Sunday, July 17, 2016

Slow Motion Emotion:
John Adams's Christian Zeal and Activity

A recorded bit of twangy sermon loops over strings that stretch one verse of a hymn to ten minutes.  Add the title Christian Zeal and Activity, and it seems like a recipe for ironic comment on That Old Time Religion.  But John Adams' composition is a lesson in how music and text can combine to powerful emotional effect.

[I base my comments on the recording in 1986 by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart, included on the album The Chairman Dances. Photo: The album and the composer.  I've written about Adams many times.  Find links at my article Thanks to and From Composer John Adams. ]

In his memoir Hallelujah Junction, Adams tells how he wrote the piece in 1973 to be the middle portion of a suite he called American Standard.  Under the influence of "experimental music," he made room for chance in the composition.  Adams admits that a lot of the "experiments" he and his contemporaries tried "seriously pushed the boredom envelope" (Adams 85), and he doesn't have much good to say about the outer movements of his triptych, but the middle movement was more successful (75). Adams taped a late-night radio call-in show for the premier recording (produced by Brian Eno); but he later created the tape collage "Sermon" that Edo de Waart used for this marvelous recording.

The music sounds long before we hear the spoken words.  We can discern the tune and chord changes of Sir Arthur Sullivan's martial hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers," once we realize that the string orchestra takes over a minute to play even one phrase.  (I might still not know except that my friend Jean named the tune 30 years ago, under sixty seconds.) Silence follows each phrase.  Under the melody, Adams lets some of the voices push ahead or lag behind, blurring the chords and prolonging tense dissonances.   

Adams himself describes how "the individual SATB voices ... float apart from one another like slow bubbles rising in a dense liquid."  The piece "never quite climaxes," according to commentary on the website for WNYC radio, "but instead remains suspended in a state of wonderment."  That's a great description: In our age when "slow" means "sad" or "boring," Adams gives us "wonderment" in his pensive, shifting, arching lines.

Adams "composes" the taped sermon just as musically.  The preacher's voice is inherently musical, with wide variety in pitch and contrasting dynamics.  He tells how Jesus, healing those who were "afflicted of the devil" was "drawn to a man who had a withered hand."  In his collage, Adams takes some of the high notes as a first theme, "draw-awn to a withered hand" and "I believe this story has a meaning for us right here in this year in which we live, right now."  When the preacher drops pitch and volume to caution us, "No one can forgive sins but God,"  Adams plays around with that phrase awhile, for contrast.  Then Adams mixes them up as Mozart would do in the development portion of a classic sonata, an effect intended to create tension.

But Adams also uses the meanings of the words to build tension. The preacher asks, "Why would Jesus have been drawn to a withered hand?"  Adams repeats the phrase and overlaps it with echoes until we're all anxious to know the answer, which comes at last in silence:  "Well, a withered hand can't hold on to anything."  What follows is a gentle coda of material from the sermon that we haven't heard before, as the preacher himself seems caught up in the emotion of the miracle.

On the San Francisco Symphony's recording The Chairman Dances in 1986, this was a slow piece among show pieces. The title number and Short Ride on a Fast Machine are orchestral head-bangers that I played on my Walkman to keep me focused driving on I-10 to Houston for the premier of Nixon in China, 1987.

I didn't get much out of Christian Zeal then, but this year it has overcome me with strong feelings.  It's hard to say exactly what those feelings are.  It's something about a recognition how deeply we need each other, an assurance in the "community" of voices in the string orchestra that we can search and find together, and that we can heal and be healed by love.  It's something about what we hold on to, and what we let go.

YouTube gives us several pictorial accompaniments for this recording.  The one with Legos is sweet.

Adams, John. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. New York: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 2008.

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