Composer Steven Stucky

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Writings


Mongrel Airs

by Steven Stucky

Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella program


Nine months ago we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, reuniting in one program the composers who have been officially “in residence” with the orchestra since the Group was born in 1981: William Kraft, John Harbison, and me. Yet we three are far from the whole story. Even earlier, Paul Chihara had served as staff composer for Zubin Mehta, and more recently the music of composers Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Adams has been a constant presence in our programs, and a major force shaping our artistic profile. It’s fitting, then, that tonight as we launch yet another Green Umbrella voyage, our 22nd season, these two colleagues and friends are at the helm.

The Philharmonic’s close partnership with John Adams goes back almost as far as these New Music concerts themselves, to a performance of Shaker Loops in February 1984. It was Ernest Fleischmann (who else?) who saw the importance of Adams’s music earlier than most (just as he was among the first to recognize Salonen’s genius). With characteristic abandon, Ernest bet the ranch on the young Adams long before the rest of us had quite figured him out. Adams’s dedication of Hallelujah Junction to Ernest is thus a gesture that resonates long and meaningfully. So, too, does the dedication of Naive and Sentimental Music to Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose premiere performances of the work in February 1999 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion still echo for hundreds, perhaps thousands of us listeners as one of the thrilling events of our concert-going lives. If there is a better Adams conductor alive than Salonen, I for one haven’t heard about it.

Two decades into our partnership with Adams, it may be hard to remember the time when he was still a curiosity, not yet an acknowledged master; when “minimalist” and “tonal” were still fighting words. Nowadays very few would argue with his position as one of the greatest living composers. He can still be controversial, of course: the post-9/11 Klinghoffer controversy a year ago, painful as it was, demonstrated that his art is important enough to matter.

Despite what can seem like its easy popularity, Adams’s music is risky music. It takes chances, it pushes boundaries, it grapples with big ideas. Indeed John has become such a central force in American musical life — not only as a composer but also as a mentor of younger talent (Derek Bermel, for example) and as a conductor with a busy engagement calendar — precisely because he is a deep and original thinker, a high-brow in the best sense. (If somehow John has managed to keep reading this far, he is wincing now!) What other populist borrows his titles from a 1795 essay on poetry (Naive and Sentimental Music) or a 1911 treatise on music theory (Harmonielehre)?

Adams understands, I think, that a truly populist, a truly democratic music isn’t dumb. Instead it’s rich with ideas high-brow and low, plain and fancy. It’s mongrel music (like the “Mongrel Airs” in his Chamber Symphony) in which Fats Waller can meet Walter Benjamin (Century Rolls); in which Arnold Schoenberg and hyperactive cartoon music from the 1950s have something to say to one another (Chamber Symphony); in which Guy Lombardo and Liberace can stumble upon a transcendent scene of mock-Javanese gamelan music (Fearful Symmetries). What it’s not is pure. It’s gloriously impure — and what music can speak more eloquently to and for our condition as citizens of the American West, of the United States, of this big, troubled, gloriously impure planet of ours?


© Steven Stucky





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