Naïve and Sentimental Music, John Adams

Landscape, Song Wenzhi
Across an epic expanse of symphonic sound, the American composer confronts the impossibility of naïvety in contemporary culture.

“It occurred to me that it’s nearly impossible for someone writing symphonic music in our era to be ‘naïve’.”

John Adams is not a purist. Eclectic in style, widely imaginative, and inspired by a range of subjects, his compositions are a vehicle for engagement with the world around him. For someone so sensitive to contemporary society, it is perhaps unsurprising that this awareness eventually became the subject of his creative output. The resulting work was Naïve and Sentimental Music (1997-8), and in it he addressed a question of artistic creativity rarely articulated in twenty-first century culture: the opposition between the unconscious and self-conscious artist.

The piece borrows its name from German philosopher Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 essay, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, in which Schiller proposed the theory that all creative personalities fall into one of two categories: the naïve or the sentimental. In harmony with the natural world, the naïve artist creates spontaneously, unconsciously and artlessly, without excessive concern of the intellectual consequences of their art. For sentimental artists, conversely, the connection to nature is a lost ideal, leaving a division between feeling and intellect. As a result of this, the sentimental creator is highly aware of their own historical context, deliberate in the artificial construction of their composition, and acutely conscious of how, why and what they are doing.

For Adams, the naïve is an unreachable ideal in contemporary society. According to him, Naïve and Sentimental Music is his attempt to search for balance in the light of this problem. But is he right? The dissolution of tradition in the twentieth century and the plurality of media in the twenty-first have resulted in art being subjected to a stream of analysis and reflection. Art seems unavoidably self-referential and it is easy to see that contemporary artists might be acutely aware of how they should fit into this landscape.

And does it work? The presentation of the naïve and sentimental is startlingly literal in this piece, and Adams makes the musical argument clearly and vibrantly. In the first movement, which he describes as an “essay on melody”, an exuberant melody freely – naïvely – explores the changing scenery. More recognisably “John Adams minimalism” in style, the third movement is constructed from chains of motifs, expressing the sentimental personality. In the central movement, entitled ‘Mother of the Man’, the naïve and sentimental are brought together. Adams creates a sense of timelessness, opening up vast landscapes and the sense of something universal. This is grand music for grand ideas.

The result is an epic expanse of symphonic sound, but there is little to suggest that in creating this piece Adams has actually reconnected with the unconscious, naïve mode of composition; surely, any hope of writing naïvely is immediately nullified by the self-conscious attempt to do that very thing, something that Adams does in fact admit. This piece feels more like the musical expression of two clashing personalities: what Adams thinks the concepts of naïvety and sentimentality sound like. In bringing together two opposing ideas, however, Adams crafts an impressive synthesis of material. Perhaps fittingly, the reconciliation is musical, not philosophical.

Listening notes: A childlike, diatonic melody, passed back and forth between the woodwind and strings, flows through the first movement, accompanied by strummed guitar, harp and piano chords. The orchestral scenery around the syncopated melody changes, becoming increasingly frenetic and agitated, a process which Adams likens to a Dickens child that “ventures out into the wide world”. In the second movement, icy strings in octaves float at the top of a polarised texture, dotted with gently chiming bells, the effect of which is a haunting stillness. An amplified guitar fills the space at 1:46 with a languid, melancholic solo, followed by a bassoon at 3:52. As the bass of the texture falls away, the stasis is disturbed by shoots of quickly crescendoing strings, beginning at 7:44. After a brief climax, in which the orchestra strains up and up, stillness returns. In the third movement, motivic, repeated fragments grow into longer chains of melody, with an obsessive insistence, like cogs in a machine. The gathering energy eventually leads to an explosion of intensely powerful orchestral force, driven by the power of over 100 instruments. Adams’ aim here was to create an orchestral sound both massive and agile: “a vehicle of transcendent potential”.

Image: Landscape, Song Wenzhi (1972-1975)