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Out of the Box: The John Adams Album

Picture of composer John Adams looking at the camera, holding music manuscripts
Margaretta Mitchell
Composer John Adams

"Common Tones in Simple Time" is featured on a 'minimalist' album brimming with sublime subtlety, which, like so many things in life, is much more than it first appears. 

WHAT: Montréal Symphony Orchestra, Kent Nagano: The John Adams Album

MUSIC LISTEN: John Adams's "Common Tones in Simple Time" 

WHY THIS MUSIC: The Montréal Symphony Orchestra's The John Adams Album presents some of John Adams’s most spectacular orchestral works. Included are the Schoenberg-inspired “Harmonielehre,” the fast-paced “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” and Adams’s first minimalist orchestral work, our focus this week on Out of the Box, “Common Tones in Simple Time.”

This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand.

Minimalism is, broadly speaking, a compositional style characterized by simplicity and repetition -- think of it as music stripped down to the chassis. There is something deeply mesmerizing about minimalism, especially in the hands of composer John Adams.

In the late Seventies there were very few models for an Minimalist orchestral style. So in a certain sense, I felt both the excitement as well as the challenge of venturing in to uncharted terrain. - John Adams, on 'Common Tones in Simple Time'

Minimalism grew out of one of the more heated musical debates of the 20th century: what should Western “classical” music be? Should it be deeply complex, cerebral, and impenetrable? Should it be big and richly colorful, shot through with meaning and story? Or should it be undecorated and simple, aiming for a sonic and rhythmic aesthetic above all else?

Composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg believed firmly in the first, creating atonal and mathematically derived serial compositions. Gustav Mahler, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Richard Strauss were deeply committed to the second, following in the footsteps of Romantics like Brahms and Wagner. But the “minimalists,” composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and eventually John Adams, disavowed the central tenets of either of those compositional philosophies and set about creating something simpler than atonal music and without the narrative aspects of the Romantics.

It was... minimal.

I really enjoy the driving subtlety of minimalism because I find it really easy to become enveloped in it. And I find John Adams, of all the early minimalist composers (having come to the style nearly a decade after it was first invented in Manhattan in the 1960s), the most interesting to listen to. As writer Michael Steinberg puts it, John Adams's works are “full of surprises, always enchanting in the glow and gleam of their sonority, and bursting with the energy generated by their harmonic movement.” It's as though John Adams took aspects of all three of the aforementioned 20th-century schools of compositional thought, and wove them into his own unequivocably unique sound tapestry.

It's not simple music. It's just minimal, and mesmerizingly so.

To find out more about John Adams's music, visit his fantastic website, Earbox, where he writes beautifully about his music and influences. 

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.