John Adams's position as this country's most popular living "classical music" composer seems virtually unchallenged. Aside from winning two Grammys and the prestigious Grawemeyer Award, his operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer have been the subjects of CNN news stories, and his orchestral works have been the most widely performed of any living American throughout the past decade.
Adams was recently appointed to the Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall, and was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write On the Transmigration of Souls, which commemorated the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001, tragedy. The Philharmonic opened its current season with the world premiere of the piece.
More and more, the composer's music can also be heard at dance companies, especially New York City Ballet, where the world premiere of Peter Martins's Guide to Strange Places (May 15) will be the choreographer's eighth creation danced to the music of Adams. The composer's score to the ballet is a New York premiere.
Guide to Strange Places is a highlight of An American Master: The Music of John Adams, a ten-event celebration presented by Great Performers at Lincoln Center through May 17. Despite his whirlwind schedule, Adams will conduct both the preview performance of Guide to Strange Places on May 14 and the following night's world premiere, something he is looking forward to since New York City Ballet, he says, "is one of the only companies around that is seriously committed to always having a full orchestra in the pit."
Perhaps the only two other American composers as visible and audible as Adams were Aaron Copland and the naturalized U.S. citizen Igor Stravinsky, both of whom frequently collaborated with choreographers to create some of their most popular works. But unlike either of them, Adams has yet to create a score specifically for dance. "I don't want to discourage choreographers from using my music," he says. "But I think they have to understand its complexities, both musical and philosophical, before attempting to dance to it. Otherwise they simply use it as a rhythm machine, and that's just not very interesting."
Peter Martins has maintained an ongoing relationship with Adams's music since 1988 when he choreographed The Chairman Dances. Since then, he's created ballets to the composer's Fearful Symmetries, Harmonielehre, Slonimsky's Earbox, and the Violin Concerto, among others. But he stops short of calling these works collaborations. "I would love to call these collaborative ballets but I don't think they really are," says Martins.
"All but the Violin Concerto were preexisting works from which he formed danced pieces," explains Adams. "New York City Ballet was a co-commissioner of the Concerto, so I had in mind the fact that it would be danced while I was composing it."
For the rest, says Martins, "the scores were written beforehand, and I would then request to use them. I would pick up the phone or write John to ask him a few things about the music, and he'd either tell me a lot or not very much and I'd just go to work." Martins has pretty much had free reign in the process.
"My 'visualizations' of the images in my pieces are vague," admits Adams, "and not nearly as detailed as many would like to imagine. I wouldn't want to burden a choreographer with them in any case."
"I remember when I called him about Hallelujah Junction," says Martins. "He said, 'All you should know is that Hallelujah Junction is a little town in Northern California that has a gas station and a grocery store.' I said, 'Is there anything else I should know?' and he said no. He always points out to me that he knows very little, if anything, about dance." (Ironically, dance and motion are suggested in several Adams titles, including The Chairman Dances, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and perhaps most poignantly, John's Book of Alleged Dances.)
Free reign has its limits, however, as Martins discovered early on. "When I first heard Fearful Symmetries, I contacted John and said, 'I love the music and I want to choreograph it, but I have a major problem with the end.' I made the big mistake of asking him, 'Is that slow ending necessary? Could it be cut off?' He was extremely nice and said, 'Peter, listen, I understand that it must be difficult for a choreographer, but it really belongs in the piece. If you can't do it then don't do the ballet.'"
Although he has not yet had the opportunity to create a piece with Adams from scratch ("He's too busy," says the choreographer, "it's not like I haven't asked him!"), Peter Martins has done more than his share of direct collaboration with living composers. In 1988 he created a three-week festival of American music at New York City Ballet and has spearheaded the Company's Diamond Project, an ongoing series of new choreography that has resulted in commissions of new dance scores. Martins has a special affinity for American composers of all stripes; among those he has worked with directly are Michael Torke, Charles Wuorinen, and Wynton Marsalis. "We want to dance what is being written out there," says Martins. "This audience almost expects it."
Before work on the choreography for Guide to Strange Places had even begun, Martins says, he did receive one piece of advice from Adams: "He said, 'Peter, just be strange. This is a very strange piece. Don't be afraid to be strange.'"
Adams elaborates, "My advice to Peter was simply a prod. I am hoping that the strangeness of the music, its fauvism and its moments of manic energy, will awaken something new and shocking from those marvelous dancers and from Peter. One tends to see great exhibitions of virtuosity and elegance from New York City Ballet, but to be shocked or taken to some place unexpectedãto encounter something truly weirdãwould be a change for them."
Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer and the editor of NewMusicBox, the Web magazine from the American Music Center.