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  • A Portrait of John Adams as a Young Man:The 1970s Juvenilia
  • Michael Palmese (bio)

James Joyce draws on musical language when describing one of the moments leading up to Stephen Dedalus's aesthetic epiphany on the Dollymount shore in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "He heard a confused music within him as of memories and names which he was almost conscious of but could not capture even for an instant; then the music seemed to recede, to recede, to recede: and from each receding trail of nebulous music there fell always one longdrawn calling note, piercing like a star the dusk of silence."1 Such imagery of confused music, comprising sound, memories, and names from the past, appearing and receding in the creative consciousness of an artist desperate to forge an identity, seems particularly apt when describing young composers.2 The narrative trajectory from youthful inexperience to artistic maturity in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shares similarities with the nonfictional early career of John Adams as he experimented with differing compositional styles between 1971 and 1976. During this phase of Adams's career, both popular music and the avant-garde influenced his creative consciousness. The result was an erratic sequence of aesthetic shifts as Adams tried out differing stylistic conventions and compositional techniques from influential composers, seeking a potential path [End Page 229] forward. Although Adams especially sought to align himself with Cage's notions of indeterminacy and chance between 1971 and 1976, he eventually found himself at an impasse not only with Cage but also with the entire avant-garde. Years later, he could recall: "I took Cage seriously in his admonishment about keeping the ego out of the music. But I wasn't happy about it. I could feel a restlessness and lingering dissatisfaction with the avant-garde position. … I didn't see much difference between a work created American-style by tossing coins and one created Euro-style by transposing serial sets of pitches."3 This article examines this previously unstudied phase of the composer's creative life through detailed studies of four works. It shows that Adams modeled his early music on influential avant-garde pieces and sometimes emulated their sound worlds before the arrival of his "official opus one" in 1977: a pair of piano pieces entitled China Gates and Phrygian Gates that he describes as illustrating the "fruits of my initiation to Minimalism."4

The article begins with Heavy Metal, an electronic work composed by Adams in 1971 as a graduate student at Harvard University and one sharing stylistic correspondences with works by Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and William Burroughs. Hockey Seen, written in 1972, is a forty-minute electronic piece for a multimedia dance project sponsored by Harvard University. This lengthy composition exhibits a conflation of avant-garde influences that include sound spatialization, musique concrète elements, and minimalist drones and repetition. Ktaadn, composed between 1972 and 1974, is a choral piece that employs indeterminacy. While Cage's influence remained a crucial factor, Adams also availed himself of minimalist conventions, from the modular scoring style of Terry Riley to modal pitch collections. "Christian Zeal and Activity," the second movement of American Standard, written between 1972 and 1973, draws compositional influences from such contemporaries as Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff, and Gavin Bryars.

"Heavy Metal" (1971)

Heavy Metal, completed in 1971, is a tape work inspired by Cage's and Stockhausen's electronic music and a literary technique developed by Burroughs. Adams composed this electroacoustic piece during his time at Harvard University, satisfying the requirement for his master's degree in composition. Unfortunately, by the composer's own admission, he was unaware of how to care for the tape on which the original work was recorded. Over the years the tape completely deteriorated, leading him to claim in his memoir, "Heavy Metal is lost to the ages."5 He was mistaken: a single recording of the work exists as part of a larger interview of the composer conducted by Charles Amirkhanian and broadcast on KPFA in Berkeley, California, on April 18, 1973.6 [End Page 230]

Adams has explained that his indebtedness to Cage in Heavy Metal...