piece; as bells ring and electric jazz guitar plucks underscore high, long, and broad string notes, I'm reminded of the harp accompaniment to the emotional melodies of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5, the music used in the film version of Death in Venice. Then the tension builds, and the music starts to feel mountainous and icy. The string section plays notes that sound like the lacerations of someone's skin. A barrage of virtuosic 16th notes sounds until a climax is reached. And in the fallout, a dark but lovely symbol remains: a bell, which, one second, sounds like that of a little boy's tricycle as he eagerly pulls into a suburban driveway, announcing his presence, and one second later, sounds like the telephone ringing in an empty house.

The last movement, "Chain to the Rhythm," is in tune with America's present-day concerns, the digital revolution, and urban life. This is quintessential Adams: more layers of minimalist cells vying for control over one another as they attempt to negotiate percussive pop- and jazz-inspired syncopations until a surge of orchestral energy bursts out and mushrooms. Clarinet scales rise and fall rapidly, sounding like computer-speak. Trumpets shoot daggers of lean sound into the air. A confetti of notes with metallic timbres disperses at the apexes of sprightly rocketlike motives. And everything is scattered, confused, vulnerable even, as it races in its own direction as fast as it can.

This, despite the worthy attempts of many other living composers, is the sound America has been searching for. It gets to the heart of what we as a country are now about, and it does so while captivating you the way only the most classic music can. Adams doesn't just refer to great classical composers of the past; he uses pop and jazz—and Copland, for that matter—to fuse the past with the present in a way that feels completely organic. Adams' music, unlike that of others who try to do what he does, sounds like someone's heart and soul. It's anti-academic. Unplanned. Visceral. And that, not his accolades from Carnegie Hall, his New York Philharmonic commission, or even his forthcoming appearance on ABC News, is the best news America has heard about new music in a long time.

Adam Baer is a culture critic for the New York Sun and contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Travel + Leisure, and Slate, among other publications.