The streetcar named "imagination-run-wild" doesn't stop at every composer on the new music line, but in the case of John Adams it seems to come around whenever he starts a piece. Known as a "minimalist" since the late '70s, Adams has often been associated with Philip Glass and Steve Reich in that musical classification — though he distinguishes himself from them by the terrific variety of his approaches to melody, harmony and rhythm.
Unlike Glass, for instance, whose telltale heartbeat and profile are all too recognizable in whatever he does, Adams builds identity into each composition in a subtle, unpredictable way. The 11-section suite "John's Book of Alleged Dances" (1994) takes the listener on an exhilarating tour of the choreographic possibilities of the string quartet. As performed by the Kronos Quartet, this work of unmistakable Americana pours forth an Aaron Copland-esque genie from the bottle of Adams' encyclopedic sensibility: dances, laments, folk motifs all contained in the pure delight of physical movement.
American cultural references abound in this mammoth 10-CD retrospective of Adams' career: "Shaker Loops" (1978-1983) — in four movements for string orchestra — shimmers with a rarefied devotional energy, recalling the early religious colonies of New England. Adams' settings of poems by Walt Whitman ("The Wound Dresser") and Emily Dickinson ("Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and "Wild Nights") make high musical drama of those texts, placing them on the stage of a homegrown grand opera. And his 1989 arrangements of "Five Songs" by Charles Ives (for soprano Dawn Upshaw) bring up Ives' eccentric musical revelations like a bucket from the well of our history.
In a set which includes the full-scale operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as a violin concerto, a chamber symphony and Adams' flipped-out hybrid of Broadway show and pop-song intentions, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, the range of pleasures and musical choices is staggering. Best approach: pick and choose, play and replay to heart's content.
My own favorites: "Eros Piano" (1989) — for piano and orchestra — a diaphanous homage to jazz pianist Bill Evans and Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, with lovely echoes of American new music supersensei Morton Feldman. And "Common Tones in Simple Time" (1979), an ultra-minimalist work that makes the orchestra a seductive, all-cares-of-the-world-relieving accomplice in us just being here (and nowhere else) now.
Adams' journey is as open to us as we are to it.