John Adams Interviewed by John Walters

by John Walters, 1997

John Adams Interviewed by John Walters
by John Walters, 1997


JLW When did you know you wanted to be a composer?

JA I made a decision quite early on, at about the age of twenty, that I wanted to live a private existence and that I would use conducting only as a means promoting my own work. I think I sensed even at that age that conducting could become a major distraction from creative work, and I have been quite conscious about not letting its instant gratification get in the way of the slower, more laborious effort of creative work. I knew that I would be a composer from the time I was eight or nine. I had a very active fantasy life, imagining long pieces and even keeping a very detailed list of all these works, even going so far as to break them down into genres: symphonies, concertos, sonatas, et al. When I did my paper route I'd compose a piece in my head that lasted about as long as it took me to deliver the papers, so there were a lot of 40-minute pieces!

I wrote my first real composition when I was about 10 and heard my first orchestral piece played when I was 13. I was already conducting small local orchestras by the time I was in my early teens.

JLW So did you imagine yourself as Charles Ives . . . or Stravinsky?

JA I imagined myself as very much the person I am right now - a composer who also conducts his own and other music.

JLW What was your home life like?

JA My parents didn't push me into becoming a musician, but it must have been obvious that I was drawn intensely toward music. When I asked to take music lessons my parents were gentle but firm about my doing it right. I had to practice every day, and there was considerable consternation, particularly on the part of my mother, that I not develop bad habits. My mother wasn't trained - she never really learned to read music, and perhaps she was even a bit suspicious of improvisation because she thought there was something sloppy and undisciplined about it. I don't think she ever realized how gifted her own untutored musicality was. In fact she was a natural singing actress with a vibrant contralto voice. She sang in local productions of Broadway musicals--Bloody Mary was the role I remember her best in--and she could belt out old standards like "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" My father had received some solid training on the clarinet and he passed that on to me in his own wonderfully patient way. He was my first teacher, and he never failed to enjoy playing duets with me. Eventually we both joined a local concert band and spent many summers playing outdoor concerts on warm New Hampshire nights with the mosquitoes bombarding us. It was a very Ivesian childhood.

JLW What did they think of your music?

JA They were charmed by what I wrote as a teenager, but when I got to college and 'lost my innocence' they had the same response that everybody has to hardball contemporary music, which is one of perplexed and not necessarily comprehending respect.

JLW What did you write when you were 13?

JA Oh, they were tonal pieces . . . a suite for string orchestra, pieces for chamber ensembles and some solo pieces. At that time my technique lagged dramatically behind my imagination.

Then I didn't compose seriously until my last year as undergraduate at Harvard. In between I was getting so much good feedback for my work as a conductor that I began to think very seriously about a career in performance. Harvard has two orchestras, one of which is a Haydn-size group traditionally conducted by an undergraduate. For two years I was able to work with these marvelously intelligent students, many of them pre-medical candidates or mathematicians who happened also to play oboe or violin exceedingly well. It was then that I learned so much of the classical repertoire. That kind of on-the-job training as a conductor is almost impossible to find for someone barely out of his teens. Leonard Bernstein became interested in me, and I recall distinctly that sometime in 1968 a critical moment arrived for me: I had been invited to Tanglewood, where Bernstein was very influential and many careers had been launched --Ozawa and Tilson Thomas among others--and I had to decide whether to accept the scholarship or remain in Cambridge, working alone and struggling away on a piece that I was trying to compose. I chose the latter, interestingly enough. I often wonder would have happen if I had gone to Tanglewood instead.

JLW: Did you admire Bernstein? How did you and your peers rate him compared to other conductor/composers?

JA: Bernstein was a gigantic media figure in the world of classical music. He was so adept at handling the American media machine that it was easy to be suspicious of him. But I had known West Side Story and On the Town for many years, and I knew that he was a great, natural talent. I also felt a great debt to him for introducing me to Ives and Mahler. But he was held in low esteem by the music faculty at Harvard, who were probably just plain jealous.

JLW: What was your life at university like.

JA: I was at Harvard between 1965 and 1971, one of the most turbulent and exciting times in American history, at least on college campuses. I remember vividly that during the very first week of my freshman year I went with some friends to see the new Beatles movie, "Help." Soon after that marijuana and then later LSD hit the campus. It is impossible to describe what a profound effect these two drugs had on almost every aspect of our lives. Friends would go through wild personality changes inside of two or three months. I saw mousy little math wonks suddenly dressing in red, white and blue Uncle Sam suits, granny glasses and sprouting "afro" hair styles. And all during this period there was the Vietnam war hanging over our heads, a situation which became literally explosive by the time I was graduating. But what I remember most from this period was the music: all that amazing flowering of rock and jazz. This of course caused a serious case of cognitive dissonance for me. I knew that I really loved this new, open sensual music, and yet at the same time I was having to cope with what I was being taught about Webern and Schoenberg in my music seminars. It became almost impossible to make these two radically different views of the universe coexist in my mind: the austere, pseudo-scientific, rationalised way of life that was represented by the serial technique; and then the other side, the wild, unbuttoned, spontaneous world of rock with its violent and unpredictable and sensual spirit.

Nevertheless I knew that I wanted to become a composer, and I knew I had to go through a very long growth period. For most of my twenties I was casting around for a language. I bumped against it a few times in the dark, but it wasn't until I became involved in minimalism that I began to develop a truly personal language. I didn't write my first mature piece , Phrygian Gates, until I was 30.

JLW Do you keep in touch with the colleges?

JA No. But I've heard some of the "hot properties" that have come from the major universities both in England and America, and although some of these composers are highly talented, they seem to be still a chip of the same block - technically very skilled but fundamentally carbon copies of the old dogma. More often than not a university situation is governed by one influential faculty person sets the tone. There's a choice made of what music's going to be studied, and this choice has a tremendous effect on impressionable young minds. A young kid has to be a real rebel not to succumb to this kind of stultifying environment. There seems to be a university "canon" that accords great value to Berio, Ligeti, Messiaen, Lutoslawski and a few other postwar composers, but which otherwise barely recognizes the vast variety of other styles of music. These are all great composers, for sure, but they occupy only a tiny niche in a very big church. Nevertheless, the extreme emphasis on this one aspect of musical style is perhaps why the modernist tradition keeps limping along, and it's also why the academic point of view carries such prestige in certain very narrow quarters. Next time you're around a Grove dictionary of Music go to "D" and measure how many column inches are given over to Peter Maxwell Davies - it goes on for page after page. On the next page, there's a very short article about Miles Davis.


JLW Did you find that your conducting experiences informed your composition?

JA I still do. When you open a score by Mahler you can't help but marvel at its immense detail, and especially all the constant verbal imploring that accompanies the notation, cautioning and then prodding ("don't rush here!" "hold back suddenly!" "play with a big tone, but not brassy!" ). It's almost as if he were standing behind you, whispering, yelling, sobbing, stamping throughout the whole performance. You realise that this man was a conductor. While the music is difficult and challenging, it's never impossible. Everything is within reach. The technical aspects of his symphonies have become paradigms for me: the embody the idea of works that are composed with an intimate knowledge of what must happen in their preparation, of what goes on when another musician grapples with the notes. I'm always impressed with Oliver Knussen's music, for the same reason, because it shows that same sophistication. So few composers have that depth of knowledge anymore.

JLW Is that something they [composers] don't consider to be important?

JA Well, I think that there are many composers who have virtually no experience in this but whose imagination is so strong and so powerful that one accepts the impracticalities and difficulties as given. That's certainly the case with Ligeti and Carter and Louis Andriessen, for example. None of these composers is an active performer. In some cases their distance from reality can produce

a kind of liberating statement because the composer isn't hampered by mere practicalities. I think that's the case with a lot of Schoenberg's music. Even in pieces like Gurrelieder or Verklarte Nacht the music's always one step above being convenient (in the way that even Mahler or even the most daunting Chopin etude is convenient). Schoenberg always seemed to have either an indifference or in some cases an almost awkward relationship with the act of performing.


JLW What are you working on right now.

JA I'm writing a piece for piano and orchestra for Emmanuel Ax.

JLW Does the commission system work for you?

JA Well I don't teach school and I don't teach in a university - I earn my living principally through composing, which is tough, but I like it that way. I work like a blue-collar worker - from nine to five.

Commissions are a way of life for me, but the better ones tend to come from the more established institutions. If you get a commission from, let's say, the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Metropolitan Opera it's hard to say no. It's an honor and usually a financial windfall, but it can be a double-edged sword. Chances are, unless you are unusually mischievous or have some kind of professional death-wish, you're not likely to produce a wildly outrageous piece for these august institutions. The pressure is very strong to behave and create something that fits the vehicle, and in the case of symphony orchestras or opera companies, the vehicles are not very flexible nor adaptable.

JLW Are you writing the pieces that you want to write?

JA I've had to tread a fine line between writing pieces that interest me and fulfilling commissions that wouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water. Lately I have tried to make it a point of conceiving the piece and THEN going out in search of an organization that will fund it. I like writing for smaller, more flexible ensembles like the London Sinfonietta.

JLW: What's your opinion of the future of the orchestra?

JA: When people ask that question I have to be quite blunt: I think the orchestral tradition has pretty much come and gone. There are periods in which a certain artistic genre sees a birth, a flourishing and then an eventual decline. It doesn't matter whether it's Elizabethan drama or Italian madrigal or the Homeric epic. Every genre eventually passes from the scene. Orchestral music reached its peak around 1900, and there's been a period of natural decline ever since. Look at how few substantial additions there have been to the repertoire since 1950 - it speaks for itself.

JLW But you handle the orchestra, not as though it were a sinking ship, but at full steam.

JA But in most of my music you can hear a certain irony that comes from self-awareness. If the music is successful or satisfying, it's because it stands in a very precarious, self-conscious balance between the past and the future. I don't think that what I'm doing with the orchestra is as avant-garde or as pioneering as, for example, the Stravinsky who wrote the Rite of Spring or the Berlioz who wrote Symphonie Fantastique. In fact I think "avant garde" seems rather a tired concept by now. But I suppose there's a value in what I do - even if it's only expressive of a certain cultural awareness we that typifies the end of this century.

JLW Did you have to think totally differently to make Hoodoo Zephyr?

JA Oh I did, and I loved working in that studio environment. I viewed the making of Hoodoo Zephyr as if I were a film-maker. Unlike a notated composition, which can be infinitely recreated through different interpretations, Hoodoo Zephyr was something created entirely in the studio. The end product of those months of work was a "final cut". In that sense it's very much like a film or a rock album in that it's a fixed object and not something that might be re-experienced in a different performance. One works with a very different attitude toward the music. I was able to enter an imaginative world that I could never inhabit writing orchestral music. Through the use of delay modules and reverberation one can create imaginary aural spaces that are infinitely more expansive than even the grandest of Bruckner symphonies. I am always amused by one of my reverb units that has various degrees of echo designated as "closet", "small room", "large room", "hall", "cathedral", "stadium" and "canyon".

JLW Do you feel that you want to cover a lot of areas . . . to work in a different genre each time . . ?

JA I think anyone who's been so public about pronouncing the demise of the orchestra as often as I have ought well to be looking for other media! I admire those composers who create their own idiosyncratic ensembles to play their own music. I think that may well be the wave of the future. I still write for orchestra from time to time because, unlike most other American composers, I really did grow up with it in my genes, and I know its inner workings intimately. The only chagrin I have is that the big commissions come from such conservative institutions, and one always has to write with the knowledge that, even under the best circumstance, you will never be given more than four or five hours of rehearsal time. That's why I prefer to work with much more unusual ensembles. The London Sinfonietta, for example, is an absolutely remarkable ensemble and for me an example of where a truly vibrant musical culture should be heading. Not only can they cope almost effortlessly with any kind of technical demand, but they also possess an almost chameleon-like ability to intuit the stylistic ecology of a piece and tune into it perfectly. One week they can be playing Gubaidulina music or Scelsi or an all-Henze or an all-Berio programme, and then they can turn around and do my music or that of Steve Reich or Louis Andriessen or Frank Zappa or something as stylistically remote a Miles Davis/ Gil Evans arrangement. I have had similar experiences with small, flexible ensembles like the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt and the Schoenberg Ensemble in Amsterdam, which, despite its unfortunate name(!), is an amazing group able to play just about anything in any style.


JLW Has the expertise of contemporary players, their ability to play new rhythms and sounds, affected the way you write?

JA Oh I think that your best British or American and Dutch musicians can play just about anything. They've cut their teeth on Stravinsky and Bartok and Messiaen and played impossibly difficult music by Ferneyhough, Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt. Plus they've also experienced different aesthetics like jazz or rock, or maybe some John Cage or Morton Feldman. I've been lucky because for the past 15 years I've had my music played by many of the best orchestras in the world. I know what's possible. I haven't had to wait a lifetime just to hear a single performance of a piece, as was the case, for example with Ives. On a purely technical level my music does not appear to be as difficult as that of many other contemporary composers. My musical ideas have never express themselves in the usual de rigeur complex form that we've come to expect from serious composers today. The difficulty in my music is one of concentration and energy. In this sense it's very very hard to get it right. Performers who have not played my music are shocked when it comes to the actual performance. During rehearsals they often look at it and think "Oh. This will be a breeze!" They tend not to concentrate too hard until the performance. But at the performance they're in sheer terror because once the music starts, it absolutely does not stop. If somebody falls off his skateboard or gets lost or even gets a beat behind it's disastrous. My musical images being what they are, it's painfully obvious when someone is not playing the right notes. I think this is not the case with much other new music, where only the composer might know if there is something wrong (and sometimes not even the composer knows...)

JLW Conducting these pieces of yours must be quite exhausting.

JA Well, it's aerobic. A piece like Harmonielehre is 40 minutes of intense concentration, demanding continual attention to keeping the pulse correct and the energy levels modulating - it 's very difficult. I've seen some of the world's greatest conductors really sweat, even be seized by terror in the middle of my pieces.


JA I think the change is not so much in performers as in the powers that make decisions and hold the purse strings. Orchestras and record companies are looking round and seeing empty halls and realizing that if they're going to survive they'll have to open up to what younger people are doing. Being a serious musician of any kind - jazz or whatever -in the US is difficult. In America we have always had to coexist with a rabid streak of anti-intellectualism and fundamental distrust of the arts. You can see it as early as Dickens' American scenes in Martin Chuzzlewit. Fear of artistic sophistication has always played a pernicious role in our culture, and we've never been able to rid ourselves of the suspicion that artists are somehow lazy scoundrels, living easy lives of sensuality and depravity while everyone else works hard for their decently earned wages. The recent crisis over Robert Mapplethorpe and the National Endowment for the Arts brought this whole public neuroses into painful focus. Only a completely uneducated rube would think that the arts ought to be able to pay for themselves. Anyone with even the slightest historical awareness knows that they never have and never will. If we continue to believe in the folly of Reaganism and Thatcherism, thinking that market principles are the answer to everything, we'll end up with a culture defined by the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber show.

JLW You once said that serious music had been 'written out of the scenario' of contemporary life. That people who read contemporary literature and serious theatre . . .

JA . . . they listen to David Byrne.

JLW Do you feel things are any different, when you talk to your neighbours . . .

JA You mean now, as opposed to five or ten years ago? No, I don't feel things are any different, I really don't. Since time immemorial contemporary music, whether it was Monteverdi or Josquin [CHK] or JS Bach, had always a tiny audience. If Mozart was famous in his day, his audience was nevertheless a small one. We have to accept that. But it was an influential, highly cultured one. Nowadays, we have a particularly bad situation because the audience for contemporary music is not only small, it's also not a particularly influential audience. The people who traveled to Bayreuth in the 1870's to hear the first "Ring" were among the most sophisticated and powerful people in European culture at the time. This is not likely to happen in our time, although I suppose "Einstein on the Beach" attracted a pretty impressive audience. Contemporary composers have labored hard to create a musical experience that is by and large impenetrable for even the most sophisticated of listeners. The payoff has been an ever shrinking audience and a real sense of frustration and powerlessness on the part of composers. There is a genuine hostility that exists between the average concertgoer and the present day composer that doesn't seem to occur in most other arts. Why, in a city like New York do you have three museums that specialize exclusively in 20th century art, and if you want to get in you have to wait in line [queue] for hours? The converse does not hold true for contemporary music. Programming a contemporary work becomes a public relations challenge. Marketing directors break out into hives, angry subscribers have to be pacified and everyone counts the number of empty seats. . It's a scene!

JLW Do you think that the more popular forms have plugged a hole that could have been taken by. . .

JA . . . classical music? Yes. Popular music, for better or worse, continues to provide that essential expressive experience, what Jung called the anima experience, the fundamentally emotional essence of human communication. "Serious" contemporary music seems to have largely abdicated this power to affect people on this deepest of levels. That's why composers spend so much time verbally explaining what they have done or have tried to do.

JLW Have other composers shied away from contemporary culture?

JA There have been in recent times some composers who have had an immense impact upon the culture in which they lived. Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland are interesting figures. They may not have been the inventors of significant styles in the way that Beethoven or Wagner or Debussy were, but they were nevertheless deeply imaginative figures who were plugged into the zeitgeist of their cultures. The composers who marginalised themselves were the ones who developed musical languages that were largely inaccessible to even a relatively sophisticated listener. We're talking about an epoch of 'contemporary music', 'difficult music', which I'm beginning to think will be seen historically as a period with a beginning and an end. A period that began essentially with Schoenberg and petered out during the 1970s and 1980s.


JA I view recording more as document. Nowadays I hardly ever listen to CD's, my own or anyone else's. I don't like to listen to classical music on CDs - I find it a very pale experience, and I know too much about the completely artificial way in which they are made. (I was once shown the producer's score of the first few bars of the Beethoven First Symphony with Roger Norrington's recommended edit points. Virtually every attack was from a different take.) The producer puts the recording together like a plastic surgeon or a pathologist. CD's are a world of utter falsification.

So I view my CDs only as a document and expect that a performer preparing a piece of mine would treat the CD as equal to the printed music. I'm disturbed when a CD that I haven't been consulted about appears on the market with performing decisions that are willfully or stupidly wrong. You can buy Shaker Loops on any one of eight different CDs, and some are good and some so disgracefully bad that I have fantasies of taking out a full page ad in Gramophone or some similar magazine, telling listeners NOT to buy certain CD's. But of course it's useless. There's no stopping the onslaught of distortion that comes about once a piece of music gets out into the world and begins to be performed by anyone.

JLW: What are your favorites among your CD's?

JA: I think most of what's on Nonesuch is pretty much to my liking. I've been blessed to have this company devoted to recording all my music and seeing to it that each album is performed and recorded and documented under the best possible circumstances. All the old Edo de Waart recordings made in San Francisco in the 1980's still give me great satisfaction. His Nixon in China is a classic. Edo understood my music innately. More recently Kent Nagano has made excellent, scrupulously performed recordings. And the ones I have done myself, such as Fearful Symmetries and Shaker Loops are pretty dependable indications of what I think the music should sound like. Michael Tilson Thomas has a recording of Lollapalooza which is due out later this year on BMG. I suspect it will be a knock-out. He's lately given some superb performances and seems to have a knack for bringing out the hidden detail in my larger scores.


JLW If really outlandish project came along, like a film score with a director you admired, or a pop album with some unusual singer . . .would you grasp that?

JA Oh I certainly would like to, but these seductions always come with a hidden price tag. Commercial films in the US are so market-driven that there are few creative directors who are able to continue for more than one or two films. If they become a success they are invariably destroyed by this very success. Money becomes the major issue, and almost every succeeding film is ruined by the baggage of this budget. In Hollywood you're only as good as your last film. It's an impossibly bad environment to work in as a composer. Leonard Bernstein tried it only once ("On the Waterfront") and the experience was so traumatic that he never did it a second time. So I've never had any interest in working in big commercial films.

JLW Could you have worked on, say, Twin Peaks, or 'sex, lies and videotape'?

JA I don't know. I think most of the people who work in the film business do only that, living a life completely devoted to the realities and the rhythm of the industry. Someone like Danny Elfman, for instance, has had a huge success writing scores that are clever manipulations of the old formulas of film music with a few added borrowings from Bartok, Stravinsky or Prokofiev. The scores are recorded in zillion-channel mixes and then blasted through monstrous speakers at the audience along with bone-crunching sound effects. It's hard not to overwhelmed in one way or another. But this is not an arena for real creativity, and that is a shame, because music and film are made for each other and ought to be able to achieve overwhelming aesthetic power. Economics, though, simply forbid it. It's not an exaggeration to say that television and comic books and popular iconography really run our cultural life. What comes out of official popular culture in the US, whether it's from Hollywood or the pop music and TV industry is absolutely, utterly corrupted.

JLW Is that the case in Europe?

JA I think that the English are working very hard to catch up. They seem determined to ruin a wonderful cultural climate. I see all sorts of evidence of creeping Americanism in terms of commercialism and marketing - in classical music as well as pop culture.


JLW Do you reply to critics?

JA Back in the 1970s I was told by a wiser and older person that it's 'useless to get into a pissing contest with a skunk…

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