John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer"

by Barry Drogin

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To the Editor:

I'm sure by now you have had many letters pointing out the error in the two measures of John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" that you printed: the quarter note B, associated with the word "and," should be an eighth note.

I hope others have also commented on the interesting passage chosen: the bass hand outlines a C# minor chord, while the treble hand plays a G major chord, resulting in polytonality at the interval of a tritone. Jazz musicians might consider this a C# minor minor seventh with flat ninth and augmented fourth, but I don't think this is the intention. The bass pattern is notated as groups of four, although the notes form groups of three, while the treble hand's triplets are groups of two. The vocal line passes freely between the two tonalities, and provides its own rhythmic interest.

What should be clear is that the polytonal and polyrhythmic ideas in the accompaniment are only evident when sustained over a prolonged period of time --- this particular passage would repeat every three measures, which might take 5 to 10 seconds (tempo is not indicated). Thus, merely stating the full pattern four times would take around a half a minute. Without the benefit of a score, this might be sufficient for an audience member to actually hear and grasp the complexity of the passage. Given the distractions of scenery, staging, plot, poetry and the added vocal lines, probably even more time will be necessary.

Given, then, that the composer may choose to keep this accompaniment going for maybe a minute or two, as often occurs in "minimal" music, there are two possibly reactions: the close-minded audience member will complain that nothing has changed for a minute, while the open-minded audience member will be delightfully busy trying to unravel and understand what is being heard.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007