Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why I want to fuck John Adams†

I moved to Berkeley in the Fall of '78 to go to graduate school, a letter of introduction to Andrew Imbrie in my pocket, two friends in tow: Everett Shock and Brian Woodbury, sharing dreams of the fires of fame with which we were sure we would soon be anointed. That first Fall, walking up College Avenue to campus from Brian's mother's basement, I saw two posters announcing events to come: (1) John Duykers performing George Coates' Duykers the First at Intersection for the Arts and (2) a performance of Shaker Loops at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, composed and conducted by John Adams.

I knew John Adams' name from the Brian Eno release of American Standard, a piece I admired a great deal, but knowing this did not prepare me for the experience. In my memory, as it stands today, the performance was electrifying. I had only recently become aware of the Reich/Riley/Glass consortium, and had only recently spent an evening listening to the Tomato Records Vinyl Release of Einstein on the Beach twice straight through, the too-short LP sides ordered, as vinyl box sets often were, so that the work could be played on a semi-continuous-play phonograph with center spindle with only one flip, i.e., 1-6-2-5-3-4. While it played, I could do nothing except listen, neither speaking nor seeing. So I had only the briefest preparation for the musical language of Shaker Loops, and I was entranced by it in, as I remember, a very small hall or, maybe, a very small world, very close to the players, looking up at John Adams conducting, listening closely as the harmonies unfolded. I came home to a darkened house and ran through the piece in my mind again and again, trying to capture it, this wonderful sound. I repeated the experience at the premiere of Phrygian Gates by Mack McCray, before which Adams came to speak to a class I was taking with Richard Felciano, and after which I retreated to the practice rooms in the basement of Morrison Hall, pounding out patterned scales against each other, holding crashing chords against fast pulses counted in my head. And again, years later when I first heard Nixon in China, I felt that thrill during the beginning, as the orchestra opens up after the chorus. I know now that hearing his operas and those by Glass began my journey back to the theater.

All these memories gained presence for me a couple of weeks ago as I listened, and while Lynne played solitaire on her iPhone, to that same string septet version of Shaker Loops, the piece again conducted by the composer, here at Davies Symphony Hall. My fascination has been tempered by time and my own jaded sensibilities and, in all honesty, by the fame of the composer. Yes, I do want to take him, the pensive and soft-faced artist, his bedroom eyes and his bed-tousled hair, but I want him in an angry and dominating way, where he is reduced to tears as I persist in forcing my attentions on him. I confess I am wholly small-minded when it comes to the fame of other composers. My vanity demands that they be destroyed and destroyed utterly, without humanity, yet I also desire with all my heart to be one with them, to follow them about, to lick the spoons they have left in their chili bowl at the diner. I crave their celebrity, and I spend untold hours making myself crazy, picking through the minutiae of their lives and scores as one would through an owl pellet, looking for a key, the secret to drawing their status onto myself.

† With apologies to the late J.G. Ballard, from which whose prescient piece I now quote:
Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was super imposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with "Reagan" proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2% of subjects. ... In assembly-kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.
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