Just Walking Around in John Adams’s City Noir

Adams NSO IMG_0294_edited-2Melodies appear as inexplicably as a dirty blond in Philip Marlowe’s office.
—Mark Swed, reviewing City Noir

The first time I visited Los Angeles, a friend took me to a favorite taco place, a low-slung building trapped under a freeway labyrinth. Another time, I was part of a Writers Guild negotiations team. In my infirm recollection, nighttime had a feel at once seedy and glamorous: swank hotels cheek by jowl with crumbling stucco buildings, sidewalks empty of walkers, sulfurous street lamps piercing the dark. The city seemed an unnavigable maze, with a culture I couldn’t fathom.

 L.A. has Hollywood, of course, and that peculiar form of stargazing its existence prompts. Like anyone, I enjoy a good movie, but I’m hardly a movie buff. My idea of a good time these days is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and, while I always enjoy old Bogart movies, I didn’t realize that some were in a genre called film noir, nor did I have a clear idea what that meant. So when confronted with John Adams’s City Noir, a musical evocation of post-war Los Angeles and film noir that Adams describes as “an imaginary film score,” I didn’t have many receptors for it.

Adams wrote that the idea for City Noir came from “reading the so-called ‘Dream’ books by Kevin Starr.”

In the “Black Dahlia” chapter of his Embattled Dreams volume Starr chronicles the tenor and milieu of the late Forties and early Fifties as it was expressed in the sensational journalism of the era and in the dark, eerie chiaroscuro of the Hollywood films that have come to define the period sensibility for us:

“…the underside of home-front and post-war Los Angeles stood revealed. Still, for all its shoddiness, the City of Angels possessed a certain sassy, savvy energy. It was, among other things, a Front Page kind of town where life was lived by many on the edge, and that made for good copy and good film noir.”

Those images and their surrounding aura whetted my appetite for an orchestral work that, while not necessarily referring to the soundtracks of those films, might nevertheless evoke a similar mood and feeling tone of the era.

City Noir didn’t sound like any of the works by John Adams I’d come to know and embrace. But I was curious, not to mention encouraged by a very reliable source to keep listening, so I did. While City Noir remained a bit of a foreign object—so unlike The Dharma at Big Sur, which I took to at once—there was something about it that “had legs,” and I wanted to know more.

The next step in listening was clear. As another very reliable source had advised, “with some pieces you need the trifecta experience: listen to it, hear it live, and listen to it with a score.” I knew from personal experience it was true. Getting hold of a score for City Noir was going to be difficult, so I set my sights first on a chance to hear it live.

The Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center

The chance came this May in what might be the polar opposite of American cities from Los Angeles: Washington, D.C. John Adams had been in residence at the Library of Congress for a week and would be conducting a program at the Kennedy Center, the “grand finale” of which was City Noir. Among the Sirens beckoning me to make the trip was a chance to hear pianist Jeremy Denk play Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. I’d been alerted by yet another reliable source (among many) about Denk’s brilliance, so the chance to hear him play Ravel was certainly a draw. The trip would also enable me to meet “live” one of the great people from my ModPo course on his home ground (and at that point I didn’t even know about the stunning exhibit at the National Gallery we’d end up taking in).

I was particularly curious about the choice of concert programming. The line-up was Respighi’s Fontane di Roma, to which I’d only recently been introduced (though for many it’s old hat), the Ravel, and City Noir. What was the concept here? What was the “through line” that led from Respighi to Ravel to, of all things, City Noir?

One reviewer saw the program as a set of “city pieces.” While Respighi’s and Adams’s pieces are certainly meant to evoke place, of Ravel’s I’m not so sure—yes, it’s redolent of its time and place, but for me the connecting thread between the Ravel and City Noir is jazz. That, though, would leave Respighi out of the loop.

NSO Behind the Stage IMG_0291_edited-1On the first night, I had a chance to sit behind the stage. (As it meant the sound would likely be distorted, I booked an orchestra seat for a second night.) From behind the stage, not only could I see Adams conduct as the orchestra would, but I had a bird’s eye view of the percussion, woodwinds, and brass, usually seen as bobbing heads behind the strings. In all three pieces, I noticed that they had a lot to do. (Instrumentation for each piece is included at the end of the post.)

What emerged for me as I listened was this: Adams had put himself in the line of two acknowledged masters of orchestration, an audacious move, and high-risk, particularly as he put his work last in line, instead of first. For orchestral color, the bet paid off. Adams knows how to orchestrate, and he never, ever phones it in. Every instrument he chose for City Noir, he knew how to use well, evoking from a rich and inventive instrumental palette a complex musical vision of L.A. And he did it all without, so far as I know, resorting to electronic effects or extended techniques, on which I think some contemporary composers lean in a frantic desire to “make it new.”

The shape of the piece, though, continued to elude me, and I was not alone. Adams had to have known of this issue; his remarks before the piece began were a guide to listening—and they helped, though not enough. The Respighi, a symphonic poem, and the Ravel, a concerto, each had a readily recognizable architecture; City Noir does not. I went back to the reviews to see what I could glean.

There’s no consensus. The reviews of performances in L.A., where it premiered, New York, London, and D.C., are all over the lot, though a number of them do raise questions about the structure of the piece. (Excerpts from and links to reviews are at the end of the post.)

I’ve kept on listening, to see what I think, with increasing wonder and delight. I’m beginning to suspect that part of the trap for reviewers is the attempt to fit the work into a conventional symphony box. It doesn’t fit; it’s something else, though I don’t know what. And I don’t think I care. Each time I listen, I make new discoveries—those “dirty blond” melodies Swed notes, for one. It’s as if I were just walking around, John Ashbery-style, in the post-war L.A. Adams so headily evokes.  In a gesture Ashbery, a true movie buff, might enjoy, John Adams has imagined the soundtrack; imagining the movie is up to us.

The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there, and mystery and food.

—John Ashbery, from Just Walking Around


Postscript: City Noir is the third piece in Adams’s Californian Triptych, the first two of which are El Dorado and The Dharma at Big Sur. City Noir is slated to be recorded for release in 2014 (see last entry in postscript below).

Coming up: Adams wrote the sizzling saxophone solo for City Noir, only to discover that no one he knew could play it. He went looking, and found, he thinks on YouTube, Timothy McAllister.  McAllister relates that, when sent the score and asked if he could play the solo part, “at the time, whether I could or couldn’t play it, I was going to say yes.” If you want to know how good McAllister is, here’s a clue: Adams is writing a Saxophone Concerto for him, to be premiered this year and recorded, together with City Noir, in 2014 (details below).

Sydney, Australia (World Premiere, August 22-23, 2013, Adams conducting)

Baltimore, MD (U.S. Premiere, September 20-22, 2013, Marin Alsop conducting)

St. Louis, MO (October 5-6, 2013, David Robertson conducting)

Nonesuch Recording of the Concerto and City Noir (2014): As reported by the St. Louis Symphony in its press release (link above): “The October 5-6, 2013 performances of a new John Adams’ concerto written for saxophone, a St. Louis Symphony co-commission and premiere, will be recorded by Nonesuch Records for release in 2014. (Nonesuch also records the St. Louis Symphony’s February 16, 2013 performance of Adams’ City Noir for this CD.)”


Listening List

On Spotify:

City Noir and the Saxophone Concerto (Robertson/St. Louis Symphony) (review of CD on Iowa Public Radio)

Californian Triptych—Parts 1-2


Jeremy Denk, Bach Partitas

On YouTube:

City Noir (Robertson/St. Louis Symphony), Part I. The City and its Double


Notes on the Instrumentation


woodwinds: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons

brass: 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba

percussion: including timpani, chimes, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, orchestra bells, glockenspiel

keyboards: organ, piano, celesta

strings include 2 harps


woodwinds: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet and E-flat soprano clarinet, 2 bassoons

brass: 2 horns, trumpet, trombone

percussion: timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, wood block, whip

keyboards: piano

strings include 1 harp

City Noir:

woodwinds: piccolo, 3 flutes (one doubling on piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets (one doubling on bass clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone

brass: 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba

percussion: timpani, 6-person percussion battery, including a jazz drummer, consisting of 3 bass drums, 3 bongo drums, 2 castanets, 2 chimes, claves, conga drum, 2 cowbells, 2 crotales, 3 glockenspiels, 20 tuned gongs, high hat, marimba, ride cymbal, snare drum, 6 suspended cymbals, 2 tam-tams, 2 tambourines, 2 temple blocks, 4 timbales, 2 triangles, 2 vibraphones, xylophone

keyboards: piano, celesta

strings include 2 harps

(For comparison, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 has this instrumentation: Flute, 2 Oboes, 2 Bassoons + 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets + Timpani + Strings)


Excerpts from reviews

LA World Premiere Performance (Dudamel/LA Philharmonic):

L.A. Times (Swed): Swed makes no generalized statements, but here’s a glimpse: “The third movement, “Boulevard Night,” . . . is a CinemaScope sunrise . . . followed by a dazzling trumpet solo [and] a knockout finale.”

New York Times (Tommasini): “It is not easy to evoke the milieu of an era in music. . . . Mr. Adams does so brilliantly in this searching, experimental de facto symphony.”

London Premiere (2010; Adams/LSO)

The Arts Desk (Nice): ” . . . he remains true to his role as poet of those nocturnal songs which first haunted us in the first Emily Dickinson setting of Harmonium and the evasive last act of Nixon in China back in the 1980s. The LSO strings were the right players to handle these slinky melodies that insinuate themselves into the first-movement speed around the LA boulevards.

“Throwing in a smoochy alto sax (Simon Haram), a trombone homage to Lawrence Brown and what Adams calls a “Chinatown” trumpet solo, eloquently taken by Roderick Franks at the incantatory start of the third movement, might have marked a new departure, but all are subsumed in the familiar Adams nightscape. Repetitious or just true to himself? I can’t decide. What I do know is that the familiar Adams hallmark of flying, of moving onwards through space is something few of his contemporaries can master; maybe not even Stravinsky himself could do that in later years. Our most deservedly popular living composer has never lost the key to the fast machine that takes us on such magical mystery tours.”

New York Performance (Adams/musicians from the orchestras of the Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music):

New York Times (Tommasini): “ . . . this score is in fact a wondrously strange and complex symphony.”

London Performance (Adams/musicians from the orchestras of the Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music):

Guardian (Hall): “ . . . too much of the material is undistinguished, and the piece goes on too long for its own good.”

The Arts Desk (Brown): “Here were three baggy movements, forced to struggle towards symphonic breadth without the musical argument and architecture to make the goal achievable.”

Classical Source (Breckenfield):  “ . . . his music is a world away from the minimalist school with whom he seems indelibly associated. Surely Adams’s music is ‘maximalist’ – yes, he utilises motoring rhythms, but he has Martinů’s skill at composing continually shifting soundworlds, and Respighi’s knack of orchestral colouring, complete with, here, a Honegger-like Pacific 231 impression of slowly accelerating massive chords in the final movement as if one of those immensely long American freight trains is running through the heart of the city. Adams’s score teams with atmospheric incident, so easy to imagine what it might accompany.”

DC Performance (Adams/National Symphony Orchestra):

The Washington Post (Midgette): “My reservation about this impressive work is precisely that it doesn’t stop. Its unremitting intensity, deliberate though it be, becomes, to my ear, a too-insistent assertion of its own importance. It’s a Big Work that lets you know it is, though it’s full of moments of brilliance that leave you no choice but to applaud.”

Seen and Heard International (Reilly): “From the evidence here, I have no trouble believing that Adams could write a very fine noir score, but I think this work will have trouble standing on its own.”


Credits: The Swed quotation at the head of the post may be found here. The “imaginary film score” and McAllister quotations are from my notes from the NSO post-performance talk, May 30, 2013. The quotation about Starr’s books as a source of inspiration may be found here. The “trifecta experience” quotation, from Lucy Dhegrae, may be found here. The “city pieces” quotation may be found here. The quotation from John Ashbery’s Just Walking Around may be found here. The notes on instrumentation are from the NSO program notes, supplemented with information from IMSLP/Petrucci; the review excerpts are at the links indicated at each excerpt.

18 thoughts on “Just Walking Around in John Adams’s City Noir

  1. David N

    I’m not sure that City Noir is an Adams score I’d especially want to return to, though as you point out it’s masterly in the orchestral colourings. Helpful of you to provide the instrumentation of all three pieces. At the time Adams conducted it in London – with, if I remember right, a rather faceless performance of Sibelius Sixth and the Stravinsky Concerto for piano and winds with Denk, superb as always – he did not have the mastery over the players I found in those revelatory three concerts earlier this year.

    Anyway, good to see you back and roll on the Saxophone Concerto!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David N: I’m not surprised that City Noir isn’t a keeper for you, and I wonder if you might not agree with Brown’s assessment on TAD, particularly as to structure. I have had some trouble coming to grips with this piece, yet found it kept enticing me back. I think, for me, what he does with orchestral color, and the wonderful solo parts for brass and the sax, keep me with it, in the first instance. Thereafter, I’m intrigued by what he’s after in the way he’s designed the piece and carries it forward.

      It’s a little, for me, like my own (limited) experience of Los Angeles and film noir—sometimes brash, sometimes sultry, and overall a circuitous maze. In this regard, I found Mark Swed’s take, as an LA “insider,” interesting—he may be inclined favorably toward the piece to begin with—but he’s also bringing to his listening the ethos of LA, and I suspect it makes a difference. I contrast Dharma, which I loved immediately and still love, but there I know and love the landscape Adams is evoking, so the associations came fast and thick.

      As for conducting, of course I don’t have your experienced ears, so I can’t really judge. It’s going to be interesting to listen to the recorded version, conducted by David Robertson (whom I’ve assumed will be conducting the Sax Concerto on the recording as well).

      1. David N

        Well, there’s another point: I’ve never braved LA – only the airport on the way to San Francisco – so that layer of evocativeness is closed to me as yet. There must be so many different LAs, of course: from films (Altman’s Short Cuts especially) and books I can’t piece it all together. Anyway, my impression of City Noir is so far based only on one superficial, albeit live, encounter. It’s only by Adams’s own extraordinarily high standards that I’m less keen to revisit it than to hear so many of his other works again and again.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David N: Well, now we have your review of City Noir, too, and I’d say you do it justice, with appropriate reservations. What’s more, unlike anyone else, you place it within the context of other Adams works. I’m particularly struck by your comparison of City Noir’s finale to the finale to Naive and Sentimental Music. I’ll have to go back now and listen to them side-by-side.

  2. NC

    Thank you for the invitation to listen to City Noir. I have and I enjoyed it. Im no expert on orchestral music but Im willing to say what it evoked for me; it is the majestically controlled sounds of a frenetic and vibrant city that speaks of danger, subtly, possible unemployment, poverty, insatiable traffic and organised chaos which is the lot of many modern cities. Maybe Im completely wrong but I did enjoy it. Thank you Susan.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      NC: How pleased I am that you accepted the invitation! I love the way you’ve described your own journey into the piece. After I read what you wrote, I was listening again and, your words in mind, I began to picture the nighttime freeway labyrinth thronged with cars, so the whole became a rushing stream of headlights. I think you’ve given here some great frames for the imagined movie, and I hope others will take inspiration from what you’ve written and offer more.

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    What a great opportunity to to have seen the piece from two very different points of view, in particular to have seen Adams conduct. Earlier this week I went to the opera (Ariadne auf Naxos), sat in the middle of the auditorium, then an acquaintance invited me up to the second row from the stage, and what a difference. From that close I could hear them breathe; I was practically onstage with them.

    ‘City Noir’ is indeed a busy piece, without any obvious structural similarities to traditional works – hard to assess on a first listen. Gotta love the Washington Post reviewer, applauding almost against her will.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Midgette’s comment (applauding against her will is a great way to put it) was amusing, wasn’t it? I think it might just sum up the conundrum presented by this piece. If it weren’t for John Ashbery, I’d probably still be at sea! It was tremendous to be able to go twice and get such different vantage points. That was a bit of a luxury, but then the whole trip was.

      And, speaking of “going twice,” here’s a bit of serendipity for you: I, too, have just in the past couple days heard Ariadne twice! Not live, but two different productions. It turns out this is one of David Nice’s favorite operas. David was at Glyndebourne attending and speaking about it, and I learned from him that Glyndebourne livestreams its operas, so I watched, while at the same time, I’d ordered up a DVD of a Met Opera production with Voigt and Dessay that he recommended. The two productions were wildly different, so fascinating to watch them in close succession. David has a very interesting discussion about the Glyndebourne production on his blog here: http://davidnice.blogspot.com/2013/06/why-glyndebournes-ariadne-works-for-me.html. Apparently, the Glyndebourne production can still be viewed, until 8/31 (David provides a link), and there is a podcast in which David talks about the opera, as well. Did you know the opera, and, whether or not, what did you think of the production you saw? (I didn’t know the opera and was very happy to be introduced to it.)

      1. Mark Kerstetter

        Sue: thanks very much for this. I’ve bookmarked the Glyndebourne video and will be sure to watch it. The opera was completely new to me when I went to see it last Tuesday. The production I saw was traditional – perhaps similar to the Met version on your dvd, although much lower budget. Ariadne and Bacchus were presented as mythic heroes, which did not prevent me from identifying with them. For one thing, I reminded myself that the Greek gods were more like humans than the gods of the major religions. I almost cried when Bacchus sang, “Your suffering enriches me; your suffering enriches the whole world.” The prologue was set during the time the opera was written, and I thought a production that placed it in contemporary times would be more effective. I like the idea of an up to date Prologue and an ancient mythic Act 2 (think of Anne Carson). But I’m eager to see the modern war setting for Act 2.

        Of the operas I’ve seen so far (maybe a couple dozen) this is my second favorite (Turandot is # 1). I was not prepared to be impacted so deeply. But shortly into it I couldn’t help but notice how sophisticated the libretto was, despite what was probably a mediocre English translation in the supertitles. Most opera librettos, as you know, are terrible. This one is sublime. I noticed that first, then noticed that the music is equally sublime.

        I read Nice’s post and the comment stream, and may perhaps chime in in a day or two, if I feel I have anything to contribute. I want to listen to his podcast and watch the opera first. Also, I’m planning to write a few words about the opera, the libretto and the experience of seeing it live in the context of postmodernism. Your view of a kind of duel or contrast of high with low art is interesting; it is certainly an opera of contrasts. But as you pointed out, the music itself is high art all the way. It seems to me too that comedy can be high and tragedy can be low. I would love to see a production that kept that in mind. The one I saw fell a little flat, in my opinion, on the comedy side ( a bit of overacting, in my opinion). Only the greatest artists (like Beckett or Shakespeare) can combine the two without cheapening one or the other. It is clear from the way it is written that this opera is a triumph of that.

        Thanks again!

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Mark: I will definitely look forward to your post on Ariadne. I’ve just listened again to the podcast, such a gift to have it as an introduction to this opera, which works, as I’m learning bit by bit, on so many levels. Glyndebourne has given us all a great gift in making the commentary and operas available like this, hasn’t it?

  4. shoreacres

    It’s interesting that the cover of the current “New Yorker” fiction issue has a theme that’s a bit of a cross between film noir and the pulps from the 1930s and 1940s. Also, your first paragraph beautifully evokes the same feeling as the lyrics of “Memories” from the musical “Cats”. The street lamp is the key, I suppose.

    One of my favorite sets of photographs is a series of urban Los Angeles taken by Ansel Adams. Yes, I know. He’s Mr. Half-Dome. But I think if you want something to look through while listening to “City Noir” just for pleasure rather than study, you hardly could do better than Ansel Adams’ Lost Los Angeles Found. And, if you click the link for the excerpt in the upper left, you’ll find at the bottom information on how to find the complete set from the LA Library online.

    So there you are. I’m sure you didn’t expect pulp-quality cover art, “Cats” and Ansel Adams, but I’m completely out of my depth when it comes to the music, so I’ll just toss in my little bits and poke around a bit more!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: These are great contributions! I had no idea “the other Adams” had photographed Los Angeles. Thanks so much for the link. I also noticed that New Yorker cover and thought much the same thing. I like the association to Memories, too. Just went to look at those lyrics, and, for all, here’s a bit on the street lamps:

      Every streetlamp
      Seems to beat a fatalistic warning
      Someone mutters
      And the streetlamp gutters
      And soon it will be morning . . .

      Burnt out ends of smoky days
      The stale cold smell of morning
      The streetlamp dies, another night is over
      Another day is dawning

      Thanks for all!

  5. angela

    Well…it goes to show that I’ve no musical taste for as I read your post, read the reviews, read the comments all the while listening to the YouTube, I’ve become smitten…waiting for Sam Spade to lurk from behind a frosted door with a thick rolled Cuban… is the fabulous alto sax then Sam Yes, it is a bit dramatic, but that is a noir, no? Now that I have you and MK’s convo reminding me to check to see if I can go to Elektra opera in the next few, I dare say this would be a most fascinating score for a contemporary opera – (oh my, at 26 min mark and the horn solo is beautiful – either the moon is rising (or the sun) on the damp streets of the dirty city while our protagonist searches for his nemesis…)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: You absolutely made my day with this. I love that, as you listened, you drew such wonderful associations and shared them here. Isn’t that horn solo beautiful? As for the sax, how astonishing that was to hear live. I can’t wait to hear Timothy McAllister on the Sax Concerto Adams is composing for him. Adams, by the way, comes by his jazz credentials honestly. As he writes on his website, “The clarinet was my first instrument. I learned it from my father, who played it in small swing bands in New England during the Depression era. He was my first and most important teacher, sitting in the front room with me, patiently counting out rhythms and checking my embouchure and fingering. Benny Goodman was a role model, and several of his recordings–in particular the 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert and a Mozart album with the Boston Symphony Orchestra–were played so often in the house that they almost became part of the furniture.”

      As for taste, I say, trust your taste. After all, look how very differently different reviewers heard the piece, so, no matter what any of us think, it seems we have company. One of the reasons I like David Nice’s reviews so much is the way he goes beyond matters of taste, including putting a given piece in context, as here Adams’s piece is put in context of the rest of his work. I learn a great deal from his reviews. In the case of this one, I’ve set up to listen to the finales of Naive and Sentimental Music and City Noir now, and it’s fascinating to hear them side-by-side. There is something quite characteristic about Adams’s music that I hear in each, and I think David has it down with this from his review: “What I do know is that the familiar Adams hallmark of flying, of moving onwards through space is something few of his contemporaries can master; maybe not even Stravinsky himself could do that in later years. Our most deservedly popular living composer has never lost the key to the fast machine that takes us on such magical mystery tours.”

      Now as for Elektra, that’s another Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration. I bet it’s a beauty, too. I’ve never seen it, so, if you do go, I hope you’ll report back!

  6. newleafsite

    Susan, this post is not where I read you talking about “The Leopard,” but comments on the previous post are closed. I think somewhere you spoke of also having watched the film version starring Burt Lancaster, which brings me to my point. Over Mark Kerstetter’s way you mentioned “The Swimmer” as a favorite short story, and I wonder whether you have seen the movie version of that, also starring Burt Lancaster, in an excellent portrayal of the character. Thought you might enjoy it. Hope you’re having a good summer break! — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Thanks for the tip on that–I can’t recall whether I’ve seen the movie or not and will keep an eye out for it. Speaking of movies (this time of the film noir variety), I’m curious to know your reaction to City Noir, too, if you care to say.

  7. newleafsite

    Susan, my reaction is, in a word, surprise. I should begin by saying that I always read your posts with interest, because while I sometimes like the subject, I always enjoy your writing. You seem to connect easily with contemporary arts, and I do only on occasion. And the same is true of orchestral music – I’m much more inclined to something small and quiet. So when I read of your initial struggle with City Noir, I did not anticipate being able to appreciate it at all, myself. Having to listen to it three ways seems like too much work: liking it should come easily. So my first reaction to your post was pure admiration for staying with it, based on your fondness for the composer and his other pieces. You have read a little of my effort to understand some contemporary art, and I really do have to turn my mind inside out to get from here to there.

    Listening to City Noir, I am surprised that it feels so familiar. Because I know what the title refers to, I am prepared for the imagined accompanying visual. And what I hear sounds like the score to some of the darker films I’ve seen, especially those which seem all foreboding, where from the opening scene the music and shadows tell you that .. let’s just say it’s not going to end well for somebody, and he may have to listen to a soliloquy on his crimes, before his time is over. Not all films let the viewer finish with a scene in the sunshine. As someone who, while not a buff, enjoys a number of movies in this genre, I find the Adams work to be an interpretation a bit different from what I might have conceived. I like the movies that include a little wit and banter, the snappy dialogue found in the fiction that inspired some of them, and if possible an ending with some hope in it. But that would just be my way, and this is Adams and how he sees and hears it.

    I confess that, until you asked my opinion, I hadn’t yet listened. And then you asked, and I thought, uh-oh, cornered! So .. from my corner .. I like it! No live listening, no score, just dark alleys and shadowy figures lingering in my head from my own evenings sipping a glass of wine and watching the screen, briefly living in a world completely different from my own. Through your invitation to listen a little while, Adams has brought it all alive for me again. Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading. I may learn to stretch!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: And now YOU have made my day! I love your exploration of this piece, with this wonderful concluding passage: “No live listening, no score, just dark alleys and shadowy figures lingering in my head from my own evenings sipping a glass of wine and watching the screen, briefly living in a world completely different from my own. Through your invitation to listen a little while, Adams has brought it all alive for me again.” Though, by the way, you must never feel obliged to listen, I’m so glad you did in this case. You, as with everyone who has commented here, have immeasurably enriched my own experience of City Noir.

      I’ve been thinking, too, about your comment, “having to listen to it three ways seems like too much work: liking it should come easily.” I think for me, as I wrote on my “What Makes Music Great” post https://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/what-makes-music-great/, if I don’t find something in a piece that communicates to me or at least piques my curiosity on a first or second hearing, I’m not likely to stay with it. What you’re expressing may be along the same lines. There isn’t world enough and time, after all, for everything we want to do, and there are far too many “have to dos” to add things to that woebegone list!

      What I’ve discovered is that, once my curiosity is piqued about a piece (whether it be music, poetry, literature, or art), repeated listenings/readings/viewings enrich my already positive experience of it (or, alternatively, I’ll find that the piece doesn’t wear well and I’ll set it aside). I suspect this is true for you, too, thinking of your post on the poet Anne Spencer, for example. (http://newleafsite.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/poems-layer-garden-layer-woman/). With City Noir, I was definitely intrigued right from the start, or I wouldn’t have pursued the piece further.

      As to the second leg in the trifecta, I enjoy going to live performances generally, or I wouldn’t do it, and traveling to DC to do this made it all a sort of “BIG ADVENTURE.” In this case, the live performance from behind the stage was particularly fascinating, as I could not only hear, but also see, all the action in the brass, woodwinds, and percussion–the timpanist even looked up and gave me a big smile!–not to mention see how much fun Adams was having conducting. And let me tell you, watching, as well as listening, to Timothy McAllister play that sax part was out-of-this-world-great. Going to the live performances gave me a whole new vantage point on–and level of engagement with–the piece.

      As for the third leg of the trifecta, I’ve had similar kinds of experiences looking at a score, even though I have only the barest knowledge of what I’m looking at. I’ve only done it a handful of times, as it takes a very long time for me to do, but when I have, I’ve loved the discoveries I can make about a piece, such as finding out what goes into creating a certain soundscape that I’m unable to identify with my ears alone. (For example, finding out that the composer is using temple blocks to make that neat sound I’d heard after the bassoons.)

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