About this Recording
8.669003-04 - ADAMS: I was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
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I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky
Music by John Adams (b. 1947) • Libretto by June Jordan (1936-2002)


It is difficult to categorise John Adams’s I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky. Initially it seems easier to define it as what it is not. For example it is not an opera. To be sure, it consists exclusively of music. There are, however, no through-composed scenes, no dramatic arch-forms in music, such as distinguish operas, as with the two John Adams operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. We are not here concerned with that serious music expected in an opera, but rather with a varied series of popular styles: gospel follows pop, jazz ballad to rock number, Whitney Houston to Supertramp. There is no orchestra playing, but instead just a rock band of clarinet, saxophone, keyboards, guitar, bass and percussion.

Is this then a musical? Perhaps in a certain sense, but certainly not as the term is generally understood. Neither in the choice of material nor in form is it to be compared with My Fair Lady or Starlight Express, lacking the typical dialogue and the obligatory dance numbers. The social criticism of the material recalls rather the engaged political theatre of a Bertold Brecht that also contains songs.

The novelty and individuality of this song play is, rather, the abandonment of explanatory connecting dialogue, recitative, or anything like that: as in a songcycle - or a pop album - 23 songs in five-minute format follow one another. In its course, however, it tells a story, forms a theatre piece, a play. Although the piece takes over formal elements from all current musictheatre genres, the result is quite original.

The Composition

This unique art-form is the product of the collaboration of three great figures in American culture, the composer John Adams, the poet and civil rights champion June Jordan, and the stage director Peter Sellars who already had joined with the composer in the development of his earlier operas. Adams obviously wanted to produce a piece in Broadway style, and after June Jordan was recruited as librettist, the theme of the work was established: a combinaton of social criticism and love story, characteristic of June Jordan’s poetry. From the first, love was in the foreground for the authors, as June Jordan wrote in an article for the programme book of the first performance, explaining that they were agreed on love as the first and principal focus of the work; at the centre of it was the question “Who is this man?” or “Who is this woman?”, and what is their relationship; in the most natural way there is drawn together a vast amount of information that ranges from the characters’ probable favourite foods and favourite music to the political implications of their identities.

On the Characters

There are seven everyday characters, all young people from Los Angeles of different social and ethnic backgrounds: there is the preacher from a black Baptist congregation, David, always good-humoured, very selfconfident, and notorious for his constant womanising. His latest flame Leila rebuffs him; she is an educated, socially engaged counsellor in a family planning clinic, who is not afraid publicly to take sides. Among her clients is Consuelo, an illegal immigrant with two children from El Salvador, who leads a life of poverty and suffering in the United States. She is loved by Dewain, a black gang-leader, who, although personally a decent man, often spends time in prison for minor crimes. In the ghetto he is nevertheless very much liked, even by the policeman Mike, who tries to improve his social attitudes as a sort of street-worker. He himself would rather be a ‘hard’ type. He is, at all events, admired by Tiffany, a television-reporter, who is investigating police-work and is in love with Mike, tries to win his heart, but is distressed to admit that it will not work. There is also Rick, a lawyer of Vietnamese origin, very ambitious and engaged, but still inexperienced in his profession and in love.

Consciously great store is set by the creation of a group of real people who correspond to the reality of American society - especially their inner side. John Adams, in his programme note, compares the work to The Threepenny Opera, feeling compelled to write about poor people.

On the Text

June Jordan adapted this into a decidedly lyrical libretto, the verbal skilfulness of which shows her to have been a great poet. She effortlessly takes up different speech patterns, whether ghetto slang, official police jargon or the halleluia cries of the Baptist preacher and develops these creatively. Speech appropriate to various situations functions on different levels: relatively everyday-sounding dialogue stands next to formally metrical verse, free prose to poetry, and often one moves into the other. Beside this Jordan makes use of the general American tendency to create new words, when required, and does not shun such creations as ‘the I-run-four-miles-a-week-just-to-keep-my-perspective legs’.

On the Musical Language of Adams

The music of Adams is more or less adapted to the characteristic style of English speech, drawing from this its own form, often with a complex rhythmical structure that never goes against the feeling of the words. Specifically it seems that where he puts clear emphasis on a certain style, pop, rock or jazz, always his own post-minimalist musical language shines through the popular music disguise. According to his own words, there is no consistent principle according to which these styles go with the libretto or the characters. It is striking, however, that always where somewhat longer developments are written, the popular tends to give way to Adams’s more ‘elevated’ style.

This, then, is a varied, multiform series of 23 songs that individually and altogether present the plot, without too much pressure.

John Adams

John Adams was born in 1947 in Worcester (Massachusetts). In 1965 he began his study of the clarinet, conducting, and composition with Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici and Roger Sessions at Harvard University. In 1971, after taking his Master’s Degree, he moved to the west coast and settled in San Francisco, where he taught theory and composition at the Conservatory and directed the New Music Department that made available to him a field for experiment. Intensive study of electronic music convinced him of the importance of tonality, to which he turned again in his music. In 1974 he heard for the first time Steve Reich’s Drumming, an event that converted him to minimalism. He began to write minimalist pieces, but rather in his own style. In 1978 began his fruitful friendship with Edo de Waart, principal conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Adams first became New Music Adviser to the orchestra and later Composer in Residence. In 1981 he ended his work at the Conservatory and since then has worked as a free-lance composer and conductor in Berkeley, near San Francisco. In the 1980s and 1990s Adams’s work witnessed increasing popularity in the United States and has now achieved the rank of a modern classic. To this his major orchestral works such as Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine have contributed, together with his opera Nixon in China (1985-87), which brought Adams sudden national fame. In 1991 there followed another opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which after its first American performance aroused controversial discussion and almost a scandal. Other works that contributed to his growing success are the Violin Concerto (1993), the Piano Concerto: Century Rolls (1997), the orchestral Naive and Sentimental Music (1999), the Christmas oratorio El Niño (2000) and particularly On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), a commission for the New York Phiharmonic Orchestra for a memorial concert after the terrorist attack of llth September 2001. That Adams was chosen for this equally prestigious and delicate task shows that he had become regarded as the American composer who might be trusted to speak for the nation. It is then no surprise that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

The music of Adams owes its success to a way of writing that is on the one hand new and original and on the other relatively accessible and audience-friendly. There are several reasons for this. Adams belongs to those contemporary composers who believe in the innovative strength of tonality and seek to develop it. This attitude allies Adams with the postmodern movement that sees a practical way forward in the linking of the known from classical and from popular music and giving up pure avant-garde and advanced ideas. In fact many influences from this can be heard in Adams, but he integrates this subtly in his own musical language.

This was essentially influenced by American minimalism, as seen in the works of Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Minimalist music consists of repeated short phrases, so-called patterns, that are gradually varied in the course of the piece. The attention of the listener is thus drawn away from a single event to the complete process, with a new experience brought about in time. Adams saw in this kind of composing a new and promising way, yet showed from the start a new, independent means of using this method of composition: this resulted in not only gradual processes but clear, dynamic developments that also follow an emotionally directed dramatic form not known in minimal music. From this came an extending, gripping musical event that works like a journey through a changing landscape - it is not by chance that one piece has the title Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Adams can be described as a minimalist bored with minimalism. From his striving for variation and emotional expanse grew a stylistic development that over the years distanced his music ever further from minimalist models so that the designation post-minimalist is a truer description of his work.

Cornelius Bauer
English version by Keith Anderson

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