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20.1.09

À mon chevet: Hallelujah Junction

John Adams, Hallelujah Junction
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
On an early evening in the spring of 1976 I had a revelation while driving along a ridge in the Sierra foothills -- not Saul on the road to Damascus, but Dogjam on the road to Downieville. At the time I listened to music on a bulky portable Sony cassette deck, a TC-158, about the size of a small satchel, with built-in speaker and a carrying strap. [...] That evening, beside me on the seat of my old Karmann Ghia convertible, the Sony was playing a recording of music from Act I of Götterdämmerung. As I threaded the car along the sharp curves and looked out on mist lingering in the narrow ravines and riverbeds beneath the steep mountain ridges, I listened intently to the shapely ascents and descents of Wagner's melodies and the rich, constantly morphing harmonic world they described. Wagner had not been much on my mind in those days, and certainly the whole world of his dramatic theory, his mythological poems, and his long, complicated operas was far removed from my notions of cutting-edge contemporary music. But this music, especially the quiet opening bars of "Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey," with its graceful leaps of sixths and sevenths and soft cushions of string chords, spoke to me. I said out loud, almost without thinking, "He cares." I was puzzled by my own statement. Who "cares"? Evidently Wagner. "What does he care about?" That was harder to answer. I was experiencing an intuition not so much about Wagner as about myself and the nature of my relationship to music.

During my late teens, in the course of learning chromatic harmony, I'd been introduced to the cycles of Robert Schumann's Lieder, a miniature universe of heightened emotive states and sudden bipolar eruptions of feeling-tone complexes, all expressed in a harmonic palette of the most subtle gradations of tonal ambiguity. Part of my study involved listening to a single pitch, a C sharp, for instance, and then noting carefully how the role of that C sharp changed in the course of a movement or a song. For both Wagner and Schumann any individual pitch was forever relative, being at one moment the center of gravity and then, in a flash, suddenly reduced to the status of a distant satellite, its authority robbed by the mysterious alchemy of tonal relationships.

-- John Adams, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (2008), pp. 100-101
Adams has some pretty tough, critical things to say about Minimalism in his autobiography. The way that he writes about other composers' music, like that of Wagner in this passage, helped me understand better why Adams so resists having his music labeled as Minimalist, what his other influences were in how he conceives his own compositions. The connection to Wagner is very telling for many passages in Adams.

1 comment:

Michael Pakaluk said...

How bizarre--and yet how telling--that "he cares" ends up being an intuition "about myself and the nature of my relationship to music".

Transcendence that immediately curves back upon itself, like light trying to escape a black hole.