I’m preparing John Adams’s clarinet concerto Gnarly Buttons as part of the program of my masters exam in clarinet performance. While analyzing and mentally studying it, two questions came to mind:
1) Why does the music of John Adams always sound like John Adams?
2) Why does the music of John Adams always sound American, and thus what makes American music American?
For the first question I found a more or less satisfying answer in a thesis entitled John Adams’s Gnarly Buttons: Issues of History, Performance and Style by Anthony Gordon Taylor. In the introduction he paraphrases Catherine Ann Pellegrino:
Some theorists and composers were dismissive of the [minimal] music because it provided nothing to analyze, no “inner secret” to discover. While some methodology for the analysis of minimal music has since developed, much musical analysis falls within the category of formalism, which seeks a deeper truth or unity in a piece that is likely not clearly visible in the foreground.
Some of these new methods for the analysis of minimal music (and therefore also other 20th century music) are explained further on, and a partly analysis of these findings within Gnarly Buttons is given. Gordon Taylor furthermore documents the history of the piece, and research he has done about performance issues, through interviews with performers and other people included in the process of bringing Gnarly Buttons to life on stage.
Reading this thesis helped me understand the “story” behind the concerto, it made me see some elements in the piece I might want to embellish more for certain reasons while performing. And, in order to answer my first question, it explained to me what makes John Adams’s style.
Considering the second question, it is important to take in mind the history of American music. This is explained in Adams’s autobiography Hallelujah Junction:
Classical music is essentially an urban experience. Concert halls, symphony orchestras, opera companies, manufacturers of instruments, sheet-music publishers, and music conservatories all thrive in cities, and American cities throughout the nineteenth century were rough and disorganized collision points of mostly poor immigrants struggling for survival. Culture in the cities was coarse and vulgar. What passed for refinement were more often than not secondhand versions of novels, plays, paintings, and sculpture from Europe. […] A homegrown, truly indigenous American poetical expression, gradually began to take hold shortly after the Civil War. That war itself was so devastating to the national psyche that it may have precipitated a new maturity in the minds of the country’s artists.
As to what makes American music America, let our good friend Leonard Bernstein explain that to you: