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Dave Brubeck: Composing Ansel Adams

El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridal Veil Fall — millions have discovered these now-familiar landmarks of California's Yosemite Valley through the extraordinary black-and-white photographs of Ansel Adams. Now another American icon has taken Adams' photographs and set them to music. Pianist and jazz legend Dave Brubeck has co-written a new orchestral work with his son, Chris, titled "Ansel Adams: America." It receives its premiere Thursday night in Stockton, Calif.

Brubeck and the late Adams had much in common, starting with geography. Brubeck was born in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Concord, while Adams grew up not far from the city's Seal Rock beach, as he told the BBC in 1976.

"My childhood was spent near the sand dunes bordering the Golden Gate," Adams said. "At the age of 14, I went to Yosemite Valley, was deeply affected and infected with the grandeur of the scene, which mood has always followed me in everything that I do."

Brubeck and his family moved to the Sacramento Valley, where Brubeck's father ran a cattle ranch.

"I used to take my mother to Yosemite," Brubeck says. "When I turned 14, I got my driver's license, and that's where she'd want to go, so I'd go take her there for two weeks. But I didn't hike, because I had to get back to the ranch."

Tied By Common Inspiration

Brubeck composed the 22-minute work first as a piano piece, working closely with Chris, who later transformed it into a full orchestral score. The process took more than a year, with many long-distance phone calls between the musicians while they were on their separate tours. But Dave Brubeck says they always had a common source of inspiration.

"We got a book of 400 photographs of Ansel Adams," Brubeck says. "We'd look at the photos and try to think about the music that would go with the photograph — Half Dome in Yosemite, Merced River, Great Falls coming down, Quiet Meadows. I didn't stop writing for one month, mostly at night; I'd still be writing, very little sleep."

Concert Pianist Turned Photographer

To help conserve the 88-year-old's energy, and to provide him more objectivity in evaluating the piece, concert pianist John Salmon was brought in to perform early drafts of the score. As the project progressed, Dave and Chris Brubeck discovered another important fact about their subject: Ansel Adams was studying to be a concert pianist before he fell in love with Yosemite.

"For several years, I had a very difficult time," Adams said in his 1976 interview with the BBC. "And many of my friends would beg me not to think about photography as a career, because I apparently was a fairly good pianist. And they would say photography is not an art; the camera cannot express the human soul."

A Musical Tug Of War

With this information, Brubeck was inspired to include the styles of Adams' favorite composers in the work.

"He loved Bach and Chopin, so I've incorporated Chopin-esque kind of piano playing and Bach kind of piano playing into the piece. And it's a tug of war between the camera and the piano that I'm trying to depict," Brubeck says.

There's an even more literal aspect to Dave Brubeck's compositional approach, according to Chris Brubeck.

"He's got sort of a pet process where he likes to take the person's name and turn the rhythm of that name into the main theme," the younger Brubeck says.

Father And Son

The composition was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras led by the Stockton Symphony, whose home is about 120 miles west of Yosemite. Earlier this week, the musicians in Stockton began rehearsing the piece they're premiering Thursday night. Peter Jaffe conducts.

In spite of their many similarities, Ansel Adams and Dave Brubeck had one major difference. Adams received his first camera from a father who supported his son's enthusiasm. Chris Brubeck says he got the same kind of support from his dad. But his grandfather wasn't as encouraging of Dave Brubeck.

"And there can't be anything too much more rewarding for a father and a son to be working on a composition like this," Chris Brubeck says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Paul Conley