John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Technology, Chamber Music and the Symphony

FJO: We talked a bit about technology and how technology can liberated us when we talked about the use of amplification, and disseminating music through recordings. The use of electronic technology for what is essentially non-electronic music. I mean you have used synthesizers in your music from Light Over Water, to Hoodoo Zephyr which is all synthesizers, but for the most part you are writing for acoustic instruments even if they are slightly altered through the use of amplification. I remember an article I read about around the time of the premiere of the Violin Concerto. I was so thrilled that you were faxing parts back and forth with the violinist, and I was thinking: "This is exciting. We have all these office tools and you can use them for music." And now I guess you don’t even have to fax the pages, you can send a Zip file through the Internet. How do you feel about that as a composer working with all these tools?
JA: Well, I don’t think it’s any different than how it’s helped anyone in any other aspect of life. It defines our existence these days that we all use e-mail, and the Internet, and digital this and digital that. I mean you can look at any activity and see how it’s been profoundly affected. In my case certainly the most important change from an artistic point of view, you know, is what I do with synthesizers and samplers. When El Niño is done, it will be done with a complete what I call ‘sound design’ with the engineer, Mark Grey, whom I worked with for many years, where not just the voices are lightly processed, but the orchestra and the hall itself so it may be a great hall in which case we’ll have to do very little, but the piece inevitably will be done in really bad halls, and they can turn a bad hall, if not into a great hall, into a serviceable one. So that’s been the major contribution that technology has had to my work. I love synthesizers, I’ve always loved them. I composed an album called Hoodoo Zephyr for Nonesuch, and I was very disappointed that it was a flop, a serious flop in sales. People simply didn’t buy it, and the people who did buy it didn’t understand it or didn’t like it, and I was really disappointed by it because I loved making the album. I spent a lot of time on it.
FJO: I enjoyed it a lot.

The opening of Hammer and Chisel from John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994) for string quartet with foot-controlled sampler by John Adams
© 1994 Hendon Music, a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: And I would have loved to make more of them, and if life were longer and there were more hours in the day, I’d try to work in film because I think the marriage of electronic, or synthesized music and film is a natural one, but there’s just so little time and so much to do that I’ve just had to make a decision.
FJO: In terms of things to do and projects that are looming, I love all of these large-scale works, I love the fact that they exist. Part of me, though, wishes that you’d have time in addition to writing these great pieces, to write also more chamber pieces because I love Road Movies, I love Shaker Loops, the seven-string version, and you haven’t had as much time to do these smaller pieces. Are there any of these smaller scale pieces that you want to write in the future?

The opening page of JA’ Road Movies (1995) for violin and piano
© 1998 Hendon Music Inc., a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

JA: Well the very next piece I’m doing after these performances with El Niño are done is a solo piano piece for Garrick Ohlsson who’s a wonderful pianist whom I worked with on the Copland concerto and I think has got a very special way with the piano, so I’ll be writing a solo piece. I don’t think I’m very good at chamber music.
FJO: Oh I don’t agree, I love Road Movies.

The opening measures of JA’ Naïve and Sentimental Music (1998)
© 1999 JA. Published by Hendon Music, a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

JA: I don’t think that those pieces are that successful. I really like the recording of The Book of Alleged Dances, I love listening to it, but you know it really was never a big success when Kronos toured with it. Audiences were not particularly taken with it. And you know maybe it’s just a situation that it needs to be performed by different groups and have a history, but I just haven’t felt that I’ve been very successful, and I’m not being tendentiously modest here, it’s just didn’t appear to me to be my forte in the way that for example Carter is a really great chamber music composer, or Bartók, or Beethoven. But you can talk me out of it.
FJO: In terms of your place in the tradition and the standard works, and bringing back this world of oratorio, there are certainly works like Naïve and Sentimental Music which is in essence a symphony. And Harmonielehre is to some extent also a symphony. But you have not used the word symphony for any of these works. Will you ever?
JA: You know I thought about it, and every time I think about it I’m troubled or burdened by certain pre-conceived notions, so it’s easier to just not deal with that, and simply say I’m going to write a large scale work for orchestra, and a title comes to me. And whether it ends up being a symphony or not, as people say, “s’not me problem”.
FJO: Well certainly in terms of reaching younger audiences, a title like Naïve and Sentimental Music goes a lot further than “Symphony no. 5 in f# minor”; it’s a lot more exciting and a lot more evocative.

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