Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hell Mouth

John Adams, the most successful composer, has been my top client for decades. Hey John, thanks for all the work! (I mean, really.)

But he has shown very unusual lack of judgment recently by starting his own blog, Hell Mouth. I think the picture which begat this strange name must have been taken by John's wife, the photographer Deborah O'Grady.

Hell Mouth is starting at a furious pace: he's written five posts, extensive essays, in a little over a week. Here at MM I feel overworked if I do five short posts a month. But I've been at this for a while (4 years last month) and understandably my enthusiasm has waned.

John is a good writer. His skills have been honed recently by his biography Hallelujah Junction. I like his adjectives.

One of John's posts is entitled: On Surviving a First Rehearsal discussing the composition and premier of his most recent work City Noir (actually his third symphony). The public perception of how a piece of music travels from a composer's brain to a concert stage is a complete mystery to nearly everyone - even to some musicians. My job puts me right in the middle of one facet of that process. This explains why a lot of people have no clue about what I do for a living.

John devotes one paragraph to me.
City Noir is so densely layered that I need two full manuscript pages to embrace all the parts. Hell for the copyist, who is nonetheless unfazed, a total pro. David—started out playing clarinet with Frank Zappa. After 24 years knows my intentions nearly well enough to fill out a line that I’ve forgotten to write out.
Very cool.

Bienvenido Gustavo on a newspaper vending machine
Later John mentions the first rehearsal of City Noir led by boy wonder Gustavo Dudamel in Walt Disney Hall. I was one of very few people allowed to listen. The musicians had prepared for the rehearsal but none of them could have much of an inkling how John intended their parts to fit together. Loud things came out soft. Soft things loud. It came apart. It came back together again. Somehow Dudamel kept it all racing along - the entire piece. When he conducts, his hair subdivides the beat.

The composer, conductor and all the players were hard at work. Their job was to make City Noir sound correct; they had a very limited time for this. On the other hand, my job had been completed weeks before. I was just hanging out, listening in a manner none of them could afford, following the score as it whipped past.

And I was blown away. A roller coaster with breakneck twists and turns could never be that much fun. It was a simply amazing, mind-blowing thirty minutes of music, as if the spirit of Charles Mingus had somehow gotten into the souls of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was rough. It was raw. It rocked. Most likely I was the only one there enjoying this experience, it was indeed a great time which I shall not soon forget. At the end I just laughed.

Of course, you could never intentionally make an orchestra play like that. You do not tell a symphony orchestra to "Wail". By the second rehearsal the piece was taking its proper shape. Each rehearsal refined the music a bit more. I liked the finished piece as well. It's also a wild ride. But not as wild as that first reading.

Future orchestras, preparing City Noir, will have recordings to refer to so players will know when to project and when to hold back. The one-time unique experience I witnessed, nothing at all like the piece itself, is lost forever.

Ivy the cat behind manuscript and proof copies from John Adams' Doctor Atomic 2006
John also mentions how the players ask him questions - including about the B Double Sharp. I heard a lot about this note before and during the rehearsals. For you non-musicians, a B Double Sharp is a completely theoretical musical notation - it sounds the same as the familiar pitch C sharp. I can't think of a reason it would ever be used legitimately. Any suggestions?

This particular B Double Sharp is played by the Second Violins, Violas and Second Trumpet in measure 183 of movement one of City Noir. I just checked again. It really is in the manuscript - twice. Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have just changed it to a C#. The music would have sounded identical and no one would have noticed. Even the composer himself.

John Adams & David Ocker, at premier of Transmigration of Souls 2002
Read about how I was reduced to tears by a performance of one of John's pieces.
Read any or all of the Mixed Meters posts tagged "John Adams".

Hell Mouth Tags: . . . . . .


Scott Fessler said...

I'm so very jealous. So very, very jealous. Couldn't you have smuggled in some little digital recorder?

David Ocker said...

Not only could I have smuggled, I did. The point-n-shoot which is always in my pocket has an audio record mode. Had I known what was about to happen I might have whipped it out. But I didn't. Let me assure everyone involved: I didn't.

ericnp said...

I try to be double sharp as often as possible.

Anonymous said...

Never mind me. I'm just a little bird over here on the window sill listening in. Can't contribute much to the conversation but enjoyed the seven minutes you linked to. Great that you were there for the magic

MarK said...

A very important update:
After the first couple of rehearsals, the composer wisely changed the absurd B-double-sharp to a nice and comfortable B-sharp.

David Ocker said...

MarkK - It took a while, but today John finally confirmed to me that you're absolutely correct. It IS a B Sharp. Still, future musicologists will always have the original manuscript to ponder the existential meaning of that double sharp.

So how did you know he had made that decision? (As if I couldn't guess.)