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Adams creates his own destiny

Stewart Oksenhorn
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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Ray Adams laughed when asked what his plans were for celebrating this week’s world premiere of “Creation.” It is a landmark work for Adams and the Aspen Choral Society, the organization Adams directs and conducts. “Creation” marks the last in a series of five sacred choral works Adams has composed, and the Choral Society has premiered, over the last six years. The wrap party, however, has more to do with taking care of the everyday pains of life than marking the completion of a monumental task. On April 4, three days after the premiere, Adams will check into a Vail hospital to address the degenerating spinal discs that several surgeries last year did not cure. His recovery process will involve going directly back to the piano, to begin composing a series of songs and instrumental chamber works that he plans to premiere in February. Also on Adams’ immediate agenda is addressing the finances of the Aspen Choral Society, as well as his own.It’s not a celebration worthy of Adams’ six years of artistic and organizational toil. Still, it beats what Adams was doing prior to embarking on his cycle of choral pieces.”When I wrote ‘Angels'” – the first piece in the series, premiered by the Aspen Choral Society in December 2000 – “I was coming out of what I would have to consider 20 years of darkness,” said the 53-year-old Adams. “I almost committed suicide. I was just a drunk. And there was a little light outside – my son, Spencer – and a little light inside, call it whatever you want. And I grabbed hold of both of those lights.”‘Angels,’ in a way, was a thank-you to whatever guardian angel, or God, agreed with me that that shooting myself would be a waste of time, and that I had work to do.”

Composing was not the most obvious way out of the darkness for Adams. A native of New York’s Rockland County, Adams had made a life in classical music, but not as a composer. He studied music therapy at SUNY-Fredonia and the University of New Mexico, and worked for several years as a music therapist in Amarillo, Texas. In the late ’70s, a few years after moving to the Roaring Fork Valley, he became a student at the Aspen Music Festival and School, but studied conducting under Murry Sidlin. Only years later would he try composing, and his early efforts were either minor or abandoned.In 1997, Adams came to a realization about his life: “It was get better or die,” he said. Out of that newfound desire to rescue himself, Adams composed his first sacred choral works, a Gloria and a Missa Brevis. In retrospect, neither was particularly ambitious nor successful artistically, but Adams, who had been conducting the Aspen Choral Society’s annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah” since the ’70s, opted to bring them into the light of day. The two works, which Adams now calls “not well thought out,” were at least good enough for Adams to think about future compositions.”When you’re in the stupor,” said Adams, “my theory is that you can’t discern between dreams and fantasies. When I came out of the stupor, I realized that with enough hard work, I could create these works, and make the dreams come true.””Angels” was, according to Adams, “the first piece worth listening to.” The middle section of the work was taken from the Book of Revelation, and led to Adams’ second piece, “Revelation,” which premiered in 2001. Adams followed with his “Requiem,” in 2003 and, in 2004, “The Passion.” (The centerpiece for last year’s spring concert was Mozart’s Requiem.)Through the first four works, perhaps working off his own down times and recovery, Adams found that he had a full range of emotions and topics to explore in the music. “Angels” was gentle music, but focused in part on the angels that carry us to the final reward of death; the piece concluded with the movements “Angels and the End of Time” and “Angels at Our Death.” (Adams notes that at least three deceased members of the Aspen Choral Society have requested that “Angels” be played as they lay on their deathbeds.) “Revelation” was an apocalyptic work, in subject and musical content.His “Requiem,” said Adams, was “a positive look at the end of our lives”; the text drew not only from Christian writings, but also from writings on death from the Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu traditions. “The Passion,” said Adams, “while it’s about somebody getting beaten and nailed to a cross, it’s ultimately about redemption.”Each piece has really represented a different part of my life,” added Adams. “Some pieces I definitely relate to, in terms of my life, periods of recovery and health. This one [“Creation”], with illness, a massive struggle, not just with my back, but pneumonia, thyroid disease. And then there are the women … .”Even my son is involved. ‘And God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,’ that’s the last line of ‘Creation.’ And Spencer looked over my shoulder and said, ‘Oh no, no, not the soprano; that’s for the tenor.’ I erased it on the spot and gave it to the tenor.”

The most significant constant in the process has been the Choral Society, which actually comprises the Aspen Community Chorus and the Glenwood Springs Community Chorus, and the Choral Society orchestra, which draws members from around Colorado and even out of state. (Adams regularly holds rehearsals both up- and downvalley.) The concerts have drawn as many as 100 singers in the past; he expects to have about 80 for “Creation,” including soloists Jeremy Moore, Daniel Fosha, Katie Hone and Marnie White.”What these two groups of singers have managed to pull off is nothing short of remarkable,” said Adams, who has frequently remarked about the sense of community he finds fostered by the Choral Society concerts. “When you do a world premiere, it’s not easy. What we’re trying to do is professional concerts with what is technically an amateur organization.”This week’s concerts, set for Friday and Saturday, March 31-April 1, at Harris Hall, includes “Creation” as well as Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, with soloists Julian Hallmark and Cornelius Dufallo.

Adams finds that “Creation,” like the other works in the series, is a piece unto itself; after six years, he has yet to create a musical mold. The piece, he said, opens with a good deal of dissonance, and periods of dissonance and harmony are interspersed through the piece.”Whether you believe in creation or evolution, I have to believe getting the whole thing started was an ‘Ungh!'” he said. “Certainly not Karen Carpenter chords. The beginning orchestral statement reflects the discord that would come with anything as big as this creation.”More than his past compositions, “Creation” has a seamless flow to it. The work is not divided into movements, and this reflects the way it was composed. “It just kept pouring out – and that initial pouring out is the best part of the whole process,” noted Adams.The text for “Creation” comes straight from the description of the first seven days of Earth’s existence in Genesis. In that, Adams saw a natural outlet for uplifting emotions.”All in all, I’d have to call it positive and exuberant. Which is deliberate; it’s why I chose this topic,” said Adams. “Creation is, can be, a painful process. But the hoped for outcome is positive. I mean, we’re here, right? In ‘Creation,’ you’re creating grass, fruit trees, herb-yielding seeds, cattle.”Intentionally left off that list is mankind. Adams’ “Creation” ends where human life begins, with God breathing life into man.”That’s where the mythology starts,” said Adams, who terms his music sacred, and not religious. “To me, I don’t want to debate the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, with anyone. That’s not what I’m here to do. I end with that which is essential to what each of us is, our living souls. That seemed a beautiful place to stop.”

Adams isn’t sure where his own road leads to, or where it ends. He has committed to the Choral Society board that he would conduct 30 years of Handel’s Messiah; this year will mark 29. But Adams has work to finish in Aspen: “Aspen Songs,” the cycle of songs that he plans to begin next week, he hopes to premiere in February, along with some instrumental chamber music. He also intends to replace the middle portion of “Angels,” and re-premiere it, along with Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, next spring. And he wants to revisit parts of his own “Requiem.” Beyond that, he is uncertain how long he will stay in Aspen.Composing, though, is forever. It has helped save him before, and he expects “Creation,” and the completion of his cycle, to give him another boost.”It’s the sense of not giving up, about completing goals and achieving dreams and putting actions behind your words,” he said. “There’s a sense of well-being that comes with that.”I’ve found something I don’t want to retire from. It’s not like you do the work, then get your pension and you’re free. I’m going to keep doing this in various forms. And that’s life-changing. Before this, I didn’t have direction.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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