Transforming America's Music: A Milestone Year of Adams, Glass, and Reich
By Thomas May
January and February bring music by three composers from a generation of musical pioneers who reoriented the landscape of American music by reconnecting with audiences. Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams are being celebrated throughout the season for their milestone birthdays (70 for Adams, 80 for Glass and Reich). But that doesn’t mean any of them are slowing down. Alongside a retrospective of Adams’ music for string quartet—written for resident ensemble the St. Lawrence String Quartet—Stanford Live presents major new works by Glass and Reich.
The issue of Time with the cover date September 20, 1982, contained an article titled “The Heart Is Back in the Game,” by the magazine’s classical critic Michael Walsh, that would turn out to have a lasting influence. Walsh spotlighted a new wave of Minimalist composers who were creating music that he described as “emotional in its appeal.”
By then, the traits identified as “Minimalism” had become a recognized stylistic phenomenon, with roots extending back to figures already active for decades in music, literature, and the visual arts. But for the purposes of his article, Walsh singled out Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams (the youngest of the three) as prime exponents of Minimalism for the mainstream—though he perceptively noted that Adams is “the least ‘minimal’ of the three.”
Yet Walsh’s takeaway point was about a tectonic shift in attitudes about the composer’s role. Without “dumbing down” their own voice or relinquishing the drive to innovate, all three composers showed a keen desire to communicate with their listeners.
Minimalism was just a vehicle that allowed them to realize this shared value: by reinstating the centrality of emotional response, their music was winning back audiences who had come to feel alienated by “new music” and who faced what seemed to be an unbridgeable gulf separating them from the dominant trends of the postwar avant-garde.
For all the differences in their work, Glass, Reich, and Adams together have profoundly influenced the direction of new music in America and beyond. The triumvirate of maverick composers that Walsh singled out 35 years ago collectively transformed the musical landscape and continue to influence the choices made by composers emerging in the 21st century.
The impact of the two older composers in particular has extended to the larger culture, as well. Aside from Glass’ own prolific contributions to the genre, imitations of his immediately recognizable signature can be heard on countless film soundtracks. As for Reich, the late David Bowie listed his landmark Music for 18 Musicians (premiered in 1976) as one of his favorite albums, and Björk counts herself among the composer’s admirers.
“In their early days, these figures were outsiders in their own way,” remarks Chris Lorway, executive director of Stanford Live and Bing Concert Hall. “The establishment caught up to them rather than the other way around.”
Stanford has enjoyed longstanding connections with Glass, Reich, and Adams, so it is especially fitting that, together with such major institutions as Carnegie Hall, the Barbican in London, and the Berlin Philharmonic, Stanford Live is paying its own homage to this innovative trio of composers this season with two highly anticipated, brand-new works on the programs for January and February.
The adventurous International Contemporary Ensemble will present Steve Reich’s Pulse (Jan. 21), and longtime Philip Glass champion Dennis Russell Davies leads the Bruckner Orchestra Linz (of which he is music director) in his Symphony No. 11 (Feb. 12). Additionally, as part of its Stanford residency, the St. Lawrence String Quartet continues its survey of John Adams’ music for string quartet with his First Quartet (Jan. 22).
In other words, the ongoing celebration isn’t devoted to resting on laurels for past achievements—for very good reason. All three composers remain intensely active and all three have continued to reinvent themselves. Philip Glass himself was on hand to kick off the season in October, joining four other pianists to perform his complete series of Études for piano. “It’s a great way to see the breadth of his work,” says Lorway, referring to the juxtaposition of Glass at his most intimate and stripped down, in these piano pieces, with the symphonic Glass heard in February.
As founding artistic director of Toronto’s Luminato Festival, Lorway had first gotten to know Glass personally through still another facet of the composer’s creativity when he presented Book of Longing (2007), a song cycle to poems by Leonard Cohen that was co-commissioned by Luminato and Stanford. “That project reflected the theatrical, multidisciplinary focus at Luminato,” says Lorway, who later became involved as a coproducer in the revival of the legendary Einstein on the Beach production that toured several years ago.
Lasting about 30 minutes, Symphony No. 11—which receives its world premiere at Carnegie Hall on the composer’s actual 80th birthday (January 31)—is the latest addition to an impressive cycle that has explored one of the classical tradition’s most venerable and demanding genres.
Up through his breakthrough debut opera Einstein on the Beach (premiered in 1976), Glass had focused on writing for the chamber group of his touring Philip Glass Ensemble, which relied on heavy, rock-style amplification. But with his subsequent two opera commissions, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, Glass began writing for operatically trained, unamplified voices accompanied by a conventional orchestra.
It was Dennis Russell Davies, renowned as a conductor and pianist alike, who prompted Glass in the 1980s to embark on his remarkable series of works for the concert hall, including not only the symphonies but also numerous concerti. Davies encouraged him to apply his unique style to classical instrumental genres, as well, starting with his First Violin Concerto (1987) for Paul Zukofsky, the violinist who had “played” the (non-vocal) title character in Einstein. Glass then began his First Symphony (the Low Symphony, drawing inspiration from David Bowie and Brian Eno) at the remarkable age of 54. “After years of writing for theater and opera,” he notes in his recent memoir, Words without Music, “it was a real jolt for me to drop all of the extramusical content and make the language of music and the structure unfolding in time the sole content.”
John Adams has likewise achieved extraordinary success in both the concert hall and the opera house. Characteristically, the Berkeley-based composer has tended to create innovative large-scale forms for his instrumental works that are tailored to a unique purpose. His recent Scheherazade.2, for example, fuses the idea of a violin concerto with a “dramatic symphony” to reimagine the character from The Arabian Nights as an empowered modern heroine. Both of his string quartets, as well as Absolute Jest, a quartet concerto, were born out of a close collaboration with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Stanford Live co-commissioned the Second Quartet, which received its world premiere in 2015 in Bing. “What I appreciate about my friends in the St. Lawrence,” Adams has said, “is their willingness to let me literally ‘improvise’ on them as if they were a piano or a drum and I a crazy man beating away with only the roughest outlines of what I want.”
The string quartet’s instrumentation, coupled with prerecorded spoken phrases, provided Steve Reich with the basis for one of his great breakthrough compositions—in a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet—in the Grammy Award–winning Different Trains (1988). But a different quartet formation, comprising two pianos and two percussion instruments, has featured prominently in Reich’s sound world, as in Quartet (2013). Pulse (completed in 2015), which calls for an ensemble of winds, strings, piano, and electric bass, is, as the composer notes, in part a reaction to the earlier Quartet “…in which I changed keys more frequently than in any previous work. In Pulse, I felt the need to stay put harmonically and spin out smoother wind and string melodic lines in canon over a constant pulse in the electric bass and/or piano…All in all, it’s a calmer, more contemplative piece.”
Among his last projects in Toronto before he left for Stanford, Lorway programmed an 80th-birthday celebration event for Reich last April at Massey Hall in Toronto, a large venue seating about 3,000 that he was told would be “a real test to fill.” Yet he managed to nearly sell out the theater by targeting the indie-music fan base. “It’s the sweet spot for these composers. The whole indie scene is more aligned to contemporary music than the classical scene is. If you want to find an audience for contemporary music, this is where to go,” he explained.
Lorway also points to the sense of relevance that has enabled Adams and Glass to resonate with today’s audiences in the realm of opera. “Both are unapologetic in their desire to take on contemporary stories and to engage with 20th- or 21st-century ideas. That’s also something that is important in opening up audiences,” he says. In 2015, a revised version of Appomattox, Glass’ 2007 opera on the end of the Civil War, reflected even more closely on contemporary civil rights concerns and was deemed by Washington Post critic Anne Midgette to be “as deeply moving as anything I’ve seen in opera.” Glass has also written a controversial opera about Walt Disney, The Perfect American, that will get its U.S. premiere in March at Long Beach Opera.
Adams, meanwhile, helped spearhead the ongoing renaissance in American opera with his debut stage work, Nixon in China (1987), a multilayered rumination on the conflicting visions that fueled the Cold War. November will see his latest opera debut on the stage of San Francisco Opera. Titled Girls of the Golden West and drawing on original documentary sources, it will dramatize the greed, violence, and racism of the 19th-century California Gold Rush.
For young and emerging artists, Lorway believes that Glass, Reich, and Adams have a message that remains as relevant now as when they themselves started out and, in the process, set about unleashing a revolution they couldn’t have predicted. “They continue to send cues to the next generation of artists: just do what is authentic and what means something to you. Rather than feel that you have to follow a particular path, let everyone else catch up to you.”
Thomas May is a frequent contributor to Stanford Live Magazine; he blogs at memeteria.com.