Major Themes, from Classical Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media, is a monthly feature in which classical music experts recommend a must-hear recording based on what's happening at classical stations and programs around the country. I was honored to be asked to offer my input for an upcoming edition, and I’d like to share with you what I decided to recommend for the feature...
About 5 years ago I was sitting on my balcony in Knoxville with my then new colleague, Aaron Apaza. He received a phone call, and his ringtone was very interesting to me. It was a small vocal ensemble repetitively singing: “I was looking at the ceiling. I was looking at the ceiling. I was looking at the ceiling”. I asked him what it was, but soon forget, and resumed enjoying my gin and tonic.
Fast forward to March of 2018 – I stumbled upon those sounds again. This time, it was on a CD of music by John Adams. I’m always asking myself: What is the future of classical music? What is it going to sound like? What subjects will it cover? After a few listen-throughs, that work answered those questions for me.
“I Was Looking At The Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky” is an opera by John Adams – he calls it a “song-play”. From a very abstract, philosophical perspective, I considered that title phrase really enlightening. When applied to myself, I would think, “What realities have I settled on, and how can I see what’s beyond them? Am I perceiving something as an end, when there’s actually much more?” I still think those thoughts can be applied to this music, but the title actually comes from a quote by a survivor of the 1994 earthquakes in Los Angeles. Can you imagine?
That catastrophe, coupled with issues of race, immigration, and the police’s relationship with society drive the plot of this work. One of my favorite lines in this opening to the opera is, “I thought everything was over, because my world lay on the wrong side of some arbitrary border”. Can you get more topical than that in classical music?
In creating this piece, John Adams collaborated with esteemed poet and essayist, June Jordon, who wrote the work’s libretto. I hadn’t heard of her before, but reading some of the other writings of this woman of African descent inspired me to seek an ever deeper relationship with this opera. She, herself, used her writings to discuss issues of gender, race, immigration, and representation – all ideas explored in this music.
If you’re interested in classical music that’s in the moment, relevant, and truly American, I highly recommend listening to this recording. Click on the album image below to hear the opening chorus: