Friday, January 14, 2011

Epiphany from John


“Epiphany.” The word brings to mind Edison-style light bulbs illuminating above someone’s head. It’s a synonym for the exclamation, “Aha!”  We think of scientists rushing to their laboratories and feverishly writing down notes. But does an epiphany have to be a sudden realization of a fact? Do we who have them have to then have information that is useful to the world? According to a dictionary, the images that come to mind don’t correctly describe the definition of the word. But I feel as though if I use this word I’m expected to be able to write a physics report. Can an epiphany just be a feeling, one that fills up an empty part of us like a water balloon? Yes, I discovered. Webster told me so.
            I have always known that classical music has been a part of my life, so much so it’s like a phantom limb. Without being painfully cliché, that passion has been like a crescendo over the past few years. I’ve steadily begun to branch out into different periods and composers. Naturally and chronologically, I started out obsessing over Chopin, then Debussy, and now John Adams. Adams has become my composer crush. One of the most exciting moments in the past week was receiving my “Century Rolls” score in the mail; I reacted like a professional baseball player might upon getting a new bat. It was, and still is, my shiny new toy. I became interested in Adams after hearing about him at a small weekly concert series I volunteer at; his works mesmerized me. 
            Adams is the perfect composer to love. He has composed in many different formats, from chamber to concerto to program music. He is modern without being confusing—different yet understandable. He is intelligent, the titles of his pieces entice, and he isn’t just a name. Adams is involved in everything he does—he is the creative chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he has been on the faculty of composition at the San Francisco Conservatory, has been the composer in residence at the San Francisco Symphony, and many other accomplishments. He brings minimalism to the forefront of accessible classical music today.  And we as classical lovers need this to happen.
            My epiphany came to me a few days ago. I attended a live broadcast of a Los Angeles Philharmonic. Living in a small-ish town, I jump on every chance I can to see performances like these, certainly ones that don’t come attached to a $300 plane ticket and $150 seat in the Disney Concert Hall. I was one of the only people there. I bought a large Dr. Pepper, sat in the spacious handicapped row, and I was ready to go.  The performance was dolled up. Vanessa Williams as the host, multiple backstage interviews with Gustavo Dudamel, and a past performance of Kelley O’Connor were not needed. But “Slonimky’s Earbox” was.
            “Slonimsky’s Earbox” was a piece of orchestral music I had listened to on my IPod many times. I was pretty familiar with it, enough to smirk with acquaintance when the muted trumpets started to wail and the timpani came in, roaring. But something was different this time. Seeing the musicians blow, hammer, and bow their instruments with such purpose gave “Slonimsky’s” even more life than it already had—it was on overdrive, and it was like a new piece to my Adams-seasoned ears.
            If someone you had just met told you to come over to their house, and they lived in a city you were not familiar with, what would you do? Probably ask for directions or a map. But if you were given a talking GPS, one with a map and vocal prompts, it is likely you would get there easier than if you had one of those two methods of direction. The same idea goes with seeing and hearing a piece being played. If one were to watch a performance on a muted television, one would only get some of the emotion. If one were to listen to it, even more. But if one watches a full performance with audio and visual, the emotion gotten out of it doubles. Watching Dudamel’s iconic curls bounce along with Adams’s score was hypnotizing.
            The Disney Concert Hall acoustics also contributed to the experience. When fused together, Adams, the orchestra, and the performance space can make a simple inverted C major chord in the strings sound like nothing anyone has ever heard. The three-note chord is played one note at a time, it materializes out of nothing, then is cut off suddenly and bounces off the walls. I was left sitting in my purple, over-cushioned chair with my mouth open and the Dr. Pepper sitting stunned in my stomach. The overall theme emerges again, all of the instruments scurrying around, hunting and gathering, searching for prey in the silver-lined architecture of the Hall. The listener is left with their eyes darting around, not sure where to look, when the timpani and muted trumpets shout once again, give one last cry, and Dudamel’s hair lands back on his scalp, exhausted.
            John Adams has constructed a jewel. It’s something you can put in your pocket—no movements, no overbearing soloists, something you can talk about all in one conversation. “Slonimsky’s Earbox” has all of John Adams’s musical mannerisms rolled into one piece, and it brought along my epiphany. The piece summed up my love for music all in one moment—I cannot explain the feeling, but I had a serious case of goose-bumps and felt filled to the brim, satisfied. I learned that I can listen to a piece of music multiple times, but no matter how familiar with it I am, it will never cease to change my life the next time I hear it. Next time I have an epiphany I won’t have to consult a dictionary first, and won’t feel like I have to write a report on it. But look at what I just did.
           
           
Nicolas Slonimsky, the "failed wunderkind" (his words), composer, musicologist, and writer that Adams' piece was named after. 
           

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