Harmonium began with a simple, totally formed mental image: that of a single tone emerging out of a vast, empty space and, by means of a gentle unfolding, evolving into a rich, pulsating fabric of sound. This wordless "preverbal" creation scene describes the opening of the piece, and it was fixed in my mind's eye long before I had even made the decision whether or not to use a text. Some time passed before I was able to get beyond this initial image. I had an intuition of what the work would feel like, but I could not locate the poetic voice to give it shape. When I finally did settle on a text for the piece I was frankly rather surprised by the oddity of my choice. At almost the same time I happened upon an obscure poem with the irresistible title "Negative Love" by the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne and two poems by the nineteenth-century American Emily Dickinson which, together with the Donne poem, suggested a completed unity of form and meaning.
In other works written about the same time as Harmonium (Common Tones in Simple Time for orchestra, Shaker Loops for strings and Phrygian Gates for piano) much of the musical interest came about as a result of a balance between harmonic stability and the invention and variety of the sound "surface." Large, harmonically stable key areas, often governed by a single mode or even a single chord, were brought to life and impelled forward by an inner pulse and by a constantly evolving wave-like manipulation of the surface texture. (An early version for string quartet of Shaker Loops was, in fact, appropriately titled Wavemaker.) Melody, when it did occur, was seldom a generator of form, as it is in almost all other tonal music. Rather it was born out of the ongoing harmonic and rhythmic flow of the continuum. One could even go so far as to call it an aspect of the music's texture. Nevertheless, it is by no means absent or unimportant in Harmonium.
With harmonic rhythm (i.e. the rate of changes between harmonies) radically slowed down, modulation took on a new and exciting meaning and I found that, when properly handled, it could accomplish the effect of a kind of celestial gear shifting. A successful performance of anyone of these pieces should give the feeling of travelling- sometimes soaring, sometimes barely crawling, but nonetheless always moving forward over vast stretches of imaginary terrain. Changes in harmony, normally a matter of measure to measure articulation in most tonal music (at least in the Western world), become a different matter when used in this manner: I found, for example, that I could use harmonic change in two very different ways: One way was to bring in a new key area almost on the sly, stretching the ambiguity out over such a length of time that the listener would hardly notice that a change had taken place (you find yourself in a new landscape but you don't know how you got there). Another approach was to introduce a sudden change of key for all the available power of surprise and heightened emotional tension that it might provide, as in the successive shifts of key (which I call "gates") in "Wild Nights", abrupt transitions that act like a continuously accelerating centrifuge.
Of course Harmonium is different from all my other works because it has a text. In the Dickinson poems an internal structure is already apparent, and I took advantage of the unhurried cinematographic unfolding of imagery in "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" to once again utilize the expressive power of changes of key (and in this case changes of mode as well). The "placing" of the speaker--in a slowly moving carriage while the sights and sounds of her life gradually pass her by--created an irresistible opportunity for a slow, disembodied rhythmic continuum.
"Negative Love", on the other hand, presented different problems both on the interpretative as well as the imaginary level. What attracted me to the poem was its evasiveness: Every time I read it it seemed to mean something different. The poem really is about the humility of love, and my response was to see it as a kind of vector, an arrow pointing heavenward. Thus the opening of "Negative Love" with its rippling waves of orchestral and choral sound sets in motion a musical structure that builds continuously and inexorably to a harmonic culmination point some ten minutes later. Throughout the movement the music is in a constant state of agitation. The tempo is always quickening, the amplitude growing louder and the overall density gaining power and mass until it reaches its peak on the words
If any who deciphers best
What we know not, our selves, can know,
Let him teach me that nothing...
At this point the entire mass shifts smoothly back to the opening tempo and opening atmosphere.
If "Negative Love" is a meditation on love and "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" a sequence of tableau-type images about the arrest of time, "Wild Nights" embraces both of the former themes with a poetic intensity that is at once violent and sexual and full of that longing for forgetfulness which is at the core of all Dickinson's works. Her goal is far from being some kind of Apollonian serenity of self-realization, her Eden is the sea, the universal archetype of the Unconscious, an immense, nocturnal ocean of feeling where the slow, creaking funeral carriage of the earlier poem now yields to the gentle, unimpeded "rowing" of the final image.
-- John Adams