Composer John Adams

Much of what I do each day feels difficult to describe. For those of us who spend a lot of time alone in the studio, it is often hard to know what’s really going on. I am grateful when I find others who can language some of these emotions and experiences. And seeing correlations to other forms, like music and poetry, is often very useful.

Alex Ross has a silken gift, writing about music in a way that feels effortless and inviting. His read every one of his articles in the New Yorker, many of which have been compiled in his most recent book, the excellent Listen to This.

He wrote a review recently of a new oratorio by one of my favorite composers, John Adams. The Gospel According to the Other Mary premiered in Los Angeles a few months ago, and Ross’s review has several references that resonate for visual art as well.

Ross refers to the progression to atonal music as having a “mystical aspect: these uncanny new chords could serve as esoteric icons, emblems of the sacred.” He points out how extensively twentieth century composers wrote sacred music, arguably eclipsing the output of the previous century. “Even secular-minded artists like György Ligeti and Morton Feldman wrote works of a spiritual nature, perhaps because their chosen language drew them towards the unsayable.”

Adams, a self-described “secular liberal living in Berkeley”, has “tilted towards sacred subjects” with many of his recent works, says Ross.

Regarding this latest oratorio:

A Passion play in all but name, it is a huge, strange, turbulent creation, brushing against chaos. The modernist tradition of the dark sacred, of the radical sublime, is alive and well; a composer who started out as an acolyte of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Cage has rediscovered his avant-garde roots, and those who prize him as an audience-friendly neo-Romantic are in for some shocks…it contains some of the strongest, more impassioned music of Adams’s career. Above all, it is a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown…

At the age of sixty-five, Adams seems to be entering a new phase, revisiting the danger zones of twentieth-century style, and the first results are astonishing.

There is so much here to capture the imagination: the “dark sacred,” the “radical sublime,” the artist who is willing to step into the unknown and revisit “the danger zones” of style. Setting aside the familiar: That’s worthy of a mantra on my wall.

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