Skip to page content

Gustavo Dudamel’s first appointment as Music Director Designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was to name John Adams to the new position of Creative Chair. Adams has a long and productive history with the orchestra, going back to 1981. City Noir is the final panel in a triptych of orchestral works that “have as their theme the California experience, its landscape, and its culture,” Adams says. The other two are El Dorado (commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony) and The Dharma at Big Sur (a violin concerto commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for one of the Walt Disney Concert Hall inaugural galas in 2003).

The composer has written the following note about City Noir:

City Noir was first suggested by my read- ing the so-called “Dream” books by Kevin Starr, a brilliantly imagined, multi-volume cultural and social history of California. In the “Black Dahlia” chapter of his Embattled Dreams volume, Starr chronicles the tenor and milieu of the late ’40s and early ’50s as it was expressed in the sensational journalism of the era and in the dark, eerie chiaroscuro of the Hollywood films that have come to define the period sensibility for us:

“...the underside of home-front and post-war Los Angeles stood revealed. Still, for all its shoddiness, the City of Angels possessed a certain sassy, savvy energy.

It was, among other things, a Front Page kind of town where life was lived by many on the edge, and that made for good copy and good film noir.”

Those images and their  surrounding aura whetted my appetite for an orchestral work that, while  not necessarily referring to the soundtracks of those films, might nevertheless evoke a similar mood and feeling tone of the era. The music of City

Noir is in the form of a 30-minute symphony. The formal and expressive weight of its three movements is distributed in pockets of high energy that are nested among areas of a more leisurely — one could even say “cinematic” — lyricism.

The first movement, “The City and Its Double,” opens with a brief,  powerful “wide screen” panorama that gives way to a murmuring dialog between the double- bass pizzicato and the scurrying figures in the woodwinds and keyboards. The steady tick of a jazz drummer impels this tense and nervous activity forward — a late-hour empty street scene, if you like. A surging melody in the horns and cellos punctuated by jabbing brass “bullets” brings the movement to a nearly chaotic climax before it suddenly collapses into shards and fragments, a sudden stasis that ushers in the second movement.

The title, “The City and its Double,” is a backward glance to the French playwright Antonin Artaud, who in his writings is said to have “opposed the vitality of the viewer’s sensual experience against [a conventional concept of] theater as a contrived literary form.” Hence my “city” can be imagined not just as a geographic place or even as a social nexus, but rather as a source of inexhaustible sensual experience.

As a contrasting relief to the frenzy of the first movement’s ending, “The Song Is for You” takes its time assembling itself. Gradually a melodic profile in the solo alto sax emerges from the surrounding pools of chromatically tinted sonorities. The melody yearns toward but keeps retreating from the archetypal “blue” note. But eventually the song finds full bloom in the voice of  the solo trombone, a “talking” solo, in the manner of the great Ellington soloists Lawrence Brown and Britt Woodman (both, fittingly enough, Angelenos).

“Boulevard Night” is a study in cinematic colors, sometimes, as in the moody Chi- natown trumpet solo near the beginning, it is languorous and nocturnal; sometimes, as in the jerky stop-start coughing engine music in the staccato strings, it is animal and pulsing; and other times, as in the slinky, sinuous saxophone theme that keeps coming back, each time with an extra layer of stage makeup, it is in- your-face brash and uncouth. The music should have the slightly disorienting effect of a very crowded boulevard peopled with strange characters, like those of a David Lynch film — the kind who only come out to strut their stuff very late on a very hot night. — John Adams © 2009