Soundscapes of Los Angeles and New York
John Adams and Antonín Dvořák Explore Urban Themes
Los Angeles at Night – John Adams: City Noir
Many composers have attempted to capture and convey the soundscape of a modern city. The centre of New York, with its skyscrapers, crowds of people and traffic noise, inspired Edgard Varèse to compose his orchestral work Ameriques. Leonard Bernstein also depicted New York in West Side Story in 1957, and Aaron Copland celebrated the city seven years later in his Music for a Great City, a symphonic suite based on a film score. While edgy jazz rhythms and brass sounds predominated in Copland’s work, Steve Reich used original audio material such as voices and noises combined with instrumental sounds in City Life, his musical portrait of New York, composed in 1995.
But what does Los Angeles sound like, the metropolis on America’s West Coast, which is intersected by highways in all directions and is usually depicted as a place of palm trees, warmth and light? When John Adams composed City Noir in 2009 he instead explored the dark side of this city, its empty streets at night and the often violent intrigues carried on there. He associated Los Angeles with American crime films of the 1940s and 50s, thrillers like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep. The French critic Nino Frank coined the term “film noir” for these productions.
In City Noir John Adams drew on this Hollywood tradition and the series of uniquely American jazz-oriented orchestral works beginning with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. He described his own composition as a three-part symphony, but also as the score for an imaginary film in the film noir genre. The first movement, The City and its Double, opens with restless seething above double bass pizzicatos, shot through with sharp tutti accents. An uneasy tranquillity suddenly sets in above the tick of a jazz drummer, like a film cut – Adams envisioned an empty street at a late hour. Scurrying figures join in, along with rapid scale passages that cross the entire tonal range. Long melodic lines gradually soar upward. There are passages in which aggressive brass dominates and soft, delicate string sounds, until the nervously pulsating kinetic energy of the opening returns in the full orchestra. A melody in the horns and cellos is punctuated by brass accents, building up to a wildly chaotic tutti which finally ends in a single note. Calm prevails, as though the city were ridding itself of its nightmares and finally indulging in sleep.
In the second movement, The Song is for You, which follows immediately, we first hear soft sonorities until an alto saxophone begins to play a melancholy melody. The blues echoes here and in the trombone solo accompanied by the strings were inspired by Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington. The music intensifies with vigorous agitation and even becomes brutal for a short time, spurred on by harsh timpani blows. Then it is also condensed into a single note and ends with enigmatic string tones.
In the finale (Boulevard Night) John Adams had two younger exponents of film noir in mind: Roman Polanski and David Lynch. Polanski painted a dark picture of the Los Angeles underworld in his 1974 film Chinatown. The story takes place in the Chinese district of this California city in 1937, so Jerry Goldsmith used stylistic elements of that era in his film score. Adams quotes his music in an expressive trumpet solo. The deceptive calm vanishes after harsh timpani blows following machine-like motion à la Rite of Spring. A saxophone theme returns several times with different instrumentation. According to the composer, this music “should have the slightly disorienting effect of a very crowded boulevard peopled with strange characters, like those of a David Lynch film – the kind who only come out very late on a very hot night”. Agitated rhythms reminiscent of a wild chase scene in a dense polyphonic texture dominate the conclusion.
In Search of a National Music for the US – Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World”
Towards the end of the 19th century New York’s musical life was still strongly influenced by German and Italian traditions. Only gradually did the desire for a distinctively American music grow. Jeannette Thurber, a music lover and daughter of a Danish immigrant violinist, contributed significantly to the achievement of this aim. She established the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York in 1885. Six years later she sent Antonín Dvořák a telegram inviting him to become its director. For only eight months of teaching and six concerts a year he would receive $15,000 – 25 times his income in Prague. Dvořák arrived in New York in September 1892. Two months later the composer wrote to a friend in Prague: “The Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and the kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music!”
Dvořák sympathized with the wish of his patron to support the black population in particular. At the conservatory he met the African-American vocal student Harry T. Burleigh, who earned money for his lessons by sweeping the floors. The Negro spirituals Burleigh sang as he worked fascinated the new conservatory director. In a newspaper interview in May 1893 he declared: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States.” Dvořák engaged Burleigh as his assistant; the student served as the composer’s copyist but often sang for him as well in order to provide him with inspiration for his work.
Without directly quoting spirituals, plantation songs or Native American music in his Ninth Symphony, the composer nevertheless drew on several characteristic elements. For example, the pentatonic scale and plagal cadences are already found during the slow introduction. In the main theme of the first movement Dvořák used the syncopated rhythm known as the “Scotch snap”. Other American peculiarities include the diminished sevenths and the accompanying drone fifths in the second theme. The melancholy English horn theme in the slow movement is based entirely on pentatonicism. Dvořák also recognized the technique of circling around a central key note, as he used it in the main theme of the finale, as a characteristic feature of American folklore. Unlike his earlier symphonies, in the new work he did not develop the themes symphonically for the most part but repeated them unchanged, making the work more accessible.
Dvořák’s symphony was announced as the result of his studies of “Negro and Indian music”, and the premiere by the New York Philharmonic was accompanied by great anticipation. The audience already cheered after the second movement, and Dvořák had to take a bow from his box. The triumph was even greater at the conclusion. The New York Herald Tribune praised the new work as “a symphony which proves that there is such a thing as American art music”.