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CD Review

John Adams

Nonesuch 79473

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky

Audra McDonald, Michael McElroy, Welly Yang, Angela Teek, Darius de Haas, Marin Mazzie, Richard Muenz, vocals
Grant Gershon, vocal direction
Instrumental ensemble conducted by John Adams
Nonesuch 79473-2 DDD 69:54
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Adams's "earthquake/romance" really must be evaluated as a three-way collaboration with librettist June Jordan and theater director Peter Sellars. (Sellars worked with Adams on two earlier topical projects: Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.) This CD does not make it possible to evaluate Sellars's contribution. However, before I go any further, I do want to state that Jordan's words are very fine; any composer would be fortunate to have such an intelligent, poetic-minded librettist. If her writing reflects her sociopolitical beliefs, I'm not sure I agree with them, but that, as they say, is what makes horse races.

Anyway, I Was Looking… seems to be about the ability of crisis (specifically, natural disaster) to spark growth in the individuals who experience it. In 1994, an earthquake rocked the Los Angeles area. I Was Looking… follows seven archetypal Angelenos, their pre-earthquake conflicts, and the post-earthquake outcome of those conflicts. It's a little 90210 -ish: there's the African-American male who steals beer from a convenience mart; his girlfriend, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador; the minister who beds female members of his congregation; the graduate student who works for Planned Parenthood and who is being courted by the minister; the white policeman dealing with sexual orientation issues; his television reporter girlfriend; and an Asian-American public defender.

Adams builds his "earthquake/romance" on a characteristic stratum of post-minimalism. He overlays it with popular styles (jazz, guitar rock, blues, etc.), with a different style for each of the characters. Imagine "K-Tel Sings Nixon in China" and you'll have a pretty good idea what I Was Looking… sounds like. "Three Weeks and I'm Still Outta My Mind" is a duet for the minister and the graduate student. With its very Californian blend of white and black musical styles, it's a fair candidate for play on pop radio stations! (Immediately after, the walls fall on the pair. Take that, evil rock!) In general, I Was Looking… is not constructed from shower tunes. Instead, Adams favors melodic declamation – rap meets arioso, if you will. His score reminds us that much of popular music is essentially minimalist, anyway. This score is so much of everything; I wonder who its audience is? Diversity is something we claim to value, even celebrate, and yet are Adams's classical supporters ready for a wild spin across the entire FM radio dial? Are the characters Adams, Jordan, and Sellars created ready for a work like I Was Looking… ? Is that the earth I feel shaking?

Only two members of the original cast (Darius de Haas and Welly Yang) sing on this recording. All of the singers come from the world of American musical theater. There's no point in singling any them out for individual praise; this is an ensemble work, and all of their performances are strong and dramatically true. The seven-member instrumental ensemble (keyboards, winds, guitar, electric bass, contrabass, and percussion) is, for some reason, Finnish, and yet their recreation of American popular music styles sounds reasonably authentic.

I don't know what an opera is, but I don't think this is it. Nevertheless, even though I don't know what I Was Looking… is either, it's welcome to come in and set a spell… as long as it doesn't try to rearrange my furniture.

Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle

Trumpet