View from Berkeley: Finding Room for Adams and Imbrie

View from Berkeley: Finding Room for Adams and Imbrie

Sarah Cahill

In 1978, my father and I had a couple of heated debates over which composer’s music was more likely to last into the next century, Andrew Imbrie‘s or John Adams‘s. In the living room with a small stack of LPs, we took turns advocating for our candidates. Imbrie’s string quartets had substance, my father said. He constructed them on a solid foundation. In contrast, he says his first impression of Adams’s China Gates “was that it sounded like something that might be going on in a tinkly upper piano part in a Bartok concerto while the orchestra was playing something substantial down below.” I heard Shaker Loops as an electrifying instant classic; he heard 25 minutes of noodling ostinati.

We had moved to Berkeley when I was five, after my father started teaching Chinese art history at UC Berkeley. I played with Imbrie’s kids and saw him at parties and university functions. But at some point in my teens, I became conscious that he represented the very thing that my composer friends were reacting against. His music, they told me, was “academic.”

What is “academic” music? We know it when we hear it, of course. But does the word actually describe something in particular? Many years ago, a poet told me that a colleague of his had accepted a job at an eastern college. “He’s an academic poet now,” my friend sneered. So by that definition, is “academic music” what’s written by composers who teach at a university? If so, then at least three of the most ardent supporters of the American experimental tradition are academic composers: Larry Polansky (Dartmouth), William Duckworth (Bucknell), and Kyle Gann (Bard).


The truth is, we all have preconceptions about “academic” composers, but they rarely have anything to do with the music itself. I see Imbrie stomp out of a Steve Reich concert muttering angrily to himself, and think: Well, of course he hated the concert—he plays for the other team. But the crucial thing is that he actually listens to the music before making up his mind. When he showed up at a San Francisco recital, in which I played Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, I thought that there must have been some mistake, he must have wandered into the wrong concert hall; but it turns out he makes an effort to experience a range of music, as you might expect from a man who studied with Leo Ornstein, Nadia Boulanger, and Roger Sessions. Unlike him, most of us accept schisms and pigeon holes blindly, without giving the music a fair hearing. I wonder, in fact, how we can pride ourselves on being open-minded about race, class, and sexuality, but cling to prejudices about new music (and literature and dance and visual art) about which we have no first-hand knowledge. Because once we take the trouble to pay attention to the music, it can be a revelation.

So when I sit down with Imbrie’s Requiem, written in 1985 in response to the death of his teenage son John, I’m taken aback at what a deeply affecting work it really is. The choral writing is full of clear, gorgeous melodies which follow the natural breath and phrasing of the texts. In the central Dies Irae movement, the action-packed orchestral score explodes in cymbal crashes, timpani outbursts, brass fanfares, and ominous low strings. This ferocious expression of grief gives way, by the end, to acceptance, and the chorus carries the listener aloft on an ascension of poignant chords. Imbrie integrates liturgical texts with poetry by William Blake, George Herbert, and John Donne. Interestingly, Donne had shown up in another big chorus and orchestra piece composed in the Bay Area the same year as John Imbrie’s death—Harmonium by John Adams. The two works bear some striking resemblances in their orchestral textures, text setting, and even some of the harmonic language.

In the 26 years since my father and I spun discs for each other in the living room (and I see those discussions now as the classic tradition vs. innovation argument that every teenager has with his or her parents), the profile of college music departments has changed considerably. Stylistic boundaries have blurred. The UC Berkeley Music Department composition faculty now includes Jorge Liderman, born in Buenos Aires, whose chamber music and vocal scores sizzle with incisive rhythms and an ingenious synthesis of timbral colors. There is Cindy Cox, composer of exuberant chamber music, including a piece for the Paul Dresher Ensemble called Into the Wild, which features stretches of shrieking electric guitars and blistering drum patterns worthy of Black Sabbath. Ed Campion teaches composition and is also composer-in-residence at UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT), directed by David Wessel. Frequently performed in Europe, Campion’s music shows a fierce intelligence in a wonderfully extroverted way, often involving elements of theater and new technology. John Thow writes appealing scores often inspired by nature or Native American musical idioms. Among emeritus faculty is Richard Felciano, the first composer to use television as a compositional element and who, in a 1970 piece called Sic Transit, combined strobe lights and projections, taped excerpts from speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, forearm clusters on a pipe organ, and chance procedures.

Despite the influx of new blood, UC Berkeley’s music department is only now starting to shake its conservative image. Since Imbrie joined his teacher Sessions on the faculty in 1949, it has been perceived as the most “Uptown” institution in the Bay Area, with Mills College being the most “Downtown.” But consider its beginnings. The department was founded in 1916 by Charles Seeger (the university fired Seeger a few years later, right before Pete Seeger‘s birth, for his outspoken opposition to World War I). Seeger was of course the primary teacher of Henry Cowell. Seeger remembered:

When Henry came to study with me in 1914 he put on the rack his Opus 108; he was then, fifteen or sixteen years old. And I expressed interest in certain compositions. But I discovered very quickly that he was an autodidact and the best way to handle autodidacts was to let them didact and work around from the outside, as it were. He was a very good example of autodidacts all through his life: he never learned anything from anybody else; he appropriated what he liked and paid no attention to what he didn’t like.

So in fact, UC Berkeley’s department of music and the very origins of the California experimental tradition are inextricably linked.


For me, those early formative debates with my father have provided a kind of model for how to present a musical point of view, and listen to someone’s very different point of view. I should mention that my father greatly admired The Death of Klinghoffer, and I have almost converted him to Henry Cowell. Recently, I asked him for some thoughts about the 1978 Adams/Imbrie paradigm, and here is what he wrote back:

I’ve always felt that in art and music both, artists/composers who have interesting new or radical ideas but don’t use them in very substantial works aren’t going to last as well as those who hold some ties to the tradition and do innovative but also complex and absorbing works within it. The latter, in music, were exemplified by Stravinsky, Bartok, and Hindemith. Also Schoenberg and Berg; and I respected without entirely understanding Webern. I may have said that Cowell didn’t sound very substantial, but that was on the basis of a belief that adding his “radical” tone-clusters to simple tunes was pretty much all he did. Obviously, he’s better than that.

Even in teaching about Chinese painting, I separate the artists who manage to combine the striking new stylistic moves with some solid base in older values (monumentality, spaciousness, coherence, etc., if it’s landscape) and point out that it’s easy to do radically new things—any artist can do that—it’s the great masters who make, so to speak, the next significant move in the development of their art, and who affect what other artists do ever after. And they are the ones who last. The Chinese critics themselves sometimes write about this kind of work, in which the artist waves the brush and splashes the ink freely, and makes extravagant claims for it as a painting.

When he mentions ties to musical tradition, my father is of course referring to the European classical tradition. Lou Harrison, for one, would have agreed on the importance of discipline and respect for music of the past; but Asia, he would have said, can be as vital to our heritage as Europe.

I imagine these two Sinophiles, complete strangers, each travelling in Japan and Taiwan in the 1950s and ’60s, by which time they had each become experts in their respective fields. What fascinating dialogues they would have had then, if they had met.

I’ve been corresponding with my father about our musical differences, and we both realize now that what we have in common is far greater than what we argue about. Also, time has proven that there’s plenty of room for both John Adams and Andrew Imbrie; and my father and I have long since convinced ourselves, and each other, of the essential value of both.

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