John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Youthful and Mature Composition

JA: You know what’s interesting about listening to an older composer is, for example the late works of Messiaen, or for that matter the late works of Beethoven, you see that as that composer matured and developed that the chaff sort of filtered away, blew away, and what was intensely meaningful during his or her life crystallized, the real nugget, which is often why a lot composers end up writing sacred music near the end of their lives because that’s what means the most for them. In the case of Beethoven, or Bach or Mozart, you know they became very interested in the mechanics of music, and you find a lot of counterpoint, and a lot of fugues, and a lot pure music. They’re less involved in scandalizing an audience, or posturing, and more involved in this extreme focus on the materials of the music.
FJO: Getting to this notion of scandalizing an audience, I remember the very first time I ever heard your music live, I was an undergrad at Columbia, and I went to the Horizons Festival to hear the premiere of Grand Pianola Music, and there were boos in the audience, and I was cheering. And it was great, I was thinking, "Here we are, Lincoln Center, this bastion of conservative European music, even though it doesn’t look like it is, you know it’s a very austere American modernist-looking place even though you rarely hear contemporary music or American music there, and here’s this piece that was really defiant, really brash, full of energy, really exciting, and there were people booing. "This is great," I thought because I was this young revolutionary-wannabe going to these concerts. And you certainly had times in your life, and you even said as recently as ten years ago that there are always pieces of yours that are "trickster" pieces. One of my favorite pieces of all of them is Fearful Symmetries which is this relentless joke in a way. So at this point, I believe, in listening to the MIDI recording of El Niño (which is all I have to go on because it hasn’t been performed yet), there are elements of the trickster still in there. I almost hear a synthesis between the so-called trickster pieces and the so-called serious, it almost seems like a grand synthesis of the two. Is this the direction now?

The opening measures of John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (1988)
© 1989 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well, I think I really caused myself unnecessary grief by suggesting about 10 years ago that there was the trickster JA because I haven’t been able to get rid of it. It’s been like a piece of gum that you get stuck on your shoe for months. But let me say to respond to that that I do think that wit and humor and for that matter entertainment are things that a great artist ought to have the option to do, and certainly Shakespeare is always my first citation there. In King Lear there’s great humor, Hamlet has humor although it’s sort of a dark savage humor. And you can find it in Goethe, and all the really great creators. And one of the things that I was really bothered by about avant-garde music was its intense humorlessness. That seemed to come with the territory.
FJO: Although feeding a piano with hay is pretty funny.

An excerpt from the Third Movement of John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music (1981-82)
© 1982 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well yes, there’s Dada. If you want to be funny you have to go to extremes. And that’s really a very provocative issue about some of my music. You mentioned Grand Pianola Music. To this day I can’t quite explain what that piece is about but it’s definitely a funny piece. Although not all of it is, some of it is quite tranquil and very lyrical. But again, I think that’s part of the American experience, you know we live this life that is full of all sorts of mind-bending paradoxes, the typical "5 children murdered in their classroom, details at 11 — now sports" kind… so we have to live with those kinds of non-sequiturs in American life, and I think you find a lot of that in my music.
FJO: So getting back to this issue of responding to all these different currents, we talked about east coast/west coast, uptown/downtown, old/new, avant-garde/old-fashioned, popular/classical, even secular and sacred, trickster/serious… Clearly in your early career you were grouped with the four most prominent minimalist composers, Reich, Glass, Riley and La Monte Young, and now we’re discovering there were a whole host of others, and you’ve been identified as the person who took minimalism out of the rigors of high modernity and opened up the Pandora’s box of post-minimalism. Where do you see yourself in this trajectory, in the lineage? And who were your heroes when you were doing this?
JA: A lot of this depends on when you live. And I live at the period in musical history that, for lack of a better term, is sort of post-stylist. You know we talk about post-modernism, and modernism and this and that, and it seems like I was the first, and if not the first one of the first, post-stylistic composers. A composer for whom style wasn’t a fundamental preoccupation… And you know it’s interesting that when I talk to a person like Steve Reich, I feel the generation gap very strongly even though we’re only 10 years apart. His criticisms of my work tend to be on stylistic grounds. They’re less so on content, and hopefully not on value grounds although maybe he’s just being polite, but there are very strong criticisms on stylistic grounds and I think of that as being more of a mindset of the modernist era when style was extremely important. You know I grew up in a period when the LP record was the major document, the major databank for young composers. And this was something that even someone born in the 1930s didn’t have in the amount that I had, so every aspect of music was available to me when I was a kid. I could listen to Indian music, and I could listen to rock and roll, and jazz, and Beethoven and Stravinsky and later on avant-garde music came out on LPs, so naturally it would seem an automatic thing that a composer would develop a musical personality that would reflect that vast reservoir of influences. And when I read John Cage, whom I adore, you know I love John Cage and I was very influenced by him in many ways, but the most puzzling thing about John Cage was his total exclusivity. He wasn’t interested in jazz; he wasn’t interested in rock and roll. He wasn’t interested in Mozart. He was only interested in certain contemporary composers if they fit into his particular point of view which would be Satie, or Varèse, or who knows what. And I felt, that’s fine, but it’s also so exclusive, it’s like looking at life blinded.
FJO: And it’s almost hypocritical in a way. I mean you look back, I remember reading a statement of Cage denouncing Glenn Branca after how loud one of his concerts was.
JA: Oh I know that story.
FJO: Yeah.
JA: I can’t say it’s hypocritical, I think it’s very honest.
FJO: But it showed that he did have a viewpoint.
JA: Well yeah, but you asked me if I listened to techno and I said no. You know it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I have so many things that I can involve myself into.
FJO: …Although I would contend that with Hoodoo Zephyr you almost did make something that’s almost a techno album…
JA: My point being we’re talking where I am historically, and when I look around and see other composers, both in this country and Europe, I see that the direction that I took in the mid to late 70s was not the wrong direction. It was really actually the right direction even though it was very punishing and I took an enormous amount of ridicule.
FJO: From both sides.
JA: Yeah, from both sides, it’s true. I felt like a Centrist Democrat.
FJO: (laughs)
JA: You know you have Ralph Nader on one side…
FJO: …and Pat Buchanan on the other.

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