John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Practical Musicianship

FJO: Getting back to the 70s… Your formative years as a composer, coming out to San Francisco, conducting, working with the ensemble, working with the performers closely, that was really a time when a lot of composers, I’m thinking of Philip Glass having his own ensembles, Steve Reich and musicians, and lots of your contemporaries in California like Daniel Lentz and Paul Dresher. A lot of composers were establishing their own ensembles because the orchestra was a disconnect, it was far removed. People also weren’t writing string quartets, now everyone’s writing string quartets again. Everyone’s writing for standard ensembles again, and in standard forms. A lot of the avant-garde composers would never dream of writing an opera, and they certainly weren’t writing for orchestra. And then I guess there was a shift, in the ’80’s, as these composers became recognized through their ensembles, and this is true for your work as well, to a good extent.
JA: Well, I actually very, very much admire to the point of envy those composers who had a sound image and who created an ensemble to embody that sound image. You know, you mention Reich and Glass, and those are, you know, very important cases. Meredith Monk, Harry Partch… Um, for that matter, Conlon Nancarrow.
FJO: And, to stretch it, Duke Ellington, and all the other jazz composers.

An excerpt from JA’ Phrygian Gates for solo piano (1977-78)
© 1983 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Yeah, O.K., of course. But I think that very much is in the American grain. And in that sense I am less of a progressive figure in that what I do is to take formats which had already pre-existed and I’ve sort of tweaked them, by adding samplers and synthesizers to the orchestras. I was a child of the orchestra, I started playing in an orchestra when I was in elementary school and it’s been my mode of expression, so it’s been a natural thing for me. And for what I know of these other American composers I’ve mentioned, they grew up either completely indifferent to the orchestra or naïve of it. And, I mean, thank heaven that they did because they created this wonderful new music. You could never have had the sound of Steve Reich or the sound of Harry Partch if you’d tried to do it within the context of a string quartet or a woodwind quintet or the symphony orchestra.
FJO: Well, as a playing musician, a working musician, as a clarinetist and then later on as a conductor, you definitely bring a sense of practicality to your music, especially in terms of the way it’s notated. I’ve been going through all these scores and it’s been really interesting. Even the early minimalist pieces, pieces like Common Tones in Simple Time or Phrygian Gates, there are no repeats, it’s all notated out, it’s very precise, it’s very user-friendly notation, and it’s designed in such a way that I think a lot of these other scores from that period were not.
JA: Well, you know, my formative years, my apprenticeship years were during that terrifying time of, you know, where musical notion became a sort of Godzilla, and composers started trying to trump one another with experimental notation and it sort of reached a point of complete absurdity…
FJO: Tom Johnson?
JA: No, I’m thinking of Treatise.
FJO: Oh, you mean Cornelius Cardew
JA: It looks like a sketchbook that an architect might do, or for that matter some of the Cage scores
FJO: They’re beautiful to look at, but…
JA: When I first came to San Francisco, for the first ten years I was here, I did concerts with the students at the San Francisco Conservatory and we specialized in performing those kind of scores and they were always fun for us to figure out how to play and the concerts we gave were fun for us, but they were often just completely opaque and meaningless experiences for the listeners. And I began to realize that musical notation, as it had developed through the years from Gregorian chant up through, you know, the 1950s and 60s, was a very precise and very usable form of getting the job done. Just the way that printed text read a novel. And that was a great discovery for me. Certainly, there was some procedures in avant-garde notation that we still use today, but a lot of my musical ideas could be expressed in sort of garden variety, standard notational terms. And, of course, this causes a lot of trouble with performers, because the first time they’re going to do a piece of mine they get the score and they look at it and they think "Oh!" you know "this couldn’t be too hard, looks pretty normal." And then when they get into the performing of it, you know, this happens with orchestras that haven’t played a piece of mine before, or singers, they find that experience looks the same on the page, but that in reality it’s a totally different experience, unlike one they’ve ever had in terms of where they have to plug themselves into the rhythmic flow and they find that it’s quite a new experience.

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