The Music

Notes on the music at “Emergent”

Posted by SoundBox

February 9, 2017

JOHN ADAMS  Hallelujah Junction
ASHLEY FURE  Shiver Lung
JACOB COOPER Ripple the Sky
JOHN ADAMS  John’s Book of Alleged Dances
JOHN ADAMS Ragamarole



Composer, conductor, and creative thinker John Adams (b.1947) occupies a unique position in the world of music. His works stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, brilliance of sound, and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes. Works spanning more than three decades are among the most performed of all contemporary classical music. Emergent features several young composers who John Adams feels are making an impact in the field, alongside some of John’s own works.


ANDREW NORMAN  Try  2011  |  14 mins
Andrew Norman (b.1979) is a Los Angeles-based composer, whose work draws on an eclectic mix of sounds and notational practices from both the avant-garde and classical traditions. He is increasingly interested in story-telling in music, and specifically in the ways non-linear, narrative-scrambling techniques from other time-based media (movies and video games), might intersect with traditional symphonic forms.

Andrew on Try: I never get things right on the first try. I am a trial-and-error composer, an incurable reviser. And this is a problem when it comes to high-profile commissions from world-class ensembles in spectacular concert halls, because in these rare cases one gets exactly one try to get it right, and one really, really wants to get it right. Disney Hall and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have meant so much to me over the years that the overwhelming desire to write for them the perfect piece was enough to stop me dead in my creative tracks. It took me many months to realize the obvious: My piece was never going to be perfect no matter how hard I tried, and perfection was not even the right target on which to set my sights. The best thing I could do was to try as many new things as I could, to embrace the risk and failure and serendipitous discovery implicit in the word “try.”

The piece I ended up writing is a lot like me. It’s messy, and fragmented, and it certainly doesn’t get things right on the first try. It does things over and over, trying them out in as many different ways as it can. It circles back on itself again and again in search of any idea that will stick, that will lead it forward to something new. And, at long last, after ten minutes of increasingly frantic trying, it finds one small, unlikely bit of musical material it likes enough to repeat and polish and hone until it finally (fingers crossed) gets it right.


JOHN ADAMS  Hallelujah Junction  2001  |  16 mins
John on Hallelujah Junction: Hallelujah Junction is a small truck stop on Highway 49 in the High Sierras on the California-Nevada border near where I have a small cabin. For years I would pass through in my car, wondering what piece of music might have a title like Hallelujah Junction. It was a case of a good title needing a piece, so I obliged by composing this work for two pianos.

Two pianos is a combination that’s long intrigued me, and the pairing plays important roles in both Common Tones in Simple Time and Grand Pianola Music. What attracts me is the possibility of having similar or even identical material played at a very slight delay, thereby creating a kind of planned resonance, as if the sonorities were being processed by a delay circuit. The brilliant attacks and rich ten-fingered chords of the grand pianos suggest endless possibilities for constructing an ecstatic, clangorous continuum, the effect of which could not be achieved with any other sonorous instrument.

I begin with only the “__lle-lu-jah” of the title (a Hebrew word), a three-syllable exclamation that bounces back and forth between the two instruments until it yields to a more relaxed and regular figuration of rolling 16ths. The harmonies are essentially modal, staying exclusively in the flat regions of the circle of fifths.

Eventually the rambling, busy patter of sixteenths gives way to a passage of dry, “secco” chords that punctuate the musical surface like karate chops until they too give way, this time to the serene middle movement. Here the “__lle-lu-jah” motif of the opening is gently transformed and extended above a quiet fabric of repeated triplets. These triplets become the main event as the movement tightens up and energy increases, leading into the final section. Here I take advantage of the acoustically identical sounds of the two pianos to make constant shifts of pulse (“Is it in two? Or is it in three?”). This ambiguity produces a kind of giddy uncertainty as the music pings back and forth in bright clusters.

The final moments of Hallelujah Junction revel in the full onomatopoeic possibilities of the title. We get the full four-syllables—the “Hallelujah”—as well as the “junction” of the by-now crazed pianists, both of them very likely in extremis of full-tilt boogie.




ASHLEY FURE  Shiver Lung  2016  |  13 mins
Ashley Fure (b.1982) is an American composer of acoustic and electroacoustic concert music as well as multimedia installation art. Her work explores the kinetic source of sound, bringing focus to the muscular act of music making and the chaotic behaviors of raw acoustic matter.

Ashley on Shiver Lung: Shiver Lung presents material extracted from a large-scale immersive installation opera called The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects.  A ring of subwoofers encircle the audience, projecting sound waves too low to hear until performers slide the flesh of their hands across each palpitating surface, pulling the sound waves into the realm of the audible.


JACOB COOPER  Ripple the Sky  2016  |  16 mins
Jacob Cooper (b.1980) is a composer and multimedia artist living in Philadelphia. He enjoys collaborating with performers, poets, and directors, as well as with machines, environments, and questionable histories.

Jacob on Ripple the Sky: On a rainy day in February 1854, Robert Schumann walked out of his house wearing only his robe and slippers and tried to drown himself in the Rhine. Fishermen pulled him out before he could succeed, but a week later he checked himself into a mental institution, leaving behind his wife Clara and his seven children.

Schumann had a long history of depression and anxiety, and he had been increasingly suffering from what Clara described in her diaries as “aural disturbances.” Sometimes he heard only a single repeated high pitch (an A); other times he heard entire performances of pieces that would sit on their final chord until he managed to pull his attention elsewhere.

Schumann’s doctors did not permit Clara to see her husband off the day he departed for the asylum. She did, however, manage to deliver a bouquet of flowers to him as his coach arrived. He absentmindedly clutched the flowers for a long time before suddenly smelling them and smiling. Then, like his beloved Ophelia in Hamlet, Schumann proceeded to hand out flowers to each person in his carriage, and ensured that one was sent back to Clara as well.

In creating Ripple the Sky, the poet Greg Alan Brownderville and I were inspired by these events. The text sews together snippets of Ophelia’s “mad songs,” Schumann’s own words from his and Clara’s diaries and letters, and original words by Brownderville.

Music and video: Jacob Cooper
Text: Greg Alan Brownderville
Cinematographer: Sherng-Lee Huang
Actors: Adam Budron and Hannah Chodos
Costume Designer: Kate Fry
Artistic Consultant: Shehrezad Maher



   John’s Book of Alleged Dances  1994  |  15 mins
John on John’s Book of Alleged Dances: The “Book” is a collection of ten dances, six of which are accompanied by a recorded percussion track made of prepared piano sounds. The prepared piano was, of course, the invention of John Cage, who first put erasers, nuts, bolts, and other damping objects in the strings of the grand piano, thereby transforming it into a kind of pygmy gamelan. In the original version of Alleged Dances the prepared piano sounds were organized as loops installed in an onstage sampler, and one of the quartet players triggered them on cue with a foot pedal. This made for a lot of suspense in the live performance—perhaps too much, as the potential for crash-and-burn was so high that Kronos eventually persuaded me to create a CD of the loops, a decision that allowed for significantly less anxiety during concerts.

The dances were “alleged” because the steps for them had yet to be invented (although by now a number of choreographers, including Paul Taylor, have created pieces around them).  The general tone is dry, droll, sardonic. The music was composed with the personalities of the Kronos players very much in mind. The little pavane, “She’s So Fine,” for example, is expressly made for Joan Jeanrenaud’s sweetly lyrical high cello register, and the hoe-down, “Dogjam”, honors David Harrington’s bluegrass proclivities.


JOHN ADAMS  Ragamarole  1973  |  3 mins
Ragamarole, and the musician performing it, date from John's earliest days at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Emergent closes with pianist Robin Sutherland's unveiling of this piece after more than four decades of dormancy.

Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.