Melodies 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 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.
On 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).
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.)”
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
strings include 1 harp
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
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.