Sunday, November 9, 2014

John Luther Adams: Composer of the Year

I have only mentioned John Luther Adams (who lives in Alaska and is not to be confused with John Adams who lives outside San Francisco) once before on this blog when he won the Pulitzer Prize in music back in April. At that time I described his piece Become Ocean as follows:
It sounds just a bit like Sibelius, getting mugged, on the beach, at dawn, by Steve Reich--which is actually kind of interesting...
Now that Musical America has named him composer of the year for 2015 I have been listening to some more of his music. Dark Waves from 2007 sounds a bit like Philip Glass, if he had discovered the major second instead of the minor third, crossed with Brian Eno. Now I am listening to The Farthest Place, which sounds a bit like John Adams' Phrygian Gates plus Philip Glass' Glassworks with a touch of Brian Eno.

Musical America referred to him as "the world's only Green composer". Notice the capitalized "Green". "Green" is the religion of today. I notice two trends in music recently (and not so recently): one is towards "environmental" music, music that largely evokes tranquil landscapes, oceans, clouds and so on. I have written some music like this myself. The natural world is a compelling inspiration. Another trend is "spacey" music; music that floats and shimmers and drones on. Both of these kinds of musical textures seem to be the fashion of the 21st century. Which is why they give you prizes for writing like this.

UPDATE: Forgot to include the clip of Dark Waves:

I suppose I could write something in this vein. Maybe I have: here is my piece Cloudscape for violin and guitar:


That sounds too much like music, I suppose. To really write proper environmental music I need to eliminate triadic harmonies, themes and rhythms. That would be pretty easy to do. Listening to Dark Waves by John Luther Adams, I hear a lot of drones and pedals spread over a lot of octaves. There are long crescendos and diminuendos. A big part of it is klangfarbenmelodie with the subtle mixing of timbres. But what seems very important is that there be no, or little, sense of rhythmic motif. This is what I really have trouble with. Long held waves and sheets of sound are all very nice, but from my point of view the result just lacks content. This is why I keep mentioning Brian Eno, the originator of what is often called "ambient music":

Actually, I have done something a bit like that, without much metrical division. Here is an early piece for guitar orchestra:


But that lacks the tranquility.

So I am starting to ask myself, is the secret to compositional success in the 21st century to simply do droney, spacey music without meter but with crescendos and tone colors that is basically soothing? Frankly, that seems a bit like Composition Lite to me...

On the other hand, there is the music of Esa-Pekka Salonen that is a bit spacey, but seems full of content:


Rickard Dahl said...

Here are some things I find annoying with some of the relatively "big" classical composers nowadays/the postmodernist ideal:

- The overdependence on drones/non-moving textures.

- The lack of rhythmic progress.

- The lack of good melodies/interesting themes.

- The lack of harmonic movement.

- Too much dependence on minimalism.

- Using orchestral textures to try to make up for lack of rhythmic, melodic/thematic and/or harmonic movement.

I simply don't enjoy this postmodernist trend. During the baroque, classical, romantic, early modernist and even during the medieval & renaissance periods, composers in general had a much better grip of the important musical elements. I think the main thing lacking in this floating type of music is flow and sense of progression. Video game music and film music (the kind I enjoy at least) do for the most part keep the basic musical elements. It's true that it lacks in complexity and technique associated with classical music (in general) though. I will end this comment with a floating but flowing video game music example (sounds like a whole tone scale was used, entirely or for the most part, I think part of what makes it flow is the fact that is has a easily recognizable (albeit simple) melody and it has changes in instrumentation which stick out against the background):

Bryan Townsend said...

What I hear with Dark Waves particularly is a great sound, but it just seems to lack structure and direction.

Ken Fasano said...

Just finished listening to Adams' "Four Thousand Holes". Sounded like the big piano chord at the end of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" played backwards and forwards over and over with different transpositions. Something that a computer could have composed with about 100 lines of Java code.

Bryan Townsend said...

Now that's an interesting comparison!