Thursday, September 5, 2013

"Traditional terms?" - interview with John Adams

Composer John Adams recently appeared as conductor with Australian orchestras, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I interviewed him for the printed program booklets for both orchestras. A complete version of this interview is reproduced below:

‘Can’t be defined in traditional terms’: Gordon Williams speaks to John Adams

The American composer, John Adams has had a longstanding presence in Australia. Nixon in China was the featured opera at the 1992 Adelaide Festival, and in 2002 the Adelaide Festival saw the Australian premiere of El Niño, in a version directed by Adams’ regular collaborator Peter Sellars, who had resigned as Festival Director some months before. I interviewed Adams in the Northern Foyer of the Sydney Opera House in 2000 at the time of the Australian premiere of Naive and Sentimental Music, one of a couple of Sydney Symphony co-commissions. Adams says he feels badly that he hasn’t been out to Australia since, because he knows what a great musical culture Australia has. He was particularly impressed when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Huw Humphreys asked for an ‘all-Adams’ concert in Melbourne. But there have been major additions to Adams’ output in the intervening years (City Noir, operas Dr Atomic (2005) and A Flowering Tree (2006), and a second oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2011)), so it’s a good opportunity to see how his views might have changed over the years. 
When I interviewed him in 2000 Adams was almost patriotically proud of Minimalism, an ‘-ism’ which had done much to bring audiences back to contemporary classical music in the 1970s and 80s. This time he was almost bemused that I began by asking him about it.

"I think that it was a very important stylistic development or invention, and I think it spawned several masterpieces – certainly [Philip Glass's] Einstein on the Beach and early Steve Reich pieces - but I haven't really thought in terms of Minimalism myself since the early 1980s. I'm surprised when the subject comes up but then, of course, audiences know my early pieces like Shaker Loops, and think about them and listen to them more than I do, so it's understandable. I mean it's a style of composition that is defined by three specific things – it's emphatically tonal and it's got a regular pulse. It uses repetition to create its musical structures. But that said: I sublimated Minimalism. I was very restless within its confines and tried to break out of it early on."

Anyone who has seen the rapturous reaction of an audience to Harmonielehre (such as when Markus Stenz conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the work in 2004) will realise that Adams is a living orchestral composer with the magnetic pull of a Beethoven or Mahler; and a great deal of that power can be credited to Adams' ability to re-create tension and climax in the way that has been exciting in western music since at least the classical period. I put it to him that he had come back to traditional cadential motion refreshed by Minimalism.

"My music is definitely harmonic and has a sense of tonality, but it's too elusive and evasive and it moves so quickly that I don't think it can be defined in any particular traditional terms. What's interesting in recent pieces is my use of mode. I'm not unlike a jazz performer in that I create modes using various combinations of whole steps and half steps and they generate both the harmonic and melodic feel of the piece. It's not a new development but I think I've given a new spin to it. I really think that if there's been a success with audiences with, for example, the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass or myself, it first and foremost relies on the beauty of the harmonic relationships. That rhythmic thing is very important, the sense of atmosphere with all of us, but if you took Steve Reich's music and made it atonal or made it harmonically indifferent nobody would want to listen to it."

I home in on what he says about harmony as that's really the sphere in which audience reaction to contemporary music has been played out in the past 100 years. Adams has used Schoenbergian technique for entertainment value (imagined in a cartoon-like context in his Chamber Symphony), and the title of his 1985 symphony Harmonielehre pays tribute to a 12-tone master "who knew tonal harmony better than almost anyone on the planet."  

"I really don't believe that you can be a good composer unless your music has a very strong, harmonic...let's say 'profile'. The problem is that harmony is not taught seriously anymore. I sound like the sort of old guy I never wanted to be, but I look back on my life and realise I was lucky because my parents found a teacher who could teach harmony. He exposed me to harmonic practice, and then I studied with a student of Nadia Boulanger when I was in college so I've had this developed sense of harmonic awareness all my life."

It might be argued that Adams broke out of Minimalism partly through what has been described as 'hypermelody', a melodic line that, in certain works, began to float over the top over the mosaic of repeated motifs that you otherwise find in Minimalism. Critic, Paul Griffiths has said that, "The first movement of the Violin Concerto is a supreme example of this technique. Entering over rainbow staircases of arpeggios from the orchestra, the soloist begins with just one interval, a falling minor third (from E flat to C), and spins a line that goes on for almost a quarter hour with little interruption." Perhaps Adams' development of a sense of line was inherently American. 1988's The Wound Dresser uses a text by Walt Whitman set with a melodic straightforwardness learnt from songwriters like Gershwin or Richard Rodgers. I asked Adams about the artistic influence of America, a homeland he's paid tribute to in a number of works, such as  2003's My Father Knew Charles Ives (which apostrophises the musical heritage of the Northeast, Adams' boyhood stomping ground) or The Dharma at Big Sur ('a concerto after Jack Kerouac').

Big Sur coastline, California. It's my own simplification perhaps, but I can't help strongly associating Adams with northern Californian landscapes. Released into the public domain by Calilover on Wikipedia
"Well, we're an intensely musical culture and part of the reason for that is the ethnic mix. I can't imagine how pale and uninteresting American music would be if it hadn't been for African-American culture. We've mixed it up in many ways. George Gershwin – a second-generation Russian Jew who absorbed all different kinds of vernacular music and particularly black music and created these masterpieces that we're so grateful for. And I think it's fair to say that I am conscious of what I'm doing when I incorporate elements of the music that's around me. But of course, I'm first and foremost a classical musician. City Noir is a good example of what I do. In a sense it's a symphony but informed with and full of my experiences with jazz and particularly jazz as it appears in the movies, circa 1940 and 50. I'll be doing a version of it in Melbourne which I think is very satisfying now."  

City Noir was partly inspired by Kevin Starr's 'Californian Dream' series of books, which cleverly convey the mood of the 'noir' period in Los Angeles' history when it was "a Front Page kind of city... a demimonde of rackets, screaming headlines, and politicians on the take; a town of gamblers, guys and dolls, booze and sex...Double Indemnity could have been set in Indianapolis, but it could not have had the same sense of evil beneath the sunny surface of palm-lined streets..."

Of course, John Adams is a good, solid New England name, the name of the US's second president in fact. And Adams had what might be considered a typical east coast Democrat's upbringing. Indeed he remembers shaking Candidate Kennedy's hand during the New Hampshire primaries in 1960. But he now lives in San Francisco and has written a piece about California's other city. I wondered to what extent people mightn't realise the enormous contribution that Los Angeles has made to music?

"Well, you know, I think California in general is very culturally rich area and the outside world tends to look at us as in a very hackneyed, prejudiced way. They look at Los Angeles as Walt Disney and Arnold Schwarzenegger and San Francisco as beatniks and the Golden Gate Bridge. It would be as if you thought of Paris only as the Eiffel Tower. Los Angeles is one of the most ethnically-rich urban environments in the world and it has a great history of the arts – wonderful patrons – and a great musical richness. And of course San Francisco has a very interesting history of the 1960s – Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead and then Allen Ginsberg and The Beat poets. So I think I've had a good time – not in every work – but occasionally in my works of placing myself in this culture and trying to make a musical evocation of it.

"You use an obbligato saxophone in City Noir.

"Well, you know, the saxophone doesn't get a lot of respect in the world of classical music and when it's used – which is quite rarely – it's usually for special effect. I've included saxophone in my pieces since Nixon in China in 1987 and I'm very used to the sound because I grew up listening to it. My father occasionally played it [he played in a swing band at the Winnipesaukee Gardens resort during the northeastern summers] and I myself actually played it but not very well. I wrote City Noir because I wanted to evoke that kind of nervous bebop sound that you occasionally heard in the background in film noir and so I wrote a virtuoso solo part in City Noir for alto saxophone and it sounds like it's being improvised but isn't. In fact, Tim McAllister played it so brilliantly [in the premiere performances] that I thought, gee maybe I should write a concerto for this guy because there aren't many good saxophone concertos.

"You’ve already written a violin concerto so you’ve got some experience in concerto form. Did you have to rethink it for saxophone?

"When I enter into a piece I don't have formal plans. Paul Hindemith said you should have everything already planned out before you've written the first note and I just think that's completely counter-intuitive for me. I look at composing as an adventure, like Magellan going out. I think there might be some continents out there but I don't know what they look like and I really launch an expedition, so the form usually ends up being the result of the materials that I’ve chosen."

Talk of the podium prompts me to ask Adams about his work as a conductor. The last time he went to Australia he was actually sitting in the audience listening, as Edo de Waart conducted his work.

"I've actually been conducting all of my professional life and way back in the 90s I had already conducted some of the great orchestras – Cleveland, Chicago, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. I try to control the amount of it each year because, not only does it take time away from my composing, but it also takes psychological energy. I have to become almost like a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. When you're composing you're very inward and introverted and solitary and when you're conducting you have to be a very public person and outward. And that's why, when I read about Mahler I'm amazed that he could do both but I'm also aware of why people thought that he was a very difficult personality because it's a real challenge to move from one activity to the other. On the other hand, it's also tremendously fruitful for me, because not only am I able to polish my own pieces but when I do music that isn't my own I think I can bring a certain, perception to the performance of it."

Adams' music has often been inspired by big themes, orchestral works such as 2010's Absolute Jest may pay respect to masterworks of the European repertoire, the stage works cover the meeting of civilizations (Nixon in China), the creation of the Atomic Bomb (Dr. Atomic), several new takes on Christianity (El Niño, The Gospel According to the Other Mary)... I ask Adams what's next?

"I wish I could tell you. Every book I read, every story I encounter, I'm always kind of prospecting for a story because I think that, if people remember me in a hundred years, it'll be more for my stage works and my operatic works because they do really kind of put their finger on the pulse of our time, whether it's politics or nuclear war or terrorism...It's just very hard to find the right spin. It has to be, on the one hand, universal in its theme and yet at the same time something that can be localized in terms of the story into an extremely compact time and group of characters. I know I’ll find something but it's very frustrating not to have it right in front of me.

"I was very impressed that you'd read all those ‘California Dream’ books.

"Yeah, sometimes I think I read too much. I look around and think there are other things to do in life, but I was at a farmers' market you know, shopping for vegetables, and this guy had a T-shirt that said, 'Eat, Sleep, Read'."  

He laughs. It almost sounds like 'eat, sleep, read' is precisely what Adams wishes he could do now, but I know that pretty soon after I get off the phone he's going to "hunker down" (his agent's words) to write, something he'll be doing between this interview and preparing for a concert tour of Australia. I can kind of understand how he answered my question about Minimalism by saying that his music "moves so quickly that I don’t think it can be defined in any particular traditional terms".

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2013

The repertoire for John Adams' concerts with the two Australian orchestras was:

BEETHOVEN Fidelio Overture
ADAMS Violin Concerto (with Leila Josefowicz)
ADAMS Saxophone Concerto (world premiere, with Timothy McAllister)
RESPIGHI The Pines of Rome

ADAMS Short Ride in a Fast Machine
ADAMS Violin Concerto (with Leila Josefowicz)
ADAMS City Noir (Australian premiere, with Timothy McAllister)

Edited versions of this interview can be viewed at:

and, for Melbourne, in "In Concert September"

If you are interested in other of my articles on composers, please see:

Sousa and the Sioux, 19 August 2011

"...above the canopy of stars..." - Beethoven's Ninth, 28 May 2012
Percy Grainger, the chap who "wanted to find the sagas everywhere", 17 June 2012
A Star and his Stripes - Bernstein, the populist, 29 June 2012
Igor in Oz: Stravinsky Downunder, 17 July 2012
Wagner - is it music, or is it drama? 27 July 2012
"Beautiful...sad": Puccini's La boheme, 29 July 2012
Philippa - an opera [blog 1], ideas for an opera on Philippa Duke Schuyler, 16 Sep 2012

On my website, click on "USA blog" to scroll down the full selection.

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