“Photographers are in a sense composers, and the negatives are their scores.”
—Ansel Adams (1902–1984)
Stockton Symphony premiered a new work last week by Dave Brubeck and his son Chris, Ansel Adams: America! The Brubecks' one-movement work will correspond to 92 photographs projected onto a rear screen. Most of the photos to be shown were taken by Adams. A few are by Adams' contemporaries, and nearly a dozen are photos taken of Adams when he was a child.
Ansel Adams: America! was co-commissioned by the Philharmonic and six other orchestras - the Stockton Symphony, the Monterey Symphony, the Fresno Philharmonic, the Temple University Symphony Orchestra, the Abilene, Texas, Philharmonic and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Sacramento Philharmonic board member Jennifer Bayse Sander came up with the idea for a musical work honoring Adams in 2006, soon after she made the orchestra's commission of an Andre Previn work honoring Wayne Thiebaud. Although the elder Dave Brubeck, who is 88, wasn't initially keen on writing a new orchestral work, but after reading about Ansel Adams' life and looking through the book "Ansel Adams: 400 photographs," he grew excited about composing a new piece.
"What's great about this project are the similarities between Adams and my father," Chris Brubeck said. "Both were Californians. Ansel grew up among the sand dunes south of Seal Rock, and my dad grew up on a cattle ranch in Ione."
The elder Brubeck composed the 22-minute work first as a piano piece, working closely with his sone Chris, who later transformed it into a full orchestral score. After getting piano sketches from his father, it wasn't unusual for Brubeck to write and orchestrate the music while referring to specific photographs by Adams. These, he said, triggered a flood of musical ideas.
"Adams also noted similarities between the discipline of practicing the technique of piano and the technique of photography. A powerful photograph is a perfectly natural kind of image to inspire music.
"For example, sometimes the images were of such vertical power that it inspired ascending music. There are beautiful winter scenes that are so barren and lonely that suggest music with a mystical transparency. At other points in the score the intricacies of a fern dictated, in our minds, that the music be interwoven, like counterpoint in the style of Bach."
The commission cost $65,000, of which the Stockton Symphony shouldered $12,000.
Unfortunately the elder Brubeck was unable to attend the concert due to a viral infection. Family members say the feisty Brubeck was up and walking around the hospital, but doctors denied his request to travel to the show at Faye Spanos Concert Hall in Stockton.