John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music


FJO: Earlier in this discussion, you were talking about how some composers in their later, more mature works turn to sacred pieces. The earliest piece of yours that was on my radar and on most peoples’ radars because it got disseminated through recordings was American Standard which has as its second movement “Christian Zeal and Activity,” the voice of this preacher on a tape with the ensemble playing on top of it. And certainly Shaker Loops references the Shakers, an important American religious community, and you’ve set John Donne who wrote a lot of great sacred poetry. And I guess, on the opposite side of that, there’s the preacher character in Ceiling/Sky who’s a rapscallion in a way, you know, he’s a womanizer, in the end he turns out to be a pretty good guy, but he’s right down the middle and we’re never really quite sure whether or not this he’s a good guy or a bad guy, and certainly there are religious elements in Klinghoffer and the zealotry the main Palestinian protagonist comes from a religious position. Where do you see the role of religion in society, and, by extension, the role of sacred music and why are you turning to a sacred work? A work that’s overtly that way?

An excerpt from JA’ Harmonium (1980-81), text by John Donne
© 1981 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well, I hate to think of religion in terms of a role, so I’d rather not answer it from that angle. I think every person has a spiritual life. Now, whether that is a highly evolved spiritual life, a person belongs to a church or a temple, meditates every day or goes to church or prays or whether it’s a totally different kind of less organized activity, it’s really up to the individual. And I can’t actually describe to you what my inner religious life is. I grew up in a small town in New England, and went to several Christian churches with my mother. My mother was a person who had grown up in an Irish Catholic family, and she’d married a man who had come from a Swedish Lutheran family and who hated religion, he just didn’t want anything to do with it. So, my first memories of religion were going to the Episcopal church with my mother in this very small town in Woodstock, Vermont. I even remember being baptized, my parents had not gotten around to baptizing me until I was about four. So, I do remember that. And then later on my mother decided to join a Unitarian church in Concord, New Hampshire, and I can’t remember why. It was either because she had more friends in the church or it had a better choir or she was disgusted with the Episcopalian church for some reason. I can’t remember. But I was very aware and intensely serious about the Christian philosophy at that time. And then I sort of drifted away from it. When I was in college, I became very interested in Buddhism and in Indian religion, partly from being involved with the 60s and the drug culture. I can’t tell you where I stand on it now, officially. But I do know that the mythology, if you want to call it that, of the Christ story obviously had a profound effect on me, and particularly this very sweet and simple story of the Nativity. So, this was a piece that I always wanted to compose. I think for 20 years now I’ve wanted to do this piece.
FJO: What’s so interesting to me though is that many year ago I read the Gnostic gospels, you know, the gospels according to James, and all these other gospels, and they are these wonderful pieces of prose that are little known. And in a way, by setting those texts, by basing things around those texts, it’s not tackling a sacred piece from necessarily a sacred position because these texts are not really worshipped by anybody.
JA: You mean it’s a Unitarian point of view.
FJO: (laughs)

An excerpt from JA’ Shaker Loops (1978, revised 1982)
© 1978, 1983 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well, I don’t want to imply that I have some secret agenda at all. I wanted to tell a story, but not the same story that Handel told. Nor did I want to be aggressively avant-garde about it. And the Gnostic gospels are wonderful because they are like little fairy tales. It’s the same setting, it’s the same fundamental narrative, but they’re different, they’re little events. There’s this wonderful little story where they are on their way to Egypt and they stop by a cave and dragons came out of the cave. Of course you can see why the founding fathers of Christianity didn’t want this particular story in the New Testament because dragons immediately cast doubt on the validity of the story. And there’s a lot of magic.
FJO: Yeah, I love the story of when Jesus is 5 years old and I guess his elementary school teacher is annoyed that he’s getting all the answers correct…
JA: The Al Gore of his time…
FJO: (laughs) And the teacher chastises him and of course says he’s wrong about something, and of course Jesus wasn’t wrong, the teacher tries to hit him and he’s frozen.
JA: Yeah.

FJO: I love that.
JA: I chose them partly for that reason, I like that there is this sort of whimsy and fairytale quality about them. But also, there’s wonderful character shaping. In the Gnostic Gospels there are confrontations between Joseph and Mary that are quite modern. It’s very clear that Joseph thinks when he first hears Mary is pregnant that he’s been cuckolded and this is never quite brought out in the official gospels like Book of Matthew. So those were wonderful elements to incorporate into this.
FJO: Now, you’re calling it El Niño, but it originally had the title How Could This Happen which I really like as a title because it is ambiguous, but El Niño also has a wonderful ambiguity to it because it also conjures up that terrible weather pattern that we had a few years ago. With a title like How Could This Happen or El Niño you get a sense that it isn’t all positive. And certainly the history that’s played itself out in the last 2000 years as a result of this event whether historical or mythological or how ever you want to look at it, not everything has been positive. Is that sort of part of the idea giving it these one or two different titles?
JA: I don’t think so. My first title which was How Could This Happen is actually a translation from Latin, it’s a line from the Christmas Antiphon that was sung in Medieval church on Christmas Eve. It was a word, or a phrase that came into my mind the very moment my daughter came into the world. In the delivery room there were 5 people in the delivery room, then there were 6, and I think I chose that title originally because it was an expression of this sense of one’s complete incomprehensibility that you simply cannot explain how a human being can come into the world. And the only reason I decided not to stay with that title is because it didn’t seem to have a poetic scansion to it, people didn’t glom onto it as they did to Nixon in China. And there was a possibility a certain arrogantly, ironic twist to it that I didn’t want it to have. I chose El Niño because in all the Spanish literature about the Nativity, the words El Niño are there all the time, and it’s in this Sor Juana de la Cruz poem where she speaks of El Niño, the baby child that comes into the world. As to the resonance with the storm, I think that one could make the point that Christ was referred to as the wind, this powerful being from heaven, which came in and completely upset the tables and the temple and threw humanity into chaos which is necessary for one’s spiritual growth. I suppose one could deconstruct the title on that level.
FJO: And certainly by setting a lot of Latino poets, you are referencing the community that was hit hardest by El Niño.

Continue Reading.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.