John Adams

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky [Naxos]

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Stage director/supersalesman Peter Sellars has often led John Adams down the path of what some wags have called "CNN headline opera" -- theater pieces stolen from yesterday's papers. This genre has given Adams huge exposure in the press with Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, though it hasn't necessarily inspired his best music. None of his headline operas to date has gone so far out on a limb as this piece, a pop opera/musical/song cycle/whatever that traces the lives of a set of fictional Los Angeles residents before and after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Yes, the most frequently performed living American symphonic composer actually did it, and he wasn't kidding, earnestly writing songs in pop, jazz, soul, gospel, Latin, and rock idioms, trying to give life to the late June Jordan's self-consciously vernacular libretto and Sellars' tiresome parade of politically correct characters. The piece got hammered by many critics upon its premiere, a souvenir recording of 15 of the 23 numbers with an eight-piece rock band conducted by Adams himself was issued (Nonesuch), and many thought that was that. Well, it turns out that I Was Looking at the Ceiling had some legs after all, for the Young Opera Company Freiberg and the Band of Holst-Sinfonietta conducted by Klaus Simon made a second recording -- this time with all 23 numbers in place on a two-CD set (the Adams recording fits on one disc). Mostly, though, despite Adams' evidently sincere effort to embrace almost everything in popular culture, he is not a very comfortable tunesmith. There is only one really good pop tune, "A Sermon on Romance," in a driving pop/gospel idiom with an irresistible two-chord vamp. In the home stretch after the earthquake happens, his inspiration is clearly running on low; it's a struggle to get to the end. Some of the newly recorded songs are little more than minimally developed vamps and are thus of minimal musical interest, while crucial in developing the "plot," such as it is. Some are more intriguing than many of the numbers that made it onto the Nonesuch recording: "Leila's Song of the Wise Young Women" warns about the use of condoms, "Song About the Sweet Majority Population of the World" has a cool, loose, soul-jazzy feeling; the extended-scene "Duet in the Middle of Terrible Distress" is the longest number in the score. Naxos also throws in a track of "earthquake sounds" -- mild low rumbling and cracking. The young cast is at least as adroit in the pop idioms as the Nonesuch cast, so if you're curious about this historical curio, the Naxos set is preferable to the composer's version on grounds of completeness and price.

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