John Adams talks with David Beverly, October 25, 1995

This interview was conducted on the campus of the University of Louisville after John Adams accepted the Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto on October 25, 1995.

Klinghoffer and the Art of Composing

by David Beverly, October 25, 1995


[Adams on the piano-vocal score of Nixon in China] The original piano-vocal score which I prepared for the singers and for the staging was rather crude, a very very rough approximation of what I would eventually fill out in the orchestration I had to produce some kind of vehicle use in the initial rehearsals, and I didn’t want to expend a lot of time on making it elegant and then have to go back and change everything after having made the orchestration. Fortunately I have had the services of John McGinn, a brilliant pianist and imaginative musician who knows my music and has made astonishing piano reductions of almost all my pieces since Harmonium.. So the original Nixon piano/vocal score was a very rough sketch but at least it allows you to follow along and give you a rough idea of the harmonic detail. Eventually John made an excellent reduction from the final orchestation, and that is what Boosey & Hawkes published.

Are the operas available on videotape?

There was a “Great Performers”–pardon the expression– production of Nixon in China which aired nationally and in Europe shortly after the premiere . It was a produced videotape that was made in Houston during the opening week. Having to worry about this was a nightmare for everyone involved creatively, because normally you don’t want your very first performance to be recorded for history, warts and all. But that’s the way it was. It was a foregone arrangement that we as the creative team had little say about.. It is not now commercially available. I suspect because Peter Sellars was quite unhappy with the film. He wasn’t even allowed to direct it. PBS brought in someone from England who had a “track record” of producing operas for television. He did his best to make it look as much like Traviata as possible! Peter was just at the beginning of his staging of the work. It was years before the staging really came into a state of perfection. He works that way, always refining and adding. It’s a pity that the piece was filmed three or four years later rather than during opening week in Houston. So that’s only available through people who happened to have recorded it. [A videorecording of The Death of Klinghoffer is not available.]

I’ve been very interested in your comments on “Tricksters” and serious works, and I saw in a recent interview you seem to be distancing yourself from some of this. Do you see “Tricksters” as influenced more by American music and serious works as more European?

It’s possible. I think it’s quite possibly true, but I’m trying to distance myself from these facile characterizations. You know what happens: frequently is that you say something in passing and it gets picked up by a writer or a fan and eventually gets into common usage and becomes impossible to shed. Milton Babbitt, for example–he could never ever get free of the phrase “Who Cares if You Listen?” which he claims he never said anyway. Apparently an editor for High Fidelity magazine had added that phrase as a title for an article that Milton had written. Milton was doubtless appalled by it, but it’s curious that the phrase did stick. Perhaps it has lingered for so long in the public’s mind because that is the emotion many listeners have when they are confronted by his music. But the “trickster” term applied to my own work probably came about as a result of that one which paired Fearful Symmetries and Wound-I myself may have been responsible for introducing the idea in a desperate attempt to put a bracket around these two wildly different pieces. And I did perceive that about myself from time to time–that there were pieces that seemed to be very brash and had a Mark Twain tone to them, and then other pieces that were much more serious and contemplative. But you know, now that I look back on it, I see that in every supposedly serious piece, even in Klinghoffer there’s almost always a moment or two of more own brand of levity. There’s the British Dancing Girl scene in Klinghoffer, which briefly relaxes some of the tension. And of course, there is Grand Pianola, which, despite all its reputation for roguishness and vulgarity, is in fact a piece that is largely quite serene and sublimated. So, I acknowledge the bipolar nature of my music, but I am not anxious to make too much of it. I don’t want people to always listen to John Adams’s work and decide whether it’s black or white, green or blue.Kling new cover 1

Do you think too maybe you’re starting to integrate these styles?

I don’t think it’s really any different than it ever has been. What I notice in recent pieces is that I’ve become even more openly embracing of a certain ambiance or tonality in American music. And I don’t mean a tonality like B minor, I’m talking about a tonality of mood. I’m very deeply attached to American art, painting, literature, poetry, and, for sure, American music. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary American works of fiction. You know for years I read fiction from the nineteenth century or eighteenth century –a lot of German literature and French literature, but lately I’ve been reading works by novelists like Russell Banks, (I read his Continental Drift [1985]), Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy. Right now I’m reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. These things always have a way of finding a route into my music, no matter how subliminal the influence or the reference may be. So I think I’m going through a very strong, possibly even self-consciously American phase right now.

I’ve noticed you’ve mentioned a lot of writers, especially nineteenth century writers. So you take quite a bit of time to study literature?

Well, I do it also just out of pure pleasure, you know–the pleasure principle. And it also it defines my being in the culture as an artist. As you begin to gray and get older you begin to start thinking, “How do I really fit into this whole scene?”

Could you ever write an opera about your heroes? Or are Nixon and Klinghoffer heroes?

No, they’re not my heroes in the sense of archetypes that I’d like to model myself after. But as dramatic figures they are very appealing. Nixon was a fantastically complex and unpredictable figure, and I found it a real adventure to go “under his skin” in writing the opera. And the same goes for all the other characters in that opera. We know very little about the real Leon Klinghoffer. He was not a particularly interesting figure in himself in the way that Nixon and Mao were. But he was a symbol. He was a symbol of an American tourist, a modestly affluent American tourist, a modestly affluent Jewish-American tourist, and, last but not least, a modestly affluent handicapped Jewish-American tourist who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of these identities that he stood for made him an ideal target for a young Palestinian fanatic. It made him an archetype, especially when set up against a young Palestinian who had grown up in a horrible refugee camp in Lebanon hearing nothing from his parents or from his contemporaries except how Israel and America were the great Satans and that there was nothing nobler than to die for one’s beliefs and for Allah. So to put these two packets of energy together on the stage was an irresistible dramatic impulse.

I always thought he seemed to represent everything we feared with these kind of random acts of violence.

I suppose that’s true.

I guess Leon Klinghoffer was just on the Achille Lauro to have a good time.Achille Lauro

He was an unfortunate man caught arbitrarily in the middle of huge historical forces that collided momentarily, and he may well have been powerless to do anything about them. But in Act II, in his confrontation with the terrorist called “Rambo”, Alice Goodman gave him a kind of dignified anger which, while it may have felt good to vent, may also have brought about his demise.

I was struck by the vocal parts in both the operas, how, not all the time, but a lot of the time they seem to the rhythms of speech very closely. Do you grant your performers a little latitude as long as they come out on the downbeat with the interpretation of these rhythms?

Well actually, my approach to setting the English language, and particularly the American language, is one of almost no embellishment at all. I work very hard to make the musical setting of a text reflect its exact inflection. And I would say in general I give very little leeway to the performers. One of the reasons I like working with singers like James Maddalena and Sanford Sylvan is that they are supremely accurate rhythmically. My guess is that they’re probably more accurate than most opera singers. Now in the case of the Ceiling/Sky, my last piece, I was working more in a more popular genre, it’s expected of the singers that they use the typical improvisatory leeway that’s granted a good pop singer.

I’ve heard you’ve said that the first and second movements of the Violin Concerto as one of your most rigorous works. Were your methods this rigorous in Death of Klinghoffer? I ask this because of your comments saying the Chamber Symphony uses a “post-Klinghoffer” musical language.

No, the use of the term rigor applying to the Violin Concerto had to do with what for me is a kind of extreme organic integrity of the material. Motives and little cells of material were recycled and used in an extremely economical fashion. I would say I got an enormous amount of mileage out of a very small number of ideas in the concerto, which pleases me. I think it creates a sort of subliminal sense of unity in the work. In the case of Klinghoffer, the answer’s no. I certainly used my intuitive sense of organization, but I didn’t use motives, and scale forms, and received forms as I did in the case of the Violin Concerto. You know the concerto itself is a “received form”, and particularly the chaccone is an archaic form. My use of it was a rare example of neo-classic behavior on my part. But Klinghoffer is more intuitive and less self-consciously organized, although I do think that it’s very obvious that the parallel between the Bach Passions and any number of sacred oratorios is quite evident to anybody that takes the time to look at it.

I noticed this descending chromatic scale that comes back from time to time in Klinghoffer, so that wasn’t intentional?

Well, I don’t know… it’s been a long time and I’ve forgotten some of the things I did. However, I do know that there are certain harmonic shifts and melodic designs, which tend to reappear off and on during the work, particularly shifts from major to minor. Then of course there’s the Aria of the Falling Body, with its long descent that keeps going up again and then coming down. That conceit of “falling” is very much a common device in Bach’s tone painting. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Albert Schweitzer’s book on Bach, but he makes a great deal of Bach’s use of intervallic relationships for certain states of emotion.

Like affekt?

Yes affekt.

Why did you want couplets in both Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer?

I liked the idea of setting couplets because their use in poetry creates a very tight internal structure. Of course nowadays hardly any poets write verse like that. That’s what made Alice so special: she could write in any style, but she could also write couplets, and I think part of the brilliance of her librettos is due to the fact that she placed this rigor on herself. Of course, what I like to do is work against the rhythm of the couplet, upsetting it, so to speak.

I never thought your settings emphasized them.

No, they don’t emphasize it, but somehow the urgency of the couplet, the symmetry of it seems to force the poet into a very concise and, for me, very rhythmically organized speech. I certainly had lots of moments of frustration and confusion working with Alice Goodman’s work, as any composer working with great poetry would have. I mean there are moments when the rhythms just can’t be harnessed. But I will say that after working twice with Alice Goodman, I worked with June Jordan [librettist for I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky].June did not like to work in couplets and wrote a much structurally freer form of poetry, and I found that even more difficult to work with. Even now I think I still would prefer working with couplets. Certainly in the cases of Nixon in China and Klinghoffer we’re talking about an event that came to us over the contemporary media in all its banal and deadly unpoetic manner. You know how the news sounds when it comes over the TV or the radio. The language of the media has that ugly, loud, aggressive tone that is so devoid of feeling and emotion. So to express these stories in this archaic form of the couplet gave it a wonderfully mythic quality, a mythology that was flavored with an “only in America” kind of irony. I mean one could make a satiric version of the O. J. Simpson trial and do it in neat little couplets that would be quite devastating, in the manner of Alexander Pope. But Alice and I weren’t looking for satire. We were looking for a treatment that brought the entire experience, even Nixon’s most foolish comments, up to a much higher level of discourse.

Both operas strike me as very neutral.

Politically neutral?

Politically neutral. Maybe not Nixon as much but Klinghoffer was really neutral.

Well, it for sure didn’t strike some people as neutral. You know The Death of Klinghoffer was picketed by the Jewish Information League when it was done in San Francisco and I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the reviews that came out like the one in the Wall Street Journal.

I think they didn’t understand.

Well, I hope I can speak for my collaborators. We weren’t making an overly conscious attempt to be neutral, but on the other hand, after reading about the background it was impossible not to have strong feelings. All of us did a lot of research. I read the Old Testament for the first time since I was in Sunday school, and read many books on the history of the Middle East, the foundations of Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, Theodore Herzl,, etc. And I read a great deal of Edward Said’s writing. I know Alice Goodman read most of the Koran. And I think we all felt independently of one another that the situation like any complicated political situation in the world is much too complex to fall into one easy answer or another. Clearly his death was a kind of a crucifixion. He was crucified for the class of people that he happened to fall into.

It was like he was crucified for the media.

He was as I described– an American, a Jew, an affluent tourist on his way to Israel. He just happened to fill the bill for a a band of young, nervous terrorists looking for a victim. But there is in fact great uncertainty about the motives of the highjacking and whether the terrorists onboard had been duped by their handlers. And of course there is still a mystery about why an elderly handicapped man was chosen. Whether this was a kind of Nietzschian decision on the terrorists part I don’t know. “Well we don’t really want to kill anybody but if we’re going to kill somebody we’ll take out this old guy who’s already a cripple.” It seems like a kind of hectic, rash decision. Whether they thought there was some moral advantage to choosing him rather than someone else is anyone’s guess. But in looking at this story, one finds that neither side is beyond reproach. Nor can either side be completely condemned. And that upset a lot of people because many people, particularly American-Jews, much more so than European-Jews, felt that this was just an obscene and reprehensible act and there was no way that these terrorists should be given anything but complete, unconditional condemnation. And, of course, we didn’t do that, we certainly don’t let the terrorists off the hook morally–they murdered a defenseless old man, after all– but we do try to examine what their backgrounds were, what the forces were that brought them to this moment.

What was the function of the choruses in Klinghoffer? Did they bring multiple perspectives or give a historical perspective?

In some cases the choruses provide a historical setting, and they do so in what I think is a very ceremonial way. To me the sound of a chorus is a very archaic sound. They are bracket, so to speak– isolated from the action. When I hear them they make me feel as if the camera has suddenly moved way, way, way back as if looking at all this action through the reverse end of a telescope. Suddenly we are allowed to see this event as part of a vast historical perspective. In the Ocean Chorus we go back, not just to Adam and Eve, but to pre-history. Alice’s imagery in the Ocean is of paramecium primordial cells dividing– the very beginnings of life, a wonderful image for what goes on in the darkness of the those depths. The ocean, into which Leon Klinghoffer’s body returns, is the same ocean that was the source of the very first stirrings of biological life. So this chorus gives a sense of perspective and depth to this otherwise strident and glaringly contemporary event.

Are the titles themselves Ocean/Desert Chorus [Night/Day] biblical references?

The entire opera is about symmetries and polarities. It may be that the first symmetry was suggested by the Israelis and Palestinians [referring to the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jew from the prologue]. And then it followed that there would be a Night and Day, and Ocean and Desert. The Hagar Chorus contains its own symmetry within the story, which is of course the story of Abram and his two sons Ishmael and Isaac. So everything has its little built-in symmetry.

So Hagar Chorus complements the prologue?

No, I think of the Hagar Chorus as a single, one-of-a-kind with its own internal symmetry. The story of course is often cited as the point where the two nations, Arabs and Jews branched off from a common source.

I guess I felt it did since the prologue gave us a modern perspective and the Hagar Chorus. . .

That’s interesting. I never thought about that. Brought it back, you mean…

Way, way back.

Well that makes wonderful sense. And they’re both properly located. Well that’s great. Can I quote you? [laughing]

What is the significance of the term “gates” in your music? Do they take you to a vastly different place? Or are they evolutionary?

It’s more the first meaning. I don’t use the term anymore. It was a term that I started using in the late ‘70s when I was very much preoccupied with electronic music, particularly analogue electronic music. A gate is a module in an electronic synthesizer which changes the state of a waveform radically and immediately. If you look at those early pieces of mine, particularly a piano piece called Phrygian Gates, you can see how the music is its own kind of “analogue” of waveforms. I viewed the two hands playing different waveforms, each constantly modulating the wave. The major changes of mode and of energy levels were analogues of the “gate” principal. This technique is also the case, although to a lesser extent, with Harmonium, the big choral piece, and Shaker Loops. They all have in common a kind of irreversible modulations that take place [claps] in a split second which transform the affekt, the sensibility, the tonality and so on. Most often they happen suddenly, like an immediate shifting of gears.

I think in a lot of your works there is this sense of continuity.

Well, they exist within a continuity. Certainly Phrygian Gates or Harmonium give the feeling of being very continuous pieces, and the gates provide those all-important moments of transformation of the material. Nowadays, I do that less, partly because my harmonic language has, I suppose one could say, been “compromised” by increasing dissonance. So that a gate doesn’t have quite the shock value that it did fifteen years ago when I used to write very, very purely modal or diatonic music.

Is the libretto to Klinghoffer as it appears in the recording the same as what Alice Goodman originally wrote? Why did you cut and paste? Was it to give it more continuity?

I did have to make some cuts, although nowhere near as much as I had to with her Nixon libretto. You mean by “cut and paste that I took things and moved them out of position and put them somewhere else?

The Swiss Grandmother’s speech comes to mind where it’s interrupted by the Captain.

Oh. Well, yes. I did that out of dramatic necessity. I felt that the story the way Alice wrote it allowed me to intercut one narrative with another, because they’re essentially talking about the same thing, and I seem to recall the Swiss Grandmother is all in the past tense while the First Mate is in the present tense. And that was wonderful, that movement back and forth between past tense and present tense.

From your Grawemeyer lecture yesterday, what do you feel your social responsibilities are as a composer, and in particular, an opera composer?

Well, it’s hard and quite possibly dangerous to think as an artist in terms of social responsibilities. We had a big ceremony last night at the art museum, and everybody got their awards, all the other people and I. I had to say I felt very humbled and insignificant next to people who were genuinely doing things to change the world. You know these two women who worked with inner-city kids and the Australian foreign minister who’s been instrumental in bringing about a peace settlement in Cambodia. And here I am–all I do is push little black dots around all day long. [Adams is speaking of events at the University of Louisville campus when he and others accepted the Grawemeyer award.] And I try not to think about my work as being prompted by a sense of social responsibility. I think that great poetry and great music, and great poetry set to great music, can sensitize people. In some cases I suppose it can educate them, but more importantly it can sensitize them. Which is something that any kind of ceremony can make happen, whether it’s a religious ceremony or a performance of a great work of art. It focuses the mind on let’s say a higher level of consciousness or awareness. And, you know, whether it’s the Goldberg Variations or Götterdammerung one can come out of an experience with possibly an elevated moral awareness. But art’s a funny thing. It can’t be pinned down. A great work of art can conceivably have no moral impact whatsoever, and yet it can delight, it can do anything. It might simply just exist to give pleasure, any kind of pleasure from the purely sensual to most intellectual. So fortunately it’s potential is so vast that one can’t really assign a function to it.

Why was the scene with Alma, Harry, and Jonathan dropped from Klinghoffer withdrawn?

Well, that was a very controversial scene and it was a Jewish family who lived in New Jersey. This is a family, a fictitious family that we made up to fulfill a need in the drama. I think Alice thought of it as analogous to a “satyr play”, a comedic interjection in the middle of an intensely tragice narrative. It also set the context for the mindset of some American tourists. This family, the Rumours, knew the Klinghoffers and they had been on a similar cruise earlier. It was a domestic scene, it was a father and mother, middle-aged people about the age of the Klinghoffers and their young son who was going to law school. I very much enjoyed Alice’s sly humor in it and wrote music that complemented it.. Alice Goodman felt it was a satire, not on Jewish families, but on American consumerism. An important element in the opera is the bitterness and anger that these Palestinians felt against not only Jews but against Americans. They see our wealth, our affluence, and what appears to them as a kind of lazy presumptiveness. So in a certain sense, the scene set up an important background against which this terrible tragedy took place. And although it didn’t portray the Klinghoffers themselves, it portrayed them indirectly through the mirror of a pair who were much like them. Harry Rumour is a slightly cranky retired man, a political conservative who thinks Reagan’s a great guy. His liberal wife, Alma, is more worried about whether her son is going to make it through medical or law school–I can’t remember which it is. But many people who saw this scene felt it made fun of American Jews and therefore was anti-Semitic. For those listeners it sent the wrong message, making it very difficult for them to take the rest of the opera seriously. They really felt they were being dished out a political tract that sympathized with the Palestinians and ridiculed the Jews. So, we took it out, and I don’t regret its loss alone a half-hour long and it did not really integrate well into the structure of the rest of the opera. So I don’t miss it.

I really like this number with the Austrian woman with the use of Sprechstimme. Was that use of Sprechstimme and orchestration a reference to Pierrot Lunaire?

Yes, of course. She’s an Austrian woman and so obviously there’s an in-joke there because it’s not just Pierrot lunaire , but other Schoenberg quotes as well…I think a couple of quotes from the Chamber Symphony. As Michael Steinberg pointed out, she’s speaking in the Sprechstimme developed by Arnold Schoenberg, a Viennese Jew whom this woman probably would have loathed. Because, you know, although she thinks she’s being subtle, she can’t let out the fact that she does not particularly care to socialize with the Jews. What does she say?

“One would avoid the company of idiots.”


The orchestra struck me as paired off with the Captain and the Austrian Woman.


This Austrian Woman struck me quite differently from the woman in the news accounts, if it’s the same woman.

I have forgotten what the woman in the news account was.

I understood that she was an amputee. Her foot had been lost and she had been shoved down a flight of steps by one of the terrorists and she managed to crawl off and to hide.

Well then, our Austrian Woman is not the same woman. She’s probably someone we created. But certainly someone you might very well meet on a tour like this. [Laughs.] I will say that the British Dancing Girl is very faithful to the real person. We had a taped transcript of an interview with her. You can almost hear the gum clicking as she rambles on and on. She worked as a manicurist during the day and as a dancer at night. She has has this fantastic Cockney accent and Alice got her “daff” tone perfectly. And in fact, she showed up at the dress rehearsal in Brooklyn. She thought it was [with a British accent] rather strange. [Laughs.]

Why was the First Mate’s name changed to Giordano Bruno?

I wasn’t very happy with that solution actually. His name was Giovanni, I can’t remember, Giovanni something [Giovanni Massa]. We had been advised to take out an insurance policy to prevent ourselves against possible libel suits. There was a very remote possibility that someone might sue. We had to be careful about using the names of living persons. Apparently no one could locate this person, the First Mate to get his permission. So in the end we couldn’t use his real name. And [for] Alice, “Giordano Bruno” scanned perfectly. I wasn’t really crazy about it because I thought it might tempt some listeners to read more into the name than is really there.

Yeah. Just last week I saw that Meister Eckhardt

might have been executed by the Church and I thought there might be a connection.

Do you know if Alice Goodman used Gerardo De Rosa’s . . .


Absolutely. Is that book available now?

In Italian.

No, there is somebody who did an English version of it because I remember having that while I was composing. Somebody had translated it and we had a Xeroxed typescript of it. Now I don’t know if it ever got published or not, but that whole Captain’s monologue [from the opening of Act I, scene 1.] is largely taken from his memoirs. It’s amazing how Alice took his words and then put it into beautiful poetry.

Yeah, “the komboloi.” I thought that can’t be true. [The Captain’s premonition of an ill-fated cruise is set in motion when a passenger give him a komboloi.]

How was the Captain like Marlowe from Lord Jim?

Well, he’s sort of garrulous guy. I imagined the story being told in the evening the way a lot of those Conrad stories are. The men are sitting around after dinner out on the veranda and a yarn is being spun. This Captain likes to talk a lot about the sea and its brooding meditative quality. ” .. .in the interminable hours of navigation thoughts take shape and the same skill that steers the ship makes the intellect an animal” [from Act I, scene 1.] It’s so perfectly evocative of that kind of reflective, slightly garrulous nature that one finds in people who reach a certain age and reflect back over their past. He didn’t mind trying paint himself as a bit of a hero now and then.

You said in 1985, “It’s difficult to write a good tonal piece with real integrity that sounds fresh.” Is this true ten years later?

Sure. [laughing] It’s difficult to write anything that sounds fresh. But tonal music is especially hard because so much of the language’s possibilities have been covered before, and covered extremely well. What I’ve noticed about my style in the last year is that I’m moving away from the contrapuntal and harmonic density of pieces like the Chamber Symphony and Klinghoffer and now I am tending to work with more clearly tonal palettes. And we’ll see what this produces.

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