Music on the Edge

Classic Arts Features   Music on the Edge
Composer John Adams curates a dynamic festival of new music at Carnegie Hall.

John Adams, former-minimalist-turned-maximal-musical-giant, has one of those ridiculously busy schedules. Not only does he conduct his own scores and those of others around the world, he's in the throes of finishing his latest opera‹a riveting portrait of atom bomb creator J. Robert Oppenheimer (which will no doubt be as groundbreaking and controversial as his earlier operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer). Last year Adams received the Pulitzer Prize for his musical meditation about 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls (just released on Nonesuch), and he is undeniably one of the most influential musical minds around.

But among the most exciting gigs in his over-packed calendar is his role as holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall. Here at Zankel Hall, he has the opportunity to curate living musical exhibitions of what he feels are some of the more significant trends today. His upcoming festival, In Your Ear, during the weekend of November 11-14, is unabashedly in-your-face with diversity and ear-arresting escapades.

"I view my appointment at Carnegie Hall as an advocacy position for what I see as a dramatically changing landscape for new music," says Adams. "All you need to do is check out your best friend's iPod play list to understand how free and polymorphous perverse the listening experience has become for all of us.

"What makes the music scene of 2004 so vastly different from that of 30 or 40 years ago," he continues, "is the almost overwhelming abundance of recorded music. In the U.S., in particular, fixed boundaries of style have begun to dissolve, yielding to a vast bouillabaisse of musical references. I think this is excellent news: a sign of the liveliness and unpredictability that is our musical world at the moment. It also has exerted enormous influence on how young composers think and imagine. I've noticed that composers who are ten to 20 years younger than I are far more influenced by traditions from other parts of the world than they are by the 'masterpieces' of the traditional modernist canon."

He cites, as an example, Evan Ziporyn, who is best known for his phenomenal clarinet wizardry on Bang on a Can All-Stars concerts, but is also an accomplished composer in his own right, influenced particularly by Asian music (his most recent CD is Shadowbang). "He has made a profound study of Balinese gamelan," observes Adams, referring to the Indonesian percussion orchestra of gongs and drums that Ziporyn uses, "and has built a personal compositional language on the interweaving of gamelan techniques and computer-controlled electronic instruments." With the group he founded in 1993 at M.I.T., Gamelan Galak Tika, Ziporyn will perform his Tire Fire and Amok! at Zankel Hall.

Similarly, Paul Dresher, a West Coast composer and instrument maker, has also integrated his deep knowledge of North Indian and Balinese music into a personal style that includes instruments of his own invention. "Dresher, perhaps more than any other composer I know, continues the great tradition of American composer-inventors like Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, and Lou Harrison," says Adams, whose contact with this maverick tradition of music was made the day he left New England for California, leaving the baggage of academicism behind on the East Coast. At In Your Ear, Dresher will conduct his ensemble in a tantalizing program of his works: the Violin Concerto, Din of Iniquity, In the Nameless, "Racer," and Double Ikat Part Two.

"It's a pleasure to invite these two immensely original composers to Zankel Hall and allow their shockingly new sounds to be heard in New York," says the composer-programmer.

Adams's personal play list also includes Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor. "He is a perfect example of the genre-inclusive artist who is remaking the scene now," he reflects. "I discovered him purely by chance…I simply bought a CD without knowing who he was. His command of the kamancheh, a virtually primitive Persian fiddle that he's transformed into a vehicle of extreme expressivity, had a huge effect on my own composing." His Zankel program (with special guest Ali Akbar Moradi) will open ears to the rich structures of Persian music.

Jazz is also on Adams's wide-ranging radar. Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, the eclectic 35-year-old Californian will be featured next month as well. "Redman is a consummate virtuoso, always open to fresh intuitions," says Adams. Bop is the basis of Redman's sonic stew of funk, rock, and soul. And the beat goes on.

Algerian singer Souad Massi will also be featured in the In Your Ear festival. "Souad Massi is representative of a new wave of singers coming from the North Africa and the Levant," Adams explains. "These artists were born into a musical tradition that is thousands of years old but that has recently been touched by the inevitable influence of pop. Tremendously controversial in her native country of Algeria, where her powerful and sensual singing and stage presence goes against the conservative grain, she has become an avatar among the new generation of women performers in Islamic culture."

During the In Your Ear festival, Adams will also interview performer and playwright Anna Deavere Smith as part of his series The Creative Process (November 14). Smith's kaleidoscope of characters reflects the multicultural landscape of a melting pot society in continuous transition‹well in keeping with Adams's worldview and philosophy.

Robert Hilferty is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

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