John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Differences in Europe and America

FJO: You were talking about European composers and the strangle hold of culture in places like France, Germany and Italy. It’s interesting to me because there’s a lot of really interesting music happening in England now, new music, younger composers in England, in Finland, and in a lot of the former Eastern block countries, and I think the reason why that’s happening is while they’re in Europe, there isn’t this ‘grand’ old tradition in these countries. You know there’s no great 19th century English composer, for example. Certainly, there’s Sibelius in Finland whom every composer there has to deal with, but he’s a turn of the century figure so he’s a very different phenomenon, and in the Eastern European countries this is even less true, places like Croatia, Estonia, etc. And in a way that’s how it is being an American composer. That, and the blend of cultures… There’s this Bill Murray movie I saw years ago, this really silly movie called Stripes, and he talked about how American’s are mutts – and that’s our great cultural legacy to the world that we’re mutts.
JA: Mongrels.
FJO: Yeah, and you even used the title "Mongrel Airs" for the first movement of your chamber symphony. So that’s clearly an American position. I don’t know if you could have developed the way you have developed as a composer had you lived in any other country. I don’t know what you think about that.

An excerpt from "Mongrel Airs", the First Movement of John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992)
© 1995 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well it’s so hard to second-guess what elements converge to create an important period in culture. What is sort of depressing but true is that if you look at the history of culture you see that there are times, there are little tiny pockets in the timeline, for example Renaissance Florence, or Paris in the 20s, or for painting, the period in France in the last half of the 19th century, and you know it’s very hard to say what brought about a Sibelius, or what brought about a Bartók, or Shostakovich. You know sometimes you have a very powerful mind working in an environment that was actually geared against him.
FJO: Shostakovich is a perfect example.
JA: Yeah, or Edvard Munch in Norway where these people became temporarily exiles, which was certainly the case with Munch, or with Hemingway. So it’s just such a complex thing to try to figure out. I suspect that part of the reason why American culture had a good time in the 20th century is that there’s been a lot of money, and there’s been an issue of our finding our identity. And if you read about Gershwin, he had an enormous complex. He wanted to be thought of as a classical composer, and we’ve forgotten because we think of Gershwin as this great composer. We don’t care if it’s classical, or pop, or Broadway or what, we’re just so thankful that he lived and he did what he did. But I think that judging from what I know about him, he suffered deeply throughout his life that he wasn’t considered a classical composer.
FJO: There’s that old legend that Gershwin went to Ravel and Ravel said why be a second rate Ravel when you could be a first rate Gershwin.
JA: Whether that’s apocryphal who knows…

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