John Adams: Guide to Strange Places


Guide to Strange Places


John Adams (composer)


Doctor Atomic Symphony (Nonesuch 468220)

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John Adams (composer),

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson


Recorded: No info given; CD released in 2009


Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

John Adams's most perfectly realized music is often his most inhuman. In Nixon in China, he is better at evoking the President's jet The Spirit of 76—brilliantly realized by the composer—than the Trickster-in-Chief himself. In the Doctor Atomic Symphony (which shares the CD with Guide to Strange Places), the topic may be scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, but listeners may feel they are following a musical portrait of the nuclear particles rather than the controversial nuclear physicist. Watch the electron resolve into its tonic key proton! Hearing Adams, I am often reminded of José Ortega y Gasset's 1925 prediction that, in the modern era, creative minds would aim to dehumanize art, or the even earlier forecast of T.E. Hulme that the day would arrive when engineering drawings would belong in the Louvre. No, only a big glass and metal pyramid has shown up there so far. But Adams is part of the same ethos that brought it to the doorstep.

Yet Guide to Strange Places, composed in 2001, is something else altogether, a psychological exploration that taps into deeper currents than one usually finds in the minimalist playbook. Adams took inspiration for his title from a French guidebook that he stumbled across at a farmhouse during a vacation in Provence. However, the "strange places" he eventually came to probe in this piece seem to be situated between the Id and Ego rather than Avignon and Cannes. The rhythmic vitality comes from a conception that ostensibly balances the old moto perpetuo and the modern groove, but it is countered by moments of quasi-stasis that still retain a surprising amount of emotional bite. This is the composer at his most mature, and demonstrating an uncanny skill in channeling his personality through a symphony orchestra. The result may be a guide to strange places, but they are also the same ones that we inhabit everyday.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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