John Adams on politics, power, and the value of art

The Guardian profiles composer John Adams, in London for a concert at the Barbican in celebration of his 70th birthday. Due to Adams’s catalog of notable works inspired by history and headlines, he’s been fielding questions about the new U.S. administration:

“The question I’m now being asked, and it’s almost corny,” Adams says, “is will I write a Trump opera? So far I’ve always said a categorical ‘no’.” What drew him to Nixon was his aspect of self-doubt. “Unlike JF Kennedy, say, he came from modest circumstances, a Quaker upbringing, a moral universe. Perversely, Nixon was destroyed by his own uncontrollable paranoia. Trump, however, is not interesting because he’s a sociopath. There’s no empathy. He’s a manipulator. We all have our paranoia. It’s how you handle it that counts.”

Though Adams has wrestled with difficult subject matter through his work, he’s uncomfortable with the label “political composer”:

“I’ve chosen each subject because it engages me. I’m not an ivory tower person who doesn’t want to be sullied. If my work has value, and I don’t know how you value art apart from the technical aspects, it’s because it makes people feel. It’s what music does. I wince at being called a political composer, but I acknowledge that what politics means is power, and that could take any form … Almost any dramatic vehicle – opera, novel, film – if it’s about power relationships, is political. It’s about a way of life being threatened.”

To dig in deeper with Adams on “life under Trump, the dangers of the internet, the efficacy of musical protest,” check out this KQED interview from last week.

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