Life & Liberty: Music for the Upwardly Mobile


There is a composer working in America today with the finely resonant name of John Adams, and a record of his music has recently been released. It is performed by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Edo de Waart. The composition is a three-movement piece for full orchestra called Harmonielehre. It is a remarkable work.

The title is that of an eponymous treatise on harmony written by Arnold Schoenberg. In the illuminating interview printed on the back of the record jacket, Mr. Adams says: "It's always struck me as significant that Schoenberg produced this book at the same time—1910—he was making his radical break with the whole tradition of European harmony." There is irony in Mr. Adams's use of this title, perhaps also a challenge and a declaration. For his composition is resolutely and unabashedly built on the very harmonic principles that Schoenberg wrote about and that his music is supposed to have utterly killed off.

There is a belief—a dogma, rather—among 20th-century music critics that the tonal principles upon which Western music is based stretched themselves to the breaking point in the early years of this century and lost their viability as a creative force. This Big Bromide has been thoroughly refuted by the existence of the music of such modern masters as Prokofiev, Hindemith, Copland, and Britten. And once again with Adams this myth is proven null and void. His Harmonielehre reasserts the laws of harmony, laws as irrefutable and indestructible as the law of identity, the law of gravity, Gresham's law—all natural laws.

But there is a great deal more to Adams's piece than the revalidation of harmonic principles, which even the worst popular music has never dreamt of abandoning. There is, after all, nothing inherently noble in writing consonant rather than dissonant music. Indeed, the minimalist music of recent years has shown that unrelieved consonance can be just as tiresome and annoying as unrelieved dissonance.

Minimalist music is characterized by the use of trivial tunes and trite motives repeated, with only slight variations and only occasional changes of key, ad nauseam. Its harmonic progressions are hackneyed, its expressive range closet-like. It has no development and none of the organic growth, the dynamic dialectic of keys, and the vital variety and contrast that distinguishes serious music from Bach to Hindemith. The most famous work of the school, an opera (more or less) by Philip Glass called Einstein on the Beach, carries minimalist gimmicks to interminable lengths and is invariably described as producing a hypnotic effect and inducing a trance-like state. Minimalist music is not intended to stimulate the mind but to turn it into a sponge saturated with syrup.

Few artistic movements are without some benefits, in the form of technical innovations that are subsequently assimilated by better artists. Minimalism has some of these: a certain athletic propulsiveness in its rhythms (a relief from the rhythmical lassitude of other recent music) and novel tone colors in its instrumentation, for examples. Adams utilizes some of these techniques, a residue of his earlier association with the minimalists. It is even possible that the current existence of a whole fashionable school of harmonic music has made the emergence of an Adams possible. But whatever his tangential connections with the minimalists, he remains in essence a different type of composer.

There is a good photographic portrait of Adams on the cover of the present album. In that photo he looks like a yuppie—a solemn, stern-faced yuppie, but a yuppie.

This statement should not be construed as a criticism. The defining characteristic of a yuppie is his or her upward mobility—the irresistible direction of Homo sapiens, the eternal quest for greater and greater heights. ("Excelsior!" as Longfellow put it.) Upward movement, no matter what its manifestation, is the yuppie code of conduct.

The two outer movements of Harmonielehre are inspired by visual images of soaring. Of the first Adams says: "I can remember the day that I just sat down at the piano and hit those opening chords. I'd just had a dream the night before in which I saw myself driving across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and looking out saw a huge tanker in the bay. It was an image of immense power and gravity and mass. And while I was observing this tanker, it suddenly took off like a rocket ship with an enormous force of levitation. As it rose out of the water, I could see a beautiful brownish-orange oxide on the bottom part of its hull."

An oil tanker beautiful? This is indeed a strange inspiration for a modern artist, even if those opening chords are in E-minor. The antitechnological mentality of most 20th-century intellectuals would make it virtually impossible for them to admit simple awe at the image of a vast machine of human engineering—much less the immanence of such a thing's soaring.

It wasn't always so. Beethoven, says J.W.N. Sullivan in his great book on the composer, was excited about steam cannons because he thought "that they form[ed] one more witness to the expanding, energetic, and unconquerable spirit of man."Which is, of course, exactly what Beethoven's music was and is. Technological advances and new romantic music—which is what I take Adams's work to be—are part of the same upwardly mobile trajectory.

Perhaps Mr. Adams would object to my use of the term romantic to describe his music. He has been quoted elsewhere as disavowing romanticism. On the other hand, perhaps he has changed his mind. All I know is what my ears tell me, and when listening to Harmonielehre they say: romantic. It is not the cowboy-song and jazz-inspired romanticism of Copland nor the craggy, rough-hewn romanticism of Roy Harris nor yet the impressionistic, clear-textured romanticism of Charles Griffes and John Alden Carpenter. Romanticism is distinguished by the number of idioms it is capable of supporting. Adams's is a highly personal American romanticism.

The opening movement, the one inspired by the vision of a tanker, begins with that E-minor chord reiterated constantly over the steady rhythm of minimalist technique but syncopated into an almost Beethoven-like dynamism. (Adams, incidentally, admits Beethoven as a major influence, as he does that most fashionable of composers, the great Sibelius. These romantic influences—one the father of the whole movement, the other one of its most important modern advocates—are clear, if circumstantial, evidences of this tendency in Adams's own music.)

The middle section of the movement is a great lyrical interlude, reminiscent at times of good movie music—which is high praise indeed. (After all, some of the best modern scores originated as movie music, such as Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky and Vaughn Williams's Sinfonia Antarctica.) The movement ends as it begins, with the same powerfully driving rhythmic impetus.

The second movement is made up of solemnly mournful yet cold, melodic material built up into a violent climax, somewhat like similar movements in the symphonies of Shostakovich. Adams's dramatic development of musical material in this movement refutes his statement that he is not a "developmental" composer.

The final movement is a triumphant peroration that a romantic critic like Berlioz or E.T.A. Hoffmann would call sublime. And so would I. It was inspired, says Adams, by an image of "Meister Eckhardt floating through the firmament with a baby on his shoulders as she whispers the secret of grace into his ear." As for the psychological process involved in this movement, and in the entire work: "I find composing to be a journey through the underworld. And the reason I often have heroic endings in my pieces—something that is terribly anachronistic in 1985!—is that I'm totally amazed to have emerged from the tunnel out into the light."

Virgil Thomson once derided the heroic conclusion of Hindemith's symphony Mathis der Maler, stating "that [it] might just as well represent Mr. Hindemith's satisfaction at getting to the end of his piece as a saint's triumph over his lower nature." Well, what's the difference? Thomson, for all his virtues as a composer and critic, can never, with his anti-romantic bias, understand the underlying conception of the music of a man like Hindemith. Hindemith was, despite his modernism, an essentially romantic composer—that is, one who considered music to consist of more than pleasant or interesting sounds to fritter away the time. To a romantic, music is a Faustian struggle to fathom one's own inner depths.

Harmonielehre is also a Faustian, heroic score, which is indeed anachronistic in the 1980s. Adams wrestles with his demons and wins. The typical academic serialist or avant garde composer does not wrestle with demons. He mopes. Perhaps he has no demons, only cooties. Or perhaps he is a demon. But at any rate, he has no understanding of the grandeur of human possibilities or of romantic things—things "thought of in terms of the future," as Charles Ives called them—or of upward mobility.

I think many yuppies, or yuppies at heart, no matter how aged, would greatly enjoy Harmonielehre if they took the time and trouble to listen to it. There is, after all, more to modern music than Madonna and Prince. Even in our trivial time there exist blueprints for freedom and aspiration in the human soul. Mankind's future is not all in the past.

Kyle Rothweiler is a free-lance writer and is currently writing a book on modern music.