“What, with my name?” – A conversation with John Adams

Written by: Colin Anderson

I’d asked John Adams if he saw himself as directly related to the founding fathers of American music – Ives, Copland and their contemporaries, the creators of musical openness … “wide open spaces. Yes and no. I loved that music when I was kid. I love Ives and I really love Copland. Excepting them, most of those other composers were locked into a certain style or aesthetic; maybe American life was simpler then. I really feel my experience is far more complicated.”

Not at the very beginning though – young John could imagine himself being a composer. “I had a fantasy as a very young boy; I don’t know where that came from. I remember when I was eight or nine our schoolteacher reading us a biography of Mozart and being enchanted by that image of a young boy who could write symphonies and concertos.”

Developing his creative instincts, Adams found himself in a compositional cul-de-sac and stylistically divided. The burden of history? “My guess is that it’s always felt that way, that Chopin thought ’what can I possibly do that hasn’t already been thought of’. I suspect that every composer has thought that. How could anybody even think of writing anything after someone like Bach had been on the scene!”

What were Adams’s formative influences? “Both of my parents were involved in jazz and show, Broadway, music. My mother sang amateur productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein and my father played in big bands during the ’thirties and ’forties; it was part of the household”. Adams, born 1947, was “in college during that wonderful period of pop music during the late ’sixties. I was intensely involved in listening to it, going to concerts; it was a way of life. At the same time I was this music student being presented with models, either post-war avant-garde or Webern and Schoenberg. Trying to embrace them at the same time as this wonderful and very joyous explosion of popular music … I felt torn down the middle. That’s one reason why I left the East Coast and decided to come to California. When I first heard Minimalism it suggested a way one could compose with what I consider the basic grammatical syntax of musical experience, which is regular pulsation, repetition and tonality, all of which had been consciously destroyed by the European classical composers. Minimalism suggested a way to create a language that had accessibility and coherence and, at the same time, be and feel new, not neo-classical, neo-romantic or a throwback.”

Thus John Adams is now the most played living American composer. “That’s what my press release says! It’s how you count the beans; certainly as an orchestra composer, I suspect that’s true. I know Philip Glass sells more albums and gets larger audiences.”

But is there an artistic compromise, too much of a pact with the audience, the antithesis of, say, Harrison Birtwistle and Elliott Carter, where the audience finds (or doesn’t) their music? “Of course I think about my audience. Unless I’m profoundly mistaken, the arts are a medium of communication on the deepest, most essential level of human experience. For an artist to not care about his audience, or to proclaim that he or she doesn’t, is really a pathological state of mind.”

However, any notion that audience pandering is part of Adams’s agenda is robustly dismissed. “Do you dumb down your music, or adjust it to a certain level of audience? The answer is no. You write music that is meaningful to yourself. If you create a language that is so hermetically sealed and so inaccessible from a fundamental syntax of language that the common well-educated musical listener can’t find a way into it, then you have cut off the channels of communication.”

So is Adams redefining musical tradition? “I wouldn’t want to take such a grandiose responsibility! There’s no doubt that there’s a post-modernist sensibility in much of what I’ve done in that it exhibits an all-embracing attitude towards everything that has come before and treats the past as a found object. Harmonielehre, for example, uses the harmonic language and some of the expressive language of fin de siecle symphonic music but does so through the lens of minimalist technique”. The opening of Harmonielehre was dream-inspired – a huge tanker rising out of San Francisco Bay as a rocket. “I was very affected by Jung and theories about the unconscious and dreams; I was paying more attention to my dreams than I do now.”

If dreams are now less important, does Adams objectively strive for new directions with each new piece? “I wish I was a good German and could follow that sort of hygiene. I don’t know what the hell goes on when a piece starts, and I can tell you that often nothing goes on … pieces sometimes take forever to get off the ground. The beginning of a piece should contain its essential DNA; sometimes the first idea isn’t an opening. The creative process for me … I’m like an abstract expressionist painter; I can’t imagine someone like Pollock sitting at a table sketching out structural ideas – he trusted his sub-conscious. I really never know where I’m going. I have the echo of the piece I’ve just finished; that may be why starting a new piece is so difficult because first ideas are annoyingly similar to what you’ve just finished – been there, done that. I want to go in a new direction, but that won’t reveal itself until quite far along into the piece.”

Though shouldn’t art consciously look forward – if a doubtful response today, maybe acceptance tomorrow? Think of Beethoven. “There’s always been art that’s problematical. I find much of Shakespeare really hard. The thought of picking up a Shakespeare play that doesn’t have footnotes is terrifying for us Americans”. (And for some of us Brits!) “Late Beethoven is hard work. What I’ve noticed is that there is a body of twentieth-century music that’s already seventy, eighty years old that has not become accessible in the way that Beethoven eventually became. A lot of Schoenberg gets played but people still find it alien. It’s the 50th-anniversary of his death and he’s still box-office poison. It has less to do with his method; it’s the fundamental personality. The moment you enter into his world it’s very serious, aurally complex and certainly provides a modicum of discomfort!”

John Adams’s many admirers clearly feel no discomfort … and so to the forthcoming Barbican Adams weekend. “I’ve never had a retrospective of this range, it’s really quite a thrill. There are several points where I wish I could clone myself; I’ve got to be at very important rehearsals at the same time as a concert’s going on elsewhere.”



  • For part two of this conversation with John Adams – the Barbican weekend – click here
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