Wednesday, January 31, 2007

John Adams

I went to the Barbican on Sunday night to hear John Adams conducting three of his own pieces. In a way, this was homework for the forthcoming revival of Nixon in Greece; but, as so often, the real benefits were elsewhere. I'd wanted for some time to hear On the Transmigration of Souls, which is John's response to 9/11. It's a stunning piece - with the music emerging from a city soundscape, and the recorded voice of a boy repeating the word "Missing, Missing". The ambiguity of the single word sets the tone for the whole piece: even its title has double meanings: the souls of the dead migrate and transform, but so, in a time of crisis, do those of the living. The cataclysm of 2001 has shifted so many souls into a different space, whether we accept it or not.

But the piece which truly amazed me was John's concerto for an electric violin: The Dharma at Big Sur. Against a classical orchestra, Leila Josefowicz was like a combination of Dave Gilmour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And this use of styles from outside the Western classical tradition questions and probes the canonical value of that tradition, just as we try to do with Border Crossings. It's to do with realising what political, social and moral values our limited approach to music or theatre implies, and expanding it to incorporate alternative views - to be in dialogue with those views. To accept the world we live in. In The Dharma at Big Sur, this is done by using the way in which Asian and African music really exists, is most alive, in the space between the notes - is as dependent on the journeying, the slurring, the leaps and slides of the performer as it is on what is written. And this should also be true of our theatre - in the 21st century we have to move away from a narrow reliance on the textual tradition (the notes), and work instead with the musicality of transition and journeying.

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