Friday, March 13, 2015

John Adams' "Christian Zeal and Activity"

This past week I felt blue and Charlie Brown-ish, mostly because of emotional tiredness following a  happy but marathon effort to finish a 40,000-word manuscript in a timely manner. These days have been dreary, too, in terms of weather. To cheer up and feel more peaceful at heart, I sought out favorite music that I haven’t listened to for a while. It turned out to be the John Adams Earbox on the Nonesuch label, which my wife Beth bought for me in 1999 or 2000.

The January 2015 Gramophone magazine had a nice feature on the composer John Adams. I like this quotation (from his autobiography): “On a dark day I will become nearly overwhelmed at how little I have mastered in my life. Starting a new piece can cause me torment and can mean having to slog through a dismal swamp of indifferent ideas, pushing hem, prodding them, often abandoning them in disgust or desperation.” I valued that sentiment. Whenever I conclude a writing project (or some other big commitment) I begin to think about a next one, and for a while I feel similarly downhearted and self-doubtful.

My family and I met Adams on very brief occasions. When he won the Grawemeyer award for the violin concerto in 1995, Beth and I shook hands with him at the ceremonies. (Beth was on the Grawemeyer committee for the education award.) Then our daughter Emily worked as a dresser on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of The Death of Klinghoffer a few years ago, and she and Adams said hello to each other backstage as they passed each other. I was happy that Emily could use her theatre talents as part of a local production that became an occasion of intentional, interfaith understanding.

The article notes something that I hadn’t realized---since I’m a music lover but don’t know its technical side. Several of Adams works slow down harmonic rhythm in order to allow modulation to accomplish fresh things in a piece, the way Ravel’s Bolero has that change from C major to E toward the end. The article mentions several of Adams' earlier works, like Nixon in China and Harmonielehre, but his more recent pieces like Doctor Atomic and City Noir are on my list.

A favorite Adams piece for me is the short Christian Zeal and Activity. He got the name from a subject heading in an old hymnal. In the piece, he takes “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and slows it down so that it’s nearly unrecognizable (“like slow-moving bubbles in a thick, viscous fluid,” as he writes in the CD notes), but more mystical and meditative than Sullivan’s marching verses. Incorporated into the music are reassembled sections of a radio preacher’s sermon on Jesus' desire to make anyone whole, with the example of the man with a withered hand.

This week, I suppose I’ve been seeking wholeness from the too much busyness and emotional tiredness---my own desire for faithful activity, which gets mixed up with my self-esteem. Nice weather is on the way, and Easter is at hand.

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