John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Our Current Cultural Landscape

FJO: Now getting back to different opinions and how it effects new music, you mentioned popular culture. In a weird way you are connected to popular culture. In a weird kind of way you have one foot in popular culture in terms of the music you grew up listening to, and even some of the works you written. I’m thinking of pieces like I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw the Sky which is in some ways, if you don’t mind me saying so, a proto-Rent. I was listening again just the other day to "Three Weeks" and I was thinking, "This is a hit song!" And at that same time you had just written a Violin Concerto that was definitely influenced by Schoenberg… You did both of those in the same year, so you’re walking that line all the time.
JA: Well, I think that’s just me. I don’t advise young composers that it’s necessary for them to be active in so many different genres. On the other hand, I think that at this point and time historically, and particularly in America, that there ought to be nothing to forbid a composer from working in different genres. I think Bernstein is the classic example of that. I have a lot of problems with the quality of what he did, but I think that the fact that he was technically able to work in symphonic music, pop music, show music, and that he did it, and did it with great imagination, and in some cases great genius, I think should be a model for all American composers. You know one of the other problems about music, and I don’t know if why this happened, is that it became so – boundaries became so rigid. And this is particularly the case in Europe where if a composer moves over into the pop realm it’s considered sort of an indecent, immoral act because we have serious art and we have entertainment, or we have "divertissement" as they say in France. But one of the great things about American culture is the bleed through. And the movies are a great example of that because a great movie may be something that was predicated upon popular appeal.
FJO: And a lot of the great movies of the past have scores by great composers like Bernard Herrmann or Miklos Rózsa, people who also wrote symphonic music…
JA: Yeah. But I’m thinking of movies like Elia Kazan‘s movies, or Woody Allens for that matter, which didn’t start out life meaning to be Pierrot Lunaire. They started out to have a large audience and to be popular entities, but in so doing became major works of cultural value.
FJO: Well clearly when you sit down and say, or if a group of people get together and as a collective process say "we’re going to create a masterpiece for all time now," it’s doomed to fail.

The opening measures of John Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993)
© 1993 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s the opinion that classical music is in such a state of rigor mortis now. Some young composers are breaking through, but some countries such as France and several others that have produced great, great composers in the past seem to be just frozen and I think that’s largely because of the overly zealous and gallant with the attention and almost sacramental reverence that they accord the classics so that if you’re a young composer and you feel that you’re going to have to add yourself to the lineage that goes back to Josquin and goes up to Stravinsky and on to Boulez and Nono, it’s a terribly intimidating situation, and that’s one of the things that I had to break out of when I was a college student at Harvard. If you decided to be a composition major we were given this enormous burden of the past.
FJO: Well it’s interesting because in a way, it’s not really our tradition. I mean yeah, a lot of people in the United States have ancestry going back to Europe, but certainly not everybody, and we’ve established our own traditions which are geographically and chronologically displaced from the things that are going on in Europe. I don’t really relate to 19th century European music. I like a lot of it, but to me it’s as alien to me as listening to ragas from North India or Indonesian gamelan music, both of which I love just as much as I love listening to Schubert, which I feel is foreign music also. I grew up listening to really bad 70s pop music. Then I eventually started listening to really good 70s music. Then I started listening to new music and Broadway stuff, and it expanded out from there. But certainly Mozart or Chopin were never the center of what music was for me growing up.
JA: Well I can’t say that. I grew up listening to classical music. My parents were both jazz musicians, so that was definitely there, but my "Desert Island Pieces" were largely made up the European classical music canon, and that’s part of what makes my identity as a composer. And to this day, despite being the composer of Nixon in China, Ceiling/Sky and whatever, I can easily say the music that gives me the deepest satisfaction, that has the most meaning to me is the classics. When I hear my son practicing the "Waldstein" Sonata, my daughter playing a Mozart Violin Sonata, to me that’s still the greatest music there is.
FJO: Now in terms of popular music, do you keep up to date with all the things that are going on?

An excerpt of the song "Three Weeks" from I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky (1995)
Music by John Adams, Words by June Jordan
© 1995 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: I do, but sort of on a passive level. I don’t listen to pop music with the zeal and the excitement that I did in the 60s and early 70s. I think I’m showing my age (laughs) by saying that after the early 70s I thought the ingenuity and imagination of pop music really declined dramatically, and what became more interesting about pop music is the more the theater of it or the political content of it, but the actual musical content really peaked in the late 60s. (laughs)
FJO: It’s interesting, for me I find interesting stuff all over the place and you know the stuff that’s thrown at the public is usually not the most interesting stuff.
JA: Yeah, that’s always the case.
FJO: Buried way underneath the radar of mainstream pop culture are bands like Sonic Youth or Portishead or My Bloody Valentine, and hosts of other fascinating music, like the new Radiohead album that’s on the Billboard charts now, that’s really sophisticated, and as sophisticated as a good deal of contemporary concert music. And I think it’s an interesting time, and I say this to people all the time, that the contemporary classical music audience needs to develop the alternative rock audience as a potential audience for this music. And certainly with a number of pieces of yours I can see people who listen to alternative rock, coming to listen to pieces like El Dorado, pieces like Common Tones in Simple Time, and in fact, the very first piece of yours I’ve ever heard, and this goes way back, is American Standard which was on a record produced by Brian Eno whom I was very excited about at the time, and still am.
JA: Well, I have very mixed feelings about serious composers aggressively trying to court an audience. You know when I first started producing concerts in San Francisco back in the late 70s and early 80s, we created a series of new music concerts and we took them out of the concert hall, and we had a couple in a nightclub space, and another in a fashion mart, and places where the ambiance was different, and that was fun, and a big effort was made to bring the rock audience in, and to get a hipper audience, and the people came, and they were dressed in leather and in chains, and everybody thought "Oh, this is fantastically cool," but the end result was the they were not the most discriminating or the most knowledgeable or musically literate audience. And after a while I thought, well the size of the audience, the hip-ness of the audience in the long run really does not matter. What really matters is the literacy and the sophistication of the audience. So I think as I grow older I’ve become less patient with composers who try to tailor their music. You know there really is the danger of dumbing down of one’s language and I’ve seen really gifted composers follow careers where they have to dumb down their work, and they have large audiences, and big record sales, but I think the payoff, over time, is that the work they produce becomes flatter and paler, and future generations will find their music rather bland.
FJO: I do want to counter that though with a rather loaded anecdote about the Copland Festival that the New York Philharmonic did last year. I went to the concert that you conducted, and there was this audience there, a number of people who were hearing the Copland Piano Concerto for the very first time, this piece is over 75 years old, and I thought this was a great concert. I thought you did a tremendous job with the orchestra. It was the best the orchestra sounded in my hearing them in the last several years, and it was very exciting, and there were people at intermission who were subscribers who clearly did not know who you were, and did not know the piece, and they were going on and on about "oh, that piece was just terrible." They were talking about whether they thought the pianist was good or bad: "Well I couldn’t tell if that pianist was good or bad because there was nothing but noise, it was just banging, but that thin guy conducting, he was pretty good." And I though "They’re talking about JA!"

The opening measures of "Soleades," the Second Movement of John Adams’s El Dorado (1991)
© 1991 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher
RealAudio Sample

JA: The thin guy?
FJO: Yeah. (Both laugh)
FJO: And it really made me angry. I thought to myself, you know, this is a dumb audience too!
JA: There’s this wonderful passage in the Tom Wolfe book A Man In Full where a lawyer and his wife go to an Atlanta Symphony concert and they clearly don’t know anything about classical music, and also, it’s depressing because it appears in the description of the concert that neither does Tom Wolfe, but it’s amazing, it’s amusing, and it’s absolutely terrifying to read this because you realize how many people, and you look out at the audience at the large Avery Fisher Hall, 2500 – 3000, how many people there don’t have a clue about what’s going on, so one just has to realize that not everybody in the audience is hip to what’s happening.
FJO: Right, but I do think that among the jazz audience, among the alternative rock audience, certainly not the mainstream, commercial pop music audience, but among the alternative rock audience and the alternative audiences of all of these other genres, there’s a large community of people who really do listen to music with the same seriousness, if not more seriousness, than some of the subscription orchestra attendees.
JA: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. I think what I’m trying to say here is that as I’ve grown older and grayer as a composer I’ve been more willing to just tend my own garden and not worry about keeping up with the latest thing. You know when I was 20 years old I couldn’t believe how foggy and out of it my professors were, my parents were, you know, "What do you mean, you haven’t heard of Janis Joplin?" But now I think I understand that.

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