J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Music of John Adams: I Am Love

It is an Italian movie with a Russian protagonist played by a British actress, yet the tone of the film is set by the music of John Adams, arguably the preeminent American classical composer of the day. Though often considered part of the “minimalist” or ‘post-minimalist” movements, his compositions aptly underscore the sweeping, operatic style of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love. Though all of Adams’ music heard in the film was composed and recorded for previous commissions, it fits together seamlessly, sounding almost like a unified suite on the recently released IAL soundtrack CD.

Like the minimalists, Adams’ work is marked by frequent use of repeating figures, which is strikingly evident on the opening The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra). However, Adams uses these patterns to build into crescendos well befitting Guadagnino’s story of passion and tribulation. Written shortly after his opera Nixon in China, Adams has described it as an “outtake” from what is arguably his best known work, yet is has a big, full sound that kicks off the film and soundtrack quite effectively.

Very much an American composer, Adams’ work has been informed by composers like Charles Ives, as well as more colloquial forms, including rock & roll and jazz. Not especially pronounced on the IAL soundtrack, his jazz influences are probably best heard on Century Rolls: First Movement, a quiet, lilting piece derived from 1920’s piano rolls, composed for pianist Emanuel Ax, heard performing it with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Named for the ecstatic dancing of the nearly extinct Shaker religious movement, Shaker Loops II and III again nicely suits the on-screen drama, with its agitation resolving into a hypnotic trance. The centerpiece of the soundtrack is probably the selection from The Death of Klinghoffer. Unquestionably Adams’ most controversial work, it tells the story of the murder of wheel-chair bound Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer at the hands of Palestinian terrorists aboard the hijacked Achille Lauro. Klinghoffer’s family disavowed the opera, offended at the production’s apparent attempts to humanize the murderers and rationalize their motives. Regardless, when de-contextualized from its source production, it is powerful music, clearly portending tragedy through Adams’ choral arrangements and evocative use of synthesizers.

The concluding second two movements of Harmonielehre are at first elegiac than tumultuous, before segueing into the in-the-moment triumphalism that ultimately defines the spirit of the film. Indeed, Part III, Meister Eckhard and Quackie, inspired by a dream of his daughter (nick-named Quackie) with the German theologian who ran afoul of the inquisition, has a stirring emotional climax that frankly sounds cinematic.

Guadagnino married the music of John Adams to his dynamic visuals so perfectly, it is hard to imagine the film with a different soundtrack. Yet as a separate release, the IAL soundtrack holds up remarkably well, but also conjures visceral memories of the film for those who have seen it. Still, for those who have not caught up with the film (which is highly recommended), it serves as sort of a greatest hits compilation for the sort of contemporary classical composer who usually does not get such commercial packaging. A collection of some powerful music by an important voice in American music, the IAL soundtrack is now available at most major music retailers.

(Photo: Margaretta Mitchell)

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