John Adams and the Noir of January 6

Composer John Adams Conducts his Coming-Coup-Collage for the Seattle Symphony

By S.E. Barcus

January 6, 2022

John Adams with the Seattle Symphony, January 6, 2022.

“Don’t know what it is, Adams’ interest in private eyes, but there are two pieces on the program tonight that reference them. These films about a gritty anti-hero, trying to solve a crime, but also doing anything it takes to solve that crime.  You hear that sense of threat in the piece; a very unsettling sort of mood….”

              –Dr. Anne Searcy in the pre-concert lecture.


Ah!  Going back to live performances, an acceptable risk for myself (with everyone vaccinated and masked, anyway!).  One sits and relaxes, listening once more to the crazed chaotic cacophonic tone cluster of the artists practicing and tuning simultaneously, playing that universal “opening piece” of any symphony (or of Sgt. Pepper’s, thank you George Martin…). Then out comes concertmaster Noah Geller, an excellent violinist (and a very tall fellow, with an aura of some kind of jovial, good-looking Hogarth, bringing an aura of friendliness to the Seattle Symphony, such as when he fist-bumped the pianist, Jeremy Denk, tonight in the Devil piece…).

Then quiet.  Then out comes John Adams himself, guest conductor of his own works tonight, with his stark white hair, thin stature, reminiscent of the Jeff-Bezos-like villain in the recent movie, Don’t Look Up (although with a normal voice). Much deserved applause was given for this American icon.

He came here, during this plague, with looming precarious national elections, to Seattle.  What would he choose to conduct; what would tie tonight’s program together?  Surely, he knew he was coming on January 6, the first anniversary of the fascist insurrection that attempted to overthrow our democratic government, a trial run by the American brown shirts/red caps?  Why did he choose — besides the ubiquitous crowd-pleasing opener of Fast Machine, and the new-ish devilish piano concerto he’s still promoting — why did he choose to highlight City Noir, of ALL the countless wonderful pieces he has composed over his long, eclectic, and amazing career?  I believe the two quotes, at the top and bottom of this article, answer that question.   And with a name like “John Adams,” after all, it is no wonder he seems to be a (true) patriot.  

And also no wonder that he was born and raised in New England.  His parents were musicians, and his father knew Charles Ives, after all (or so his earlier piece claims!).  He was forced to study and adhere to 12-tone serialism like everyone else in his generation, but after graduation, he blew his mind out in a book — John Cage’s, Silence, to be exact, and moved to California to join forces with the minimalists.  

Adams is often not afraid to give evocative titles that embrace programme music, never hiding what his own feelings and intentions are, as so many Derrida-dada-dada postmodernists often did/do, concealing their own works’ intentions with curtains of “it means whatever you want it to mean” bullshit (if their works “meant” anything to them, at all!).  Adams is a purposeful and transparent Artist, which I admire.

In California, he helped bring us the style of “post-minimalism”, sharing the postmodernist idea of pastiche, pouring into the rhythmic, driving blender of his own “minimalism” whatever was appropriate, whether older Romanticism forms or jazz music.  And also, all with that postmodernist “kitsch” sensibility, seen perhaps more often in the Art and Theater realms.  John Adams shares that playful sensibility that California has often so wonderfully given our world, from Henry Cowell to John Cage to Frank Zappa … to John Adams.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)

Great way to start any concert.  A spicy musical appetizer, gets the juices flowing.  A “thrilling … white knuckle ride”, as Adams has described it.

The piece starts with a fast pulse from the simplest instrument in the orchestra, the woodblock, which never stops until the end.  Not sure who you were, oh dearest woodblocker in the back (either Michael Werner or Matthew Decker, I presume, from the program’s listing of percussion players), but I wish you could’ve been up front and center, like a soloist, beating away on it for us like a Will Ferrell, belly hanging out, dancing and beating away on that little block with joyous sexy confidence!  … Guess what?!  I got a fever … and the only prescription … is more woodblock! 

Then come whirling strings, pulsating horns like the horns from Whoville – “fanfare” indeed!  The flutes and piccolos have a very hard screeching section right there in the beginning (likely trying to convey the slipping and sliding on the road?).  As Dr. Searcy told us in the pre-talk, give those musicians in particular a break, that’s a pretty difficult-almost-impossible section!  Beethoven himself couldn’t have been meaner to a group of instrumentalists, demanding such notes!

The music abruptly “changes gears” throughout.  Fast Machine is a fun drive, a Ferrari through Beverly Hills, sharp high-speed turns, at times slowing down to take in a view, beautiful interludes of natural California landscapes or ocean fronts. (Disneyland Los Angeles should have a special event where they let you ride the Americana Cars ride with this piece playing.  That would be awesome.  Maybe a fieldtrip one day for the LA Phil?)

Per Dr. Searcy’s opening lecture, this piece was one of the first pieces ever to use the minimalist technique of incessant repetition to represent machines — a match made in heaven, and something that was done many times since. And it is quite breathless!  (Ah!  “Breathless” – like the film!?  Perhaps that’s how we can fit this into our “noir” theme for the night!)  It is perfectly the programme music of a fast car weaving in and out of high-speed traffic, always nearly skidding out of control….  Fun, yes, but also definitely music that was written by someone who was surely thinking, “I seriously might die tonight.”

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018)

Jeremy Denk, pianist

The quote, taken from Martin Luther, bemoans that bad guys seem to have all the fun.  And the answer to the question, based on the composition, is “yes”. 

I loved the energy of the pianist, Jeremy Denk, as he skipped out in the beginning, as excited as a little kid. Throughout the piece he’s bobbing and jiving while he plays, occasionally looking out to the audience with some Liberace-like subtle smile, periodically tapping his tablet to turn the page, like a jazz drummer smacking a cymbal.  Really wonderful performance.  Dreamy where needed, ferocious when called for.  (I guess he trained at Oberlin and Juilliard and has a memoir coming out about studying the piano, “Every Good Boy Does Fine”.  I’m looking forward to that!)

I also loved this concerto.  And how the symphony only gradually, progressively takes over the piano solo of the beginning. John Adams’ other two concertos are somewhat more traditional going back-and-forth between the piano and orchestra, but not this piece. The piano never really stops.  I don’t know if Adams gave the writer of Seattle Symphony‘s program notes, Christopher DeLaurenti, this quote, or if DeLaurenti wrote it himself, but it encapsulates this piano concerto quite adroitly:

“Inverting the old adage ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’, the pianist plays continuously, with only a few measures of rest throughout the piece”.

In the first movement — in typical kitschy pastichey John Adamsy postmodern fashion — he also references TV music. The main musical motif driving the piece, from the beginning and throughout, is a variation on the theme from Peter Gunn, by Henry Mancini.  Here’s that noir theme for the night coming in again, if we choose to see it. 

The quieter second movement is creepily meandering, but at times sweeter, perhaps more melancholic. Spooky, like walking through a dark cave, or an abandoned dusty (haunted?) house.  Perhaps this sojourn was Jesus in the desert with the devil?

Dr. Searcy noted that the 3rd movement’s dance-like rhythm harkens back to the many bouncy rhythmic pieces of the 19th century that referred to the devil, most famously to the 5th movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath….  Also, harrowing bells abound in the 3rd movement – inverted church bells — another trope of the 19th century for demons.  And filled with tritones, “the devil’s interval”.  Everything creates the scene – from the cello and bass players periodically slapping their strings like the whip of a devil, to the dark farting-burbling-laughing of the trombone (a seeming necessity for any comical devilish piece).

Also, the third movement has just an awesome electric bass guitar riff.  Absolutely funky. Again, not sure of the guy’s name in the back who was playing (come on, program, give us the names!), but he was bobbing and jiving back-and-forth just like Denk.  At times, they were in sync with each other, very groovy, digging it.  Like the woodblocker, I wish he was front and center.  (I hate the rigidity of the, I dunno, “Rimsky-rules for orchestration”.  All these soloists are always hidden in the back where we can’t see them!)

By the end, for myself, similar to Adams’ two other piano concertos, I felt like the piano really seemed more like a percussion instrument. (Oops — yeah yeah, it IS a ”percussion instrument”…. You know what I mean. I mean, like, drums….) It’s mostly blocked chords or broken up blocks as arpeggios.  Not sure what to make of that, but it’s somewhat distinctive for Adams’ piano concertos at this point.

City Noir (2009)

Timothy McAllister, saxaphonist

This is considered a symphonic piece, but really it’s a saxophone/trumpet/vibraphone triple concerto. Should probably throw in the jazz drums, too.  Timothy McAllister, at least, gets props for his saxophone work in the program.  Presumably it was David Gordon on trumpet, but again, the program doesn’t say specifically. And the vibraphone? Or the amazingly groovy jazz drummer? Michael Werner or Matthew Decker, we presume, as (again) the program doesn’t specify. (Isn’t that a shame?)

As Adams says, the music of City Noir recreates the feeling of the noir films, but also of the 1950’s — and there we get the imbuement of jazz entering into the symphony.  Gershwin did it perhaps most famously.  But Adams’ jazz is of the more recent era – the jazz of the 1950s, of Charlie Parker on sax and Miles Davis on trumpet.  McAllister comes right out of the gate with that fast-paced bebop virtuosity.  Just wonderful.

This is cinema-inspired programme music, with not very many repeats, just a constant wandering between movie styles and feelings and, again, “tropes”.  You will get the déjà vu feeling you are in a movie theater, at times, watching many different films, thinking you are recalling snippets of many different composers’ scores.  Halfway through the first movement, there is a definite resemblance to John William’s “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter, for me, at any rate.  (Don’t believe me? Go to minute 7:40 of this YouTube clip with the St. Louis Symphony — and again Timothy McAllister! … Listening to this again — is this whole work a collage of famous film scores? Listen to 4:30 — is that a subtle reference to “Some day my prince will come?”) But then, off in another new direction, perhaps filled with shadows and smoke and dark alleys, or to a Hitchcock film, but then quick cuts to a sultry, sexy femme fatale, shimmering like the glass art of Chihuly that hangs in the Seattle Symphony’s lobby. And even at times, a mysteriousness and creepiness enter, almost Ligeti-like-atmospheres, textural style.  But then back to the jazz, with the groovy drum beats and snares, and saxophonist McAllister standing back up to play and jerk around abruptly, off-rhythmically — soulful but frenetic sounds, like we’re in a night club, somehow.    

The third movement, Boulevard Night, starts out slower, with a sexy Miles Davis/Chet Baker sounding trumpet.  There’s a stillness, a Nighthawks at the Diner feel.  Then the sax galloping in again, eventually evolving into what makes for a nice bookend for the night as the music speeds up on these streets, and turns into the feeling of a fast machine, an intense car chase scene.  With sudden hitting of the brakes.  Silence.  Drums like gun shots.  Then peeling away again, a sax wailing somewhere up high on a fire escape.  The sudden changes of this intentionally dramatic music is very intense.  I wish I could have had popcorn to eat!  Finally, near the end, something menacing, horns repetitively start out quietly but get loud fast, like cars whizzing by. … Similar to Fast Machine – I think we’re probably in for a crash.

“…  With City Noir … I wanted to write a work of symphonic scope that had the feel and dark tonality that we saw in the noir films in that post-war era – late 1940’s, ‘50s, even into the ‘60s.  There was a lot of happy PR around the country that we had won the war and America was great, but I think noir really told a different story about American society – one that I think unfortunately has come home to roost in recent years….”

John Adams, January 6, 2022, words before conducting “City Noir”

Copyright 1-6-22, S.E. Barcus

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John Adams and the Noir of January 6