To make great music, ya gotta believe!
Why do we respond to some music and not other? Why does a single note of some composers and artists make our toes tap and hearts soar, while others, perhaps objectively as good, leave us flat?
No, friends, I'm not about to go all Daniel J. Levitin on you and try to demystify our musical tastes. I prefer a little mystery with my Bach, thank you very much. But as an admitted musical glutton of fairly catholic tastes, I wonder what I hear in common in all the wildly disparate sounds that get my groove going, and what's missing in the stuff that bores me. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that what makes ordinary music extraordinary for me is — belief. The music stands for something, and devotes itself to communicating that something to its fullest.
What belief? It doesn't matter. It could be religious. It could be philosophical. It could be patriotic or political. It could even just be stylistic. Whatever the belief, the musicians believe it to their core, and make music that vibrates with more than just sound. It's music that takes risks. It risks excess, risks criticism, risks parody, risks failure. It aims high, knowing it might come crashing down. It could be as ingratiating, and potentially annoying, as a new puppy: "Please, please, please like me!" It could have a bad attitude: "I'm going to be myself, and if you don't like me, tough." Like it or not, you have to respect it for trying. Indeed, sometimes it's very trying. But when it succeeds, you've got something you can return to time and time again for the rest of your life. And I don't just mean monumental masterpieces. It could be just a song that never fails to move you.
On the other hand, there's the music that comes and goes with the breeze. Like the breeze, it might momentarily feel good, but you can't grab onto it. And indeed, it might ride the breeze of the moment, aping the viewpoints of others or exploiting the evanescent mood of its time. But once it's blown by, it's forgotten. Oh, it may have pretensions to importance, or claim to tackle the big themes. You know the ones I mean: War. Peace. Faith. Love. Mind you, the music doesn't really have anything unique or profound to say about these things, it just wants you to think highly of it for having brought them up.
What occasioned the above musings was a recent Wall Street Journal profile of American composer John Adams (above) on the eve of the premiere of "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," described in the article as "a new take on Christ's Passion and the latest in a longstanding series of collaborations between Mr. Adams and the director Peter Sellars." I'm certainly in no position to review the work, though you can check out this review from the New York Times' Zachary Woolfe. If anyone currently deserves the title "America's leading classical composer, it's probably Adams, well-known for such operas as Nixon and China and Dr. Atomic and his Pulitzer-winning 9-11 memorial "On the Transmigration of Souls." We've played Adams's works many times on WFCR, and plan to keep playing them. He's also a talented writer, and one can find in the pages of his book "Hallelujah Junction." And indeed it was Adams's words, not his music, which caught my attention. To quote from the WSJ article:
"I'm in no way a religious person," Mr. Adams said, acknowledging that he neither goes to church nor reads the Bible much. "I view these (Bible) stories as I might something from the 'Mahabharata' or American Indian folklore or the Icelandic sagas. I don't mean to say that I'm not emotionally involved in them. But I'm not a believer in the sense that a deeply committed Christian or an Orthodox Jew is to their theology. Nonetheless, I find in this story an enormous representation of the human condition, with all kinds of themes I care deeply about, including capital punishment and poverty."
There you have it folks — as succinct and chillingly cold an expression of self-regarding non-belief as I've ever read. How breezily Adams condescends to find some meaning in thousands-of-years old stories that have been at the core of the fervent belief of billions, and continue to be to this day. I'm sure those believers will be immensely surprised and moved that Mr. Adams finds their creeds to be an "enormous representation of the human condition." As for his concern about capital punishment and poverty, well, what thinking and caring person is not concerned about such things? Mr. Adams deserves no special credit for his concerns.
Of course I could overlook Adams's words if I found something of substance in his works. And very fine sounding works they are, with terrific energy, bright colors and intricate interplay. But how about when he tackles big, controversial themes, such as in the aforementioned works, or especially his controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer? What does he have to say artistically about 9-11, the coming together of capitalism and communism, or terrorism? Mostly nothing. These works take no stand, have no apparent viewpoint beyond bland even-handedness.. They express no beliefs, no anger, no passion, just fashionable attitudes. Even Adams's instrumental, non-political work sometimes strike me evasive and lacking viewpoint, his stylistic eclecticism just too canny and self-aware to be believed as a natural expression of any deep-seated musical beliefs. That's how I hear his music, at least. Your results, as they say, may vary.
Now compare Adams in this regard with the two composers with whom he's frequently linked, Philip Glass (left) and Steve Reich (right). Of the three, Adams is the most adept composer, capable of a greater range of techniques and moods. He's also the least vulnerable to parody. No "knock-knock" jokes for Adams, like for Glass. Nor does Adams's music have anywhere near the potential of Reich's to drive some listeners up a wall. But even Glass's and Reich's styles are more limited than Adams's, the first two guys milk them for all they're worth, which turns out to be a lot. Like 'em or not; that's how they compose. The other guy? By being a little bit of everything, he ends up as less of anything. And when they take on big topics —when Glass takes on peace and non-violence (Satyagraha) or Reich takes on the Holocaust (Different Trains) — they do so with the courage of their convictions. You can attack their ideas or musical styles if you want, but at least you know what they are. They believe. Hallelujah, indeed!