John Adams: Gospel According to the Other Mary
By Matt F.
John Adams, more than most 20th century composers, has a hard time finding his voice. In his wayward youth he was a devout John Cage fanatic, preferring concept over actual musicality. As time went on and he discovered minimalism he effectively did a 180 and went from music based on total chance to music based on complete focused structure. But, now we’re seeing that as he ages he seems to stray further and further away from the rigid rigor of traditional minimalism and more and more into a more musical sphere. Not to infer that minimalism isn’t musical, but sometimes it isn’t. 30 years ago it would’ve been easy to write him off as the poor-man’s Philip Glass because he kinda was, nowadays that assumption would be far too simplistic.
Even on first listen, The Gospel According to the Other Mary: A Passion-Oratorio is striking in its approach. Yes, it still employs the basic elements of minimalism, but to call it simply that would be like saying that The Godfather is just a gangster movie; it overlooks some very key elements of the fabric of the piece itself. Depending on the scene, I hear splashes of Stravinsky (the fabulous Les Nocs especially), fluid and frenzy strings a la Shostakovich, brassy blue notes, mainstream style rhythmic sections, all of which is approached with the energy level of a much younger man.
Of course no composer can really include the word “passion” in their large scale vocal/choral work without inviting at least some comparisons to J.S. Bach. I can’t help but wonder…what if Bach had presented a religious piece of music of such scale based on the life and times of “the Other Mary” to his 1720’s church-going Leipzig audience; something tells me it would not have gone over very well. Had Bach looked at John Adams’ piece I think he would have accepted it with hesitant approval. Adams seems genuinely invested in Mary’s plight and, much like Bach, draws from several sources to paint Mary in a varied and complex light.
I mentioned earlier that John Adams has had a tougher time than most 20th century composers finding his voice and really, I still don’t think he’s found it. But the crazy thing is that for some reason I find that very reassuring. It’s sort of thrilling to think that even with a piece as strong and as brilliant as “The Gospel…” that it may take him another 30 years of soul searching before he really comes into his own.