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I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky

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Album Review

Composer John Adams and lyricist/librettist June Jordan took as inspiration for their musical I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky the Northridge earthquake of 1994; the title is based on a quotation from a survivor that Jordan culled from the Los Angeles Times. The more general inspiration was L.A. itself, however, as Jordan weaved an ensemble drama examining the lives of seven contemporary Los Angelenos: a young black man; his girlfriend, an illegal Hispanic immigrant; a young black minister with a wandering eye; one of his female parishioners; a white rookie cop not quite ready to confront his homosexuality; a white TV news anchorwoman wondering why the cop isn't paying enough attention to her; and a first-generation son of Vietnamese boat people who has become a public defender. Their lives intersect in a period leading up to an earthquake that changes those lives drastically. The show was first produced in 1995; this studio cast recording, made in 1996 and 1997, retains only two members of the original cast, Darius de Haas as David, the minister, and Welly Yang as Rick, the public defender. Otherwise, the cast has undergone some upgrading, at least in terms of name recognition, with Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie stepping into the roles of Consuelo, the illegal immigrant, and Tiffany, the anchorwoman. The episodic nature of the plot and the differing ethnicities allow Adams to try many different musical styles. After beginning with the title song, which is in the familiar repetitive style of Philip Glass, Adams incorporates elements of rock, pop, blues, and gospel in appropriate ways in the successive tracks, albeit without actually using the styles to create satisfying popular music. He comes closest in the lusty trio number for the three women, "Song About the Bad Boys and the News," and in the duet for David and his potential new girlfriend Leila (Angela Teek), "Three Weeks and Still I'm Outta My Mind," which has something of the flavor of a Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell performance. He is constrained, however, by the demands of the plot, which is trying to pack a lot of social commentary into a single musical. As a show and as a record, the work is ambitious, but somewhat overstuffed.


Born: 15 February 1947 in Worcester, MA

Genre: Classical

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

New England-born, California-based composer John Adams is a pivotal figure in 20th century classical music, as he can be viewed as either the last of the minimalists or the first of the post-minimalists. Though his music shares several traits with that of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, or Terry Riley, Adams' music from his earliest works used a wide variety of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas, making his music perhaps more accessible to a new listener who might find works like Riley's In C or Glass'...
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