Tag Archives: John Adams

Sanford Sylvan: a legend

Sad to hear of the passing of the great American baritone, Sanford Sylvan, who has died at the age of 65.

I grew up listening to his recording of John Adams’ moving The Wound-Dresser, a meditative reflection on the First World War based on Walt Whitman’s recollections of serving as a hospital volunteer, in which Sylvan is a commanding presence, yet also an intimate one; the recording was nominated for a Grammy.

Sylvan also created the role of Chou En-lai in Adams’ opera, Nixon in China; there is a wonderful moment in the final act, where Sylvan’s elegant craft at the phrase ‘The taste is still in my mouth’ as Chou En-lai and Pat Nixon recall the taste of apricots, which is a joy to year.

I had the great fortune to hear Sylvan live in 2002, in a concert performance of Adams’ controversial opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, in an electrifying delivery of the title role. His warm, communicative and expressive singing will be sorely missed.

A legend.

Contemporary music: is it beyond our reach ?

Contemporary music festivals are often perceived as being notoriously expensive. They can need dedicated professionals working at the peak of their powers to realise extremely demanding repertoire, Rolls Royce ensembles, high-profile conductors. Scores and music are expensive to hire or purchase. The music can be fiendishly difficult both to execute and to comprehend: or of course, the music of composers like Howard Skempton and Michael Nyman, which is challenging in a different way. Brash, modern ensembles, amplified instruments, electronics, a battery of percussion: think of groups like Icebreaker, the Orkest de Volharding, or Bang On a Can.

Commensurately, ticket prices can be high, as festival organisers endeavour to recoup some of the cost.

This is, of course, not true. Or at least – not always.

The widespread nature of this misconception is a shame, because contemporary music is part of the lifeblood of contemporary culture. It reflects modern concerns, resonating with the sounds of urban life and society’s hang-ups: the forthcoming opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage is a meditation on the life and untimely death of Anna Nicole Smith. Contemporary music can be riotous and fun: think of the music of Graham Fitkin or John Adams, with its exciting rhythmic vibrancy. It is a way of engaging with current issues, and making audiences consider political or social issues: Nixon in China, for example.

The music of Xenakis might not be the most accessible of modern compositions – Psappha for percussion solo, for instance.

But it has great conviction, and great virtuosity: seeing the performer is as much a part of the performance as listening to the piece itself. Toru Takemitsu’s wonderful soundscapes are full of colour and luminosity.

American composers such as Michael Torke or Nico Mulhy write music brim-full of rhythmic energy and bouncing textures. Torke’s saxophone quartet, July, is full of funky lines, bouncing rhythm and punchy textures.

Or, on the other hand, the contemplative scores of Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, or another Adams, John Luther Adams’ evocative In a Treeless Place, Only Snow.

And modern music concerts can be heard at the Proms for a mere £5, like Prom 28 with pieces by Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin; or discounted on-line prices to hear Stockhausen and Rebecca Saunders at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Or for £8, you could have had a ticket to hear David Matthews and John Casken at the recent Brighton Festival. 

It’s an exciting time for contemporary music, and it’s not always inaccessible, incomprehensible, or expensive. Don’t let it pass you by.

Another Adams: composer John Luther Adams.

It’s always exciting to discover a new composer whose musical language instantly appeals to you.

I can still recall the exact moment when I first heard a piece by Steve Reich: Vermount Counterpoint. I was immediately hooked.  A pal at school had made a compilation tape of pieces for me, including Eight Lines, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, Six Pianos, and a piece by another Minimalist, John Adams, Grand Pianola Music. Now my listening library is dominated by these two composers.

John Luther AdamsI’ve recently discovered another Adams: John Luther Adams, whose hypnotic music occupies a similar niche. The beautiful soundscape of In a Treeless Place, Only Snow  is a delicate gem.

Listen to it for yourself: In a Treeless Place, Only Snow.

And if you like that, try this: The Farthest Place.

Both performances by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, with other pieces streamed from WXQR, the classical radio station in New York’s website here as well.

(And continuing the leap into the Digital Age: you’re now using a media player on this blog as well. Blogs, virtual magazines, video-clips, floating media player: the modernisation continues!)

So, what music struck you like a thunderbolt early on and has stayed with you ever since ?