Composer / Conductor  John  Adams

Two conversations with Bruce Duffie


Composer, conductor, and creative thinker John Adams (born February 15, 1947) occupies a unique position in the world of American music. His works, both operatic and symphonic, stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, brilliance of sound, and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes.

Works spanning more than three decades have entered the repertoire and are among the most performed of all contemporary classical music, among them Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, Chamber Symphony, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and his Violin Concerto. His stage works, all in collaboration with director Peter Sellars, include Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), El Niño (2000), Doctor Atomic (2005), A Flowering Tree (2006), and the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012). Adams’s latest opera Girls of the Golden West, set during the 1850s California Gold Rush, premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2017 before traveling to the Dutch National Opera in February 2019 for its European premiere.

Other recent works include Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, written for piano soloist Yuja Wang, the LA Phil, and Gustavo Dudamel, as well as the orchestral work -I Still Dance, written for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, and premiered in September 2019 in San Francisco.

In 2019, Adams received Holland's prestigious Erasmus Prize, “for contributions to European culture,” the only American composer ever chosen for this award. That same year, he received the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Music and Opera in recognition of the communicative power of his works, especially through their treatment of current events. Other awards include the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11, and the 1993 Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto. Adams has additionally received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Northwestern University, Cambridge University, the Juilliard School, and the Royal Academy of Music. A provocative writer, he is author of the highly acclaimed autobiography Hallelujah Junction, and is a contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

As a conductor, Adams appears with the world’s major orchestras in programs combining his own works with a wide variety of repertoire ranging from Beethoven and Mozart to Ives, Carter, Zappa, Glass, and Ellington. In recent seasons, he has conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Wiener Symphoniker, the orchestras of Seattle, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Toronto, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he has held the position of Creative Chair since 2008.

In 2020, the world premiere recording of Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? was released on Deutsche Grammophon, featuring Yuja Wang, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Other recent releases include the world premiere recording of Doctor Atomic (Nonesuch 2018), with Adams conducting the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra; and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s “John Adams Edition,” a 2017 box set of live performances conducted by Adams, Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert, Kirill Petrenko, and Sir Simon Rattle.

Together with his wife, the photographer Deborah O’Grady, Adams has created the Pacific Harmony Foundation, which funds young composers, ensembles and music education outreach.

==  Biography from the Boosey & Hawkes website  


In July of 1989, John Adams was conducting the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago.  [Note the review shown farther down on this webpage.]  We met the day before his concert, and had an in-depth conversation about his own music, as well as his views on many aspects of the sound-art.  On one of his return visits a decade later to lead the Chicago Symphony, we met again, and continued the conversation.  A couple of my questions came up in both conversations, and while his outlook remained the same, he gave some different details and connections.

Portions of both interviews were used several times on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and now they have been fully transcribed and are on this webpage.  As always, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.
Here is that first encounter . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re just in for a couple of days?

John Adams:   Yes, in and out.  Two days of rehearsal and a concert.

BD:   Do you like
run in - run out concerts?

Adams:   In some cases they’re fun because I can continue my composing without being gone for a long time and getting off and getting derailed.  But there’s also an aspect of
business is business, which is not much fun.  But this is a good group to work with.

BD:   [A bit surprised]  You don’t bring every piece of music that you’re composing with you at all times?

Adams:   No, I’ve never been able to compose on the road.  I know that some composers have been able to do that, and I’m desperately jealous of them.  But I need a very secure and quiet setting, and all the familiar objects around me in order to work.

BD:   Can
t you do some of the busy work, like copying parts and things like that?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Dawn Upshaw, and David Diamond.]

Adams:   [Laughs]  Fortunately I don’t copy my own parts.  But, sure, I sometimes bring proofs to revise, and things like that.

BD:   When you’re going from a fair copy to the clean copy that goes to the printer, do you ever make little changes?

Adams:   Certainly, yes.  No matter how skilled you are at it, and how many times you’ve done it, writing for orchestra is still largely a speculative activity, given the different acoustical nature of orchestras, and their halls, and even the instruments in an orchestra themselves.  You have to make changes in scores as time goes by.  I still make very minor changes to scores.  I’ve been doing that for ten or fifteen years.

BD:   [Somewhat shocked]  You mean they’re out, and they’re printed, and being performed, and you’re still making changes???

Adams:   Yes.

BD:   Does that drive the publisher crazy?

Adams:   No, because these are my interpretative changes.  They’re the sort of things that every conductor has to do.

BD:   How do you divide your career between composing and conducting?

Adams:   In the past, I really only conducted new music, and did so partly as an adjunct to my teaching.  But since 1983, I have not taught at all, and I make my living strictly as a composer.  I supplement my income by conducting, which, as anyone will tell you, pays much better than composing, even if you’re a very successful composer.  In one weekend you can make what it would take a month to make as a composer.  It’s just the way the economic set-up of the music industry is.

BD:   Is that right, or wrong, or just there?

Adams:   Actually, I think it’s a little bit wrong.  Conductors are highly overpaid.  It’s just one of those professions which is given over to prestige and glamor, and one could almost say conductors get an unfair amount of remuneration for their efforts compared to, let’s say, the people who are playing in the orchestra and actually making the music.  I also think that creative work is not properly funded or paid for in this country, although things are very, very slowly changing.  Commissions for composers are improving, and now rentals and licensing, and things like that are improving.

BD:   Is composing concert music something that should make a living wage for a lot of people?

Adams:   Ideally it should.  The facts of life are that at any given time in history, there are only a handful of composers who are really able to capture the public’s imagination, and create works which do go into circulation.  That’s just reality, and it would be rather foolish to think that thousands of composers should be able to make a living writing music.  That would mean that there would be a plethora of new music around.

BD:   Have we got too many people trying to make it as composers?

Adams:   Probably, but life is very cruel, and the winnowing process is quite harsh.
BD:   In your wildest dreams, when you were studying or even beginning your career, did you ever think that you would be this successful?

Adams:   I’m only successful in terms of
or in comparison toother composers of serious music.  When I look at what a real success iswhether it’s a baseball player, or a venture capitalist, or a politician, or even a successful novelist like Saul Bellow, whose novels sell in the hundreds of thousands, or even millionsa successful composer, like myself, still only sells twenty or thirty thousand copies of an album.  Nixon in China, which was a highly visible, high-profile musical event in the last few years, and was one of the best-selling opera recordings to come out in the last several decades, still only sold something between twenty and thirty thousand copies, which is not a huge amount of sales compared to popular music, or literature, or whatever.

BD:   Does that make it any less successful, or is it just simply fewer numbers?

Adams:   No, it’s just a matter of the field that you’re working in.  Yes, in terms of serious music, I’m a very successful composer, and, to answer your question, no, not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that this would happen.  Although, I will say it’s very strange in a way...  When I was a very young boy, I did have a very elaborate fantasy life of what I was going to be as an older person, and that fantasy life was very precise.  I was going to be a composer who also conducted, and it’s funny how in certain ways one’s adult life is acting out of one’s adolescent, or, in my case, even pre-adolescent fantasies.

BD:   You’ve been lucky enough to have them come true.

Adams:   Yes, I guess you could say that.

BD:   Would you still be composing even if your scores didn’t sell, and your music was not heard very often?

Adams:   That’s such a hypothetical question it’s very hard to answer, because I have a feeling that I would be, although I can’t imagine quite what my life would be like.

BD:   Maybe more teaching?

Adams:   Who knows economically what the situation would be?  I am a Yankee, as my name might imply, and so I have this Yankee-Protestant ethic about myself.  I do feel always slightly uncomfortable, and perhaps even a little guilt-ridden whenever I’m not working.  Plus, I also feel that creative work
composing for meis the log of my spiritual growth.  It is the way in which I can see the growth of my personality as a human-being through my life.  I can look back to various compositions of mine, and see where I was psychologically, emotionally, even religiously I suppose you could say.  These are the tracks in the snow that I leave as I go through life, and if I had to stop composing it would be profoundly disturbing. 

BD:   Can we infer from this that any or all of your pieces are autobiographical?

Adams:   They’re not autobiographical in the sense that Joyce, for example, is autobiographical, or even Thomas Mann.  It is a more abstract relation.  Probably my pieces reflect concerns I had at the time, and also certain states of mind.  A piece like Harmonielehre
which is, on the one hand, a kind of gloss of every big rich romantic work that we’ve ever heard, and is very emotional and a hyper-active piecewas written at a time when I was having a great deal of trouble composing.  I was going through a real crisis about my language.  The irony is that I emerged from that crisis with the most ‘recherché’ [obscure, rare, exotic] stylistically imitative piece that I’ve ever written.  So, in a sense it was giving the finger to the whole modernist compulsiveness that bothers so many composers.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You have worked with such luminaries as Morton Feldman, who is rather the complete antithesis of the music that you write.  Do you feel that your music is an outgrowth of a journey, or is it a complete break from this other style?  [Photo at right shows John Harbison, John Adams, and Morton Feldman (l-r)]

Adams:   I didn’t study with Morton Feldman.  I did know him, and, of course, I’ve been influenced by his work.  My teachers actually were far more conservative, or traditionalist in their approaches than Morton Feldman.  I studied with Leon Kirchner, and, for a brief time, Roger Sessions, and David Del Tredici.

BD:   Those are much more tuneful composers.

Adams:   Yes, much more aware of the European tradition.  But Feldman had immense influence on me, partly because of his approach to sound, which I feel is a very liberating approach, and also his approach to structure, which is very much in the modernist school.  I myself actually found that I could never write music that was essentially without pulsation.  My breakthrough came in the mid-seventies, when I became aware of the fact that throughout my life jazz had meant a great deal to me, and that both rock and jazz were the essence of American musical language.  I was also aware that I shouldn’t worry about embracing it.  Instead of trying to reject it, I should embrace it, and, at the same time, I discovered the early works of the American minimalists, particularly Steve Reich’s music, which had a really deep effect on me because of its use of pulsation, and also because of its incorporation of harmonic structures, which I found very attractive.

BD:   Have we progressed beyond minimalism so that we should have a new label for all of this?

Adams:   A label has been a problem in the last ten years.  People are continually apologizing to me before they bring up the word ‘minimalist’.  I don’t mind it at all.  It’s a very helpful term, because labels in art history, and music history are used all the time.  ‘Minimalism’ basically means three things in music.  It means regular pulsation; it means reiteration of small modules of musical material; and last but not least, it means very tonal areas with long sustained areas on individual chords.  Now to answer your question about progressing beyond minimalism, I would say that minimalism as a technique has evolved in the hands of various composers.  These include not only Reich and Glass and myself, but composers in Europe, like Louis Andriessen, and younger composers in this country, like Scott Johnson, Michael Torke, and Paul Dresher.  These are people who are literally in their 20s now, and who are using the music in various different ways.

BD:   Do you find the idea and technique of minimalism is a straight-jacket, or is it just something that you embrace gladly?

Adams:   No, I don’t find that it’s a straight-jacket at all.  I don’t think any composer would gladly put on a straight-jacket.  We might call them
constraints.  A composer usually wants some kind of constraints, only because constraints actually make the decision-making easier, and allow you to progress without having to swim around in the sea of possibilities every time you have to put a note on the staff.  I went through a period where I designed my pieces in advance quite carefully, and behaved almost like an architect, in that I had all my materials on the table.  I almost drew graphs of what I was going to write.  But as I progressed, and as my language matured, and my self-confidence improved, I found that I could trust my intuitive musical abilities without having to constantly consult back to a graph, or a chart, or series of numbers.  I think I really knew how all of the great composers of the pastBrahms, Beethoven, Bach, Verdibehaved when they were composing.  The rules of the games, and the sensations of structure and balance, and whether something is long enough or short enough, is something that ultimately has to be an internal judgment, rather than something that can be projected on a graph on a page.  One of the problems with twentieth-century music is that too many composers have trusted to the rational mathematical side of the decision-making, and have not trusted enough to their intuitive feeling side.

BD:   So, you’re putting much more emotion into your music?

Adams:   One doesn’t put emotion into the music any more than one can put on emotion into themselves.  Either you are emotional, or you’re not.  I trust my intuitive sense of judgment and balance more than, let’s say, many other modernist composers.
BD:   When you’re sitting there with the pencil in your hand, and you’re writing notes on the page, are you always controlling that pencil, or are there times when that pencil is really controlling your hand?
Adams:   I would hope that I’m always controlling it.  If you’re talking about some kind of mesmerized, ecstatic state where your conscious awareness and your unconscious self are merging, that can happen in the creative act, but it doesn’t happen often.  This is because musical creativityat least writing things downis such a slow, laborious process that it doesn’t leave the opportunity for complete flights of fantasy that, for example, improvisation has.  But when I’m working, and I’m really on, and I’m very excited, there is a tremendously charged electrical state, and I sometimes get so excited that I can’t sit down.  I have to just get up and move around the room, which is very hard because my room where I work is very small.  [Both laugh]

BD:   I have noticed in your scores that every note is there in all these repeats.  [Illustration at left is part of Short Ride in a Fast Machine.]

Adams:   Yes.

BD:   It’s not just repeat signs, or
repeat twelve times, or anything like that.

Adams:   No.

BD:   So, every note does have its little moment with the composer?

Adams:   Yes.  I do not write the old-fashioned modular minimalist music, where chunks of sound or chunks of ideas are repeated over and over again.  For example, Philip Glass will write three- or four-bar motifs, and ask the instruments to repeat it eight or twelve times, and then move on to another module.  My music is through-composed, because there’s much more depth of counterpoint.  Very often, particularly in a case like The Chairman Dances, I’ll have seven, or eight, or nine layers of counterpoint going.  They all overlap, and there’s far more complexity within the structure, so there’s no way in which I can take compositional shortcuts.

BD:   Was the move to minimalism and the minimalist style an inevitable outgrowth of the compression that music was going into, and the texture and the density that exploded like a supernova?

Adams:   You mean like the music of the European avant-garde people, starting with Webern and Boulez and Xenakis and Stockhausen?  I don’t think anything important comes as a reaction to anything else.  It comes more out of a sense of exasperation with it.  Schoenberg writing Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky writing L’Histoire du soldat came as a result of them both having felt that the great big hundred-piece orchestra had been, for the time-being at least, run dry of interesting ideas, and it’s just natural for a creative person to want to move in a refreshing new direction.  Neoclassicism, which was in its heyday in the ’20s and ‘30s was, in a sense, a gesture of exasperation with the overblown nature of romanticism which had preceded it.  Minimalism is essentially a simple language, and for which we take a great deal of criticism from our colleagues as composers and from many other people.  It is a gesture of simplicity in the same way that Mozart’s music was a gesture of simplicity when placed up against the highly complex polyphony of the High Baroque.  This happens in the history of art, not just in music.

BD:   Do you feel, then, that you are part of a continuum?

Adams:   Oh yes.  All creators are parts of continua, no matter how avant-garde or individual we think we are.  One of the points I try to make when I’m defending my style of composition is that it is extremely difficult to write something simple that is effective and original.  It’s much easier to sit down with the twelve-tone row, and write something that sounds crabbed and complex and intellectual and intimidating, than it is to write something that is simple, effective, and moving, and that can directly cut across everything to the listener, and affect that person.

BD:   Minimalism has often been called a fraud, but let me turn the coin around.  Is it possible then, as you’ve just been saying, that it’s more difficult to write the simple things, and that the complex composers are really not seeing that their music is not saying anything?

Adams:   Well, there are good composers and there are good composers, but I have maintained for a long time that there’s an enormous amount, to use your term, of fraudulent music and fraudulent theory being produced in this country under the guise of academic serious contemporary music.

BD:   We’ve been dancing around this now for several minutes, so let me ask the real big question then.  What is the purpose of music in society?

Adams:   [Laughs]  I didn’t know we were dancing around it, or I wouldn’t have waltzed!  The purpose of music in society is the same as the purpose of any artistic endeavor.  It’s to enrich our lives, and to maybe help us understand more about ourselves and our relationships to others.  Perhaps it is to call attention to the richness of the world around us.  John Cage, who for many years was ridiculed for his theories, has actually, in the long-run, seen to be right in pointing out that music should be something that refines our senses, our ears, and our bodies to the world around us.  Some music can make us feel very joyful in a way that no other artform can.  It can touch us on an emotional level that no other artform can, because, as Schopenhauer said [paraphrasing], music is the one art that is most intimately expressive of the human will.  It goes directly from one person’s deepest self directly to another, without necessarily having to go through the intellectual rational filter.

BD:   Cage espouses the idea that all sounds are music.  Do you subscribe to that theory?

Adams:   I’m not exactly sure he would put it that way, that all sounds are music.  I think he would say that all sounds are available for what he calls music.

BD:   Then at what point do the sounds become music?

adams Adams:   I tend to agree with Stravinsky in what he said in his book The Poetics of Music, [again paraphrasing] that a bird song is beautiful, and an arpeggio is perhaps not as beautiful, but the bird song is a natural event, and an arpeggio, no matter how crude or simple it is, is artifice, and there is a difference between artifice and the outside world.  I find that the moment Olivier Messiaen takes a bird song and writes it down, and incorporates it into a piece of his, it becomes Messiaen.  It becomes artifice, and hence that is art, but I don’t think that you can really approach the entire world as a grid for art without some kind of filtering process.

BD:   Would it be better if Messiaen were to gather these specific birds that he wants, and bring the birds into the concert hall to speak directly to the people?

Adams:   No, I don’t think it really works that way.  We went through that in the
60s and 70s.  There’s wonderful fun and a sense of exhilaration and humor and warmth in a lot of Cage’s pieces, but they tend to be more like art installations, or happenings, than pieces, partly because they don’t express one’s human sense of measurement.  The word rhythm comes from the Greek word to measure, and the problem I have with John Cage’s is that there’s a certain abrogation on his part of human responsibility.  I don’t mean this on a philosophical level, because John Cage is the most socially responsible person I know.  But on an emotional level, there’s a challenge to creativity which one has to take.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   A
re you conscious of the audience as you are writing your music?

Adams:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s a very difficult question, because if I were to say yes, then I would give the impression of somebody who is pandering to the audience, and thinking,
Ah, they’ll love this one!  I’ll put a fortissimo in here, and that’ll wow them!  On the other hand, if I said no, that I don’t care about the audience, and I’m only here to please myself, I would be dishonest because music is ultimately a communicative activity.  All art is a communicative activity.  Basically, I’m no different than any other serious composer in the sense that I’m writing to please myself, and to educate myself, and to discover myself, and one of the steps of this processwhich happens to be the last stepis bringing it out in front of the public.  I imagine if my pieces were booed aggressively, sure, I’d be very disturbed, and I would probably recall them, and wonder what was wrong, and perhaps change something, because nobody, unless he’s an absolute sadist, wants an audience to hate his work.

BD:   You wouldn’t feel that the audience just missed it?

Adams:   Yes, there are cases where the audience has missed it.  The first time out with Nixon in China, there were many people in the audience
and even more criticswho just hated the work.  They loathed it.  They thought it was just a ridiculous piece.  I had to be very tough, and have a great deal of faith in myself that what I’d done was right.  Ultimately, it would prove to be so, and that just takes a certain amount of fortitude.  If you have enough failures and enough successes, you know that time will come around.

BD:   Nixon in China has been performed on stage, it’s been recorded aurally and visually, and it
s been presented on the television.  Do all of these different methods of presentation work equally well?

Adams:   I’m very fond of studio recordings, because they give a composer an opportunity to get it right.  They may lack some of the spontaneity of certain live performance situations, but Glen Gould, and Stravinsky, and Boulez have all understood the importance of recordings.  Television is still in a very crude stage of evolution.  [Remember, this interview took place in 1989!]  I just heard rumors of what’s called ‘high-definition’ television coming from Japan, and people who have seen it say that it is to our present-day television what compact discs are to the 78rpm records.  It’s that much of a change, so I’m sure by the time I’m in my 50s or 60s it will be used.  The television version of Nixon in China was quite disappointing because it was unable to project the scope, and particularly the polyphony of Peter Sellars’s staging.  With a Sellars production, there are always four or five different things going on, like a Bach fugue in various parts of the stage.  No matter how important something is, your focus may be down at stage-left, but if your eye wanders back to the opposite corner of the stage, there’s something happening there.  They’re all highly attuned to the music, almost like a George Balanchine ballet, and the TV seemed like a dolt.  The camera just stared dully in the face of a singer until he was done singing, and then stared into the face of the next singer.  Partly that’s unimaginative TV direction, but it’s also just the problem of opera on TV.  The two mediums, at this point, don’t seem to work very well.
BD:   This seems to be the problem of all televised operas.  I wish there would be more medium shots, as opposed to so many close-ups.

Adams:   Yes, plus the sound is generally not very good.  I myself have not yet bothered to get a stereo to hook up with my TV.  It’s just that the technology hasn’t quite evolved.

BD:   Are you basically pleased with the audio records that have come out of your purely acoustic pieces?

Adams:   Yes, I am.  I think that they’re more than adequate.  They’re very good documents of how I want my pieces to be played, and I have, in almost all cases, had the great fortune to have as a colleague, Edo de Waart, whom I consider a really superb conductor.  He is able to understand my wishes, and do my music very well.  More recently I’ve been doing my own conducting.  I’m just completing two recordings of different pieces of mine, which will be released over the next two years.  On Nonesuch, one recording will have two recent pieces, both of which I wrote in the last year for chamber orchestra.  One is called Fearful Symmetries, which was commissioned by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York, and the other one is called The Wound Dresser, which is a setting of a poem by Walt Whitman, which was premiered by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  [CD booklet cover and insert card shown at left]  It’s very gratifying to be able to work with these wonderful ensembles, and then make records.

BD:   I made an assumption, which may or may not be erroneous.  I referred to these as purely acoustical pieces.  When someone comes to a concert to see and hear a work of yours, is it just the ear that you are trying to get at, or also the eye with the orchestra and the conductor?  Or is that idea completely superfluous?

Adams:   They’re basically no different than any other ensemble or orchestral pieces.  I don’t write a part for the conductor.  He is just is there because of the need.

BD:   Is there something missing when you’re sitting in your living room listening to it, rather than watching the musicians that are making the music?

Adams:   No more than with Beethoven, or Mahler, or anyone else.

BD:   This is what I’m getting at.  Is there something missing when enjoying a round flat disc?

Adams:   I don’t think there’s anything particularly important.  It’s fun to watch a good conductor, because conducting, when it’s done well
which is very rareis an art form in itself.  It’s a beautiful expression of sound in space, not unlike good choreography.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re both a composer and a conductor.  Are you a better composer because you are also a conductor?

Adams:   I don’t know if I’m a better composer, but I’m probably a more efficient composer.  I know many composers who are probably more imaginative, and maybe historically will turn out to be more important composers than me.  But many of them have problems getting what they want to communicate over, because they simply have not had the experience with working in the group setting that I have.  You mentioned earlier about how my scores look almost alarmingly conservative.  They don’t, for example, utilize many of the notational developments that have evolved in the last twenty or thirty years.  I’ve done all those things, and I’ve conducted all those types of pieces, and I found basically how notation works best.  You could almost compare it to the violin which came through stages of development.  First, it started as a simply stringed instrument like a lute, and then it reached the point with Stradivarius where it couldn’t evolve anymore.  I suppose we could say the same thing with the concert grand piano, that when it reached the point of the Steinway Grand, it stopped evolving.  No one has been able to make it much better, and by the mid-nineteenth century, notation had really evolved to a point where it basically can say everything that needs to be said.  Some of the more lateral forms of notation that were developed by people like Cage, and Stockhausen, and Boulez, and Berio, are good for certain very specific types of musical gesture, but by and large, the conventional form of notation that we’ve developed now seems to get the job done pretty well.

BD:   Do you write all the interpretative gestures into your score, or do you leave it pretty clean and let the interpreter have his way?

Adams:   I write as many as I can, yes.

BD:   Do you expect any kind of an interpretation on the part of the performers?

Adams:   Yes, I do, but I would say that I incline towards the Stravinskyan attitude, that the composer basically knew what he or she wanted.  I’m quite alarmed and annoyed when a performer willfully goes against the directions of what I’ve written in the score.  Most often it is in the issue of tempo, which is the most critical way of preserving the intention and the shape of a piece that composer had in mind.

BD:   What about all the Beethoven symphonies which have been so over-done, with new interpretations and designs by almost every conductor.  Would we be poorer if there were recordings that Beethoven had made, or would we really be straight-jacketed into staying very close to them?

Adams:   That’s a very tough question.  [Laughs]  I’ve heard Roger Norrington’s Beethoven, and I understand what he’s getting at.  He feels that it’s very sort of ‘galante’, and not so much elegant, but it’s light and heroic in a very breezy way, and I’m impressed by it.  On the other hand, I’d be loathe to have to part with my Furtwängler records.  So, it’s tough.  I realize I’m contradicting myself, but take, for example, Mahler.  There’s such an issue about Mahler tempi, but if you go to the one person who knew Mahler the best, and really worked with him, Bruno Walter, you’ll find that most of his tempi are really just about what Mahler wrote in his scores.  In a sense, you could call it a conservative, or a cogent performance, and I’m tempted to think that this is what the composer wanted.  Interpretations that wildly err either too fast or too slow are kind of willful, vain, ego indulgences on the part of the conductors.

BD:   In other words, not just experiments looking for something that might be hidden in the scores?

Adams:   They could be.

BD:   I’m looking ahead, say, a hundred years from now.  Conductors and historians will say that the one conductor who was closest to John Adams was Edo de Waart.  His tempi were right there with Adams because we have the actual documentation, whereas with Mahler there aren’t any recordings from his time.
Adams:   Yes.  It’s funny....  I just came back from London where I did Petrushka with a London orchestra.  I had studied the score very carefully, and had listened to Stravinsky’s recordings, which is part of the research activity that any conductor of Stravinsky should do.  So, I rehearsed the piece as I believed Stravinsky wanted it.  By and large, Stravinsky follows his own direction.  There are a couple places where I noticed that he did things which he didn’t put in the score, but I figured that they felt very natural, and so I did vary them, too.  However, I had great difficulty with this orchestra, because they had just done Petrushka within a few months of my arriving, and had recorded it with a Russian conductor who had interpreted the work.  They wanted to do all sorts of different phrasings, and tempo changes that I felt were grossly against the desires of Stravinsky.  I know that Stravinsky just hated people to interpret his music.  He wanted the music to be played the way he wrote it.

BD:   Do you want your music to be played the way you wrote it?

Adams:   Yes!

BD:   Do you want everything to be a carbon copy, carbon copy, carbon copy?

Adams:   It won’t be.  There’s no need to worry about it until it gets as familiar as Bolero, or Beethoven’s Fifth.  The personality of the orchestra and the conductor will come out anyway.

BD:   Is there no chance that The Chairman Dances will become a hit tune like Bolero?

Adams:   [Laughs]  Well, I don’t know!  It’s been done a great deal.  I had no idea it would take on quite so quickly, but I guess the answer is that if you write a foxtrot, that’s the way to get your music done!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Is there any chance that we’ll play it to death?

Adams:   Let’s hope not.

BD:   Am I correct in assuming The Chairman Dances was written first, and was then dropped into Nixon in China?

Adams:   It actually wasn’t dropped into Nixon in China.  You are correct in assuming it was written first.  The story is sort of complex and not particularly interesting...

BD:   Was it written as a study for the opera?

Adams:   Yes, in a way.  I had a commission which I had to get out of the way.  I had been postponing it for years, and at the time I was really only interested in Nixon in China.  I didn’t have the libretto, but I had a synopsis, and I loved this scene in the last act where Madam Mao gate-crashes the Presidential banquet.  She interrupts everybody, and embarrasses them, and takes off her Mao costume to reveal herself in her former identity as a movie star, part of which is fantasy and part of which is fact.  Then in this scene, she does the foxtrot with Chairman Mao, so I wrote this piece thinking that I might be able to utilize it in the opera, but it more of less got out of hand.  It was written for much too large an orchestra, and I began to fantasize this scene where Mao and Madam Mao transform into Fred and Ginger, with Nixon playing the piano!  Indeed, when we finally got to the third act of Nixon in China, we realized we wanted something far more elegiac.  So, what I did in the opera was use little motifs from The Chairman Dances to be played in the background, almost in a wistful ‘recherché’ way.  It had a very funny effect, because when people first heard Nixon in China, they heard little snippets of The Chairman Dances, which they already knew, in the context of this melancholy music.  So, it became even sadder.

BD:   Is Nixon in China a political statement, or is it a purely musical dramatic piece?

Adams:   Oh, it’s a political statement, and music theater can have a political impact.  I don’t think that we can change the world, but I do think that art can help to illuminate people’s political awareness.  The politics of this opera are very subtle, and this is principally Alice Goodman’s work.  She’s a brilliant writer, and her psychological acuity is extraordinary.  The political crux of the opera is the second scene, where Nixon and Kissinger actually meet Mao.  Many Americans have lost track of the fact that Mao was very old when this event took place.  He was hardly able to stand up, and Nixon took a tremendous risk when he went there, because the whole world was watching, and he didn’t know if he was actually going to get to see Mao.  Mao might have been too ill to see him, or, more likely, Mao might decide that it was more politically advantageous to snub him.  But, in fact he did get to see him, and from the descriptions of both Kissinger and Nixon, they were so excited about it that they could hardly contain their delight.  So, we get that sense of excitement and euphoria at the beginning of the scene.  There’s this persiflage [light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter] that very often goes on with diplomats while there’s a photo opportunity.  Then the doors are closed, and everyone is sent out of the room, and the real meat and potatoes of the summit happens.  What I was trying to get over, and what Peter and Alice were trying to get over, was this sense of Americans, in a certain way, trying to dictate to the rest of the world, particularly to the Third World.  They were trying to show them that we, since we’re wealthy, and fat, and sleek, and well fed, and have lots of cars and microwave ovens, that our way of life and our way of economics is right, and their ways are wrong, and if they were only a little smarter, and adopted our methods of economics, they too could become like us.  I think that is a fatuous attitude.  It’s a form of latter twentieth-century colonialism, and one of the delights of that particular scene is that Nixon trots out all these homely American platitudes, and Mao, who is not only a fierce competitor but also a brilliant philosopher, just basically makes mincemeat of Nixon, and Nixon isn’t even aware of it!  He leaves the meeting thinking he’s just really told the Chairman a thing or two.  So, it’s quite an ironic scene.

BD:   Has there been any reaction from Nixon about the piece?

Adams:   We know that he knows everything about the opera.  He’s followed it very carefully, but he’s kept mum on it.  I’m just as happy that he didn’t come to any of the performances, because when you meet these people, these politicians, you discover that very often they’re very literal people, and often are upset because artistic license stretches the fact.  I would imagine he’s probably upset because that it wasn’t the way it actually went at all.

BD:   Should this be viewed in ten, or twenty, or fifty years as a history lesson?

Adams:   No, it shouldn’t be.  [Laughs]  It’s not a history lesson at all.  It should be appreciated as a work of art.

BD:   You don’t want a sixth-grade teacher to say,
“We’re going to study the various political ideas of Richard Nixon.  Go and watch the tape of Nixon in China?

Adams:   If I were teaching a course on the Risorgimento [political unity] of Italy, or if I were teaching a course on how Germany came together from many little monarchies and duchies into the Federal Republic under Bismarck, I would probably ask my students to listen to various operas, or Wagner’s operas.  That’s always interesting, because looking at a work of art from a period
whether it’s Tolstoy, or Dante, or Homer, or Beethoven, or Michelangeloalways focuses in on the best that a culture had to offer, and it can give an historical insight.  But, on the other hand, history will have to wait a very long time before we find out whether Nixon in China is worthy of that kind of attention.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

Adams:   I didn’t have much trouble writing for the human voice, and was quite shocked that I wrote this long three-hour opera, and got hardly any complaints at all from any of the singers.  The hardest voice I had to deal with was the tenor, and that was partly because I wanted to write a heroic tenor part that was very high and very taxing.  So, the role of Mao is a very, very difficult role, but it’s not impossible.  Basically, when I’m writing for the voice, my concern is that the text be articulated in the exact natural rhythm that we speak it.  I don’t like to take a text and embellish it and stretch it, and chop it up.  The English language can only be successfully set to music when it is totally natural in its delivery.

BD:   Is there a parallel, then, between you and Gluck, because he was trying to get rid of the High Baroque style, and make the music much more parlando.

Adams:   Yes, I would say that.  That doesn’t mean that melisma and ornamentation isn’t there in the greatest of all vocal music.  Look at Mozart, and look at Monteverdi.  But for my feeling, especially as an American, the way I speak American as opposed to British pronunciation of English, a natural rhythmic delivery of the language is most important.

BD:   If your opera was done in Italy, should it be done in English with supertitles, or done in Italian?

Adams:   That’s a very difficult question.  Ultimately, I would like to have it done in English, but there’s a social problem as well.  It’s being produced in Finland, and it’s being performed in Finnish.  It’s also being given a new production in West Germany, and it’s being sung in German.  The important thing is that the words get over.  My real answer is that I prefer not to be there!  [Much laughter]

BD:   [Surprised]  You’re not even going to go just to see the production?

Adams:   No... I don’t know... maybe.  I’d be interested to hear what it sounds like.  As a composer, my ear is desperately offended when I hear Wagner sung in English, or Verdi sung in English, or Mozart sung in English.  The composer responds to the sound of the word.  If you say: ‘Kopf’ in German, it suggests to me a musical gesture that’s very different from ‘head’ or ‘tête’.  ‘Schwarz’ means something to a composer.  It has a sound to it that suggests a setting that’s very different from ‘black’ or ‘noir’.  There was a reason that Mozart chose to write those operas in Italian.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Yet Verdi was the first one to say to translate them, to get them into the language of the public.

Adams:   Yes, but Verdi also had an extremely conscious eye on the box office.  So, it
s hard to say.

BD:   Is your eye conscious of the box office, or is that just peripheral?

Adams:   [Laughs]  I don’t make artistic decisions in order to gain an audience.  I make them because they satisfy my sense of what’s artistically right.  I’m willing to accept that at some point my music may go out of fashion, or I may begin to write music that doesn’t attract a lot of listeners.  I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it.

BD:   You would write something because that’s what you have to write?

Adams:   Yes, indeed.  That happened with Beethoven.  Those late string quartets and piano sonatas are very intimate works which he knew he had to write.  He realized they were not going to have a large audience, and were not going to be really popular works in the way that the heroic works from earlier part of his life would be.

BD:   Now, more than a century and a half later, we’re still trying to work through them.

Adams:   Yes, but as has been said so wonderfully about those late piano sonatas and late string quartets, they belong to the permanently avant-garde.  There are certain works of art which will be permanently avant-garde, that will refuse any assimilation, or the kind of easy familiarity that other works have.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is composing fun?

Adams:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s hard work like anything else!  I am sure that if you asked a baseball pitcher if pitching is fun, he would say that yes, it’s fun when it’s going well and you’re winning, and it’s not much fun when you’re getting trounced!  Composing is very hard work, and one of the ironies about the difference between composing and conducting is that, to me, conducting is very easy compared to composing.  With composing, you’re constantly making decisions every blessed moment.  I often feel like the President of the United States, or the head of some huge corporation, constantly having to make a very important decision which is going to filter down and affect the entire organism of the composition.  If it’s a bad decision, it could have grave consequences.

BD:   Is writing music a win-or-lose situation, like being on the pitcher’s mound?

Adams:   No, it’s not a win-or-lose situation quite that way, but it is a situation in which one has to use one’s entire being, one’s entire organism to succeed.  My way of dealing with composing is to be someone like Bach or Brahms.  I’m very regular in my habits.  I get up early in the morning.  We have two very small children, so we get them taken care of, feed them, and get them off to nursery school, and then I come home and work straight through the day, with an hour off for lunch, right until 5 o’clock.  So, I tend to put in somewhere between a six- to eight-hour work day, five days a week.  I don’t work at night, and I try to keep my business activities
telephone calls, letter writing, and whateverapart from that activity, so that it doesn’t corrupt the concentration.

adams BD:   Do you wait for the whistle to blow at 5 o’clock so that you can go home?

Adams:   No, but I watch the clock!  When it’s 5 o’clock, it’s time to quit.

BD:   Even if you’re just getting into something?

Adams:   If you’re getting into something, it will be there tomorrow.

BD:   And it always is?

Adams:   Well, yes and no.  Usually composing is so fatiguing and so tiring that by 5 o’clock, you rarely in the midst of a wild inspiration.  You’re just feeling tired out at that point.  By and large, that serious sustained creative activity tends to be surprisingly methodical, and, if not hum-drum, at least somewhat regular.  I’m sure that people like Proust, and Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and other people who wrote huge amounts, tended to work at very regular paces.  It’s only when you are frantic, and a deadline is approaching that the screws get twisted.  Then I find myself working on weekends, and evenings, and life becomes pretty miserable for everyone around me.  So, I try to put that off.

BD:   I assume that because of your success you have offers from all over the place.  How do you decide which ones you’ll accept, and which ones you’ll turn down or postpone?

Adams:   Right now, what I try to do is never accept more than one commission beyond what I’m working on, because I know that my interest may change, and I don’t want to come out of a great exhausting piece and discover that I have to write a symphony for the New York Philharmonic in six months, when really what I’m interested in is writing a synthesizer piece, or a piano sonata.  [The CD shown at left was composed and produced January 1992 to May 1993 in the upstairs studio of Adams
Berkeley, California home, utilizing the Korg Wavestation, Yamaha Electone, Yamaha SY77 and SY99, E Mu Systems Proteus I and E-Max II, Kurzweil K-2000 and Lexicon LXP-15.]  I try to keep things balanced, but it’s difficult.  It's hard to say no when you’ve been approached by people like Yo-Yo Ma, Gidon Kremer or Simon Rattle.  It’s been very hard for me to say no to those people, and I just hope that the time will come when the idea and the offer coincide.

BD:   What advice do you have for the next generation of composers?

Adams:   I don’t have any advice at all!  [Laughs]  They know better than I do what they’re about!

BD:   Do you have any advice for audiences?

Adams:   No, I don’t think so.  There’s nothing more tiresome than a composer shaking his finger and scolding people.  My friend and colleague, Charles Wuorinen is so fond of blaming critics, and blaming people in the press for being dumb and not being interested.  The basic problem in our society is really a systemic problem, and has to do with education on a larger scale. To me, music education in the public schools
or the lack thereof nowis one of the great tragedies of our time.  We can’t hope to survive as composers, or as radio announcers, or as conductors, or violists, if people now in school are not going to grow up to understand, and appreciate, and love, and want what we’re doing in the serious music industry.

BD:   Do you fear for the future of music?

Adams:   I fear desperately for this country, because I’ve seen this happen in my own state of California.  It’s also happening in states like Massachusetts, which formerly had very high standards, and where the voters are becoming apathetic, and selfish, and don’t want give money to the schools.  So, the schools are becoming worse and worse.  Music, which the Greeks understood was one of the basic disciplines of life, but which we tend to think of as simply a hobby or an adornment on our existence, is being given short shrift, and this is really where the danger lurks.  We could easily, by the turn of the century, turn into a country of very poorly educated Philistines who hardly understand or appreciate serious art.

BD:   [Momentarily playing Devil
s Advocate]  You don’t have any conception of the fact that people twenty years ago were saying that, and twenty years before that were saying the same thing?

Adams:   Yes, I have a conception.  I know that Bach, in the month before he died, was involved with an argument over whether or not music should be taught in the curricula of the schools, because there was apparently a move in Leipzig at that time to take it out.  I know it’s always been a problem, but it’s a particularly grave problem right now.

BD:   Do you fear for the loss of it completely?

Adams:   Well, anything can happen!

BD:   In serious music, where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

Adams:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s constantly moving, it’s constantly in flex, hence it’s impossible to put one’s finger on it.  Here at Grant Park, I’m doing An American in Paris.  I’ve never done this piece before, but I was astonished that I knew it inside and out when I first opened the score, even though I’d never ever seen the score before.  It
s a part of my musical being, and it’s wonderful to think that certain works of art, which are beloved, and are a part of our cultural unconscious, are also superbly well-made pieces, and this piece is just a beautiful piece.  The musical material in it is so wonderful.  The themes are so original, the counterpoint and the way the ideas develop is so totally satisfying, and at the same time, partly because of it being so totally satisfying, it is an immensely entertaining piece of music.  So, how can you say that something that’s entertaining can’t be high art?

[Parts of a review by Dennis Polkow in the Chicago Reader, published July 20, 1989.]  [Adams led the single performance on July 7, 1989]

Grant Park programs are often full of imagination, but Grant Park conductors usually are not. I find that the latter generally nullify the virtues of the former. While a first-rate orchestra can sound decent even with a second-rate conductor–as the Chicago Symphony proves with great regularity–a second-rank orchestra led by a second-rate conductor usually sounds unfocused and scrappy.

But match a second-class orchestra with a first-class conductor, and something very special begins to happen; do it often enough, and it is the orchestra’s standards–not the conductor’s–that will change. Early this month (fortunately just after Taste of Chicago), the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra proved this with its most adventurous weekend of the season, a Friday night concert under the direction of John Adams and a Saturday night program (repeated on Sunday) led by Andrew Parrott. This was a Chicago debut for Adams, a minimalist composer who has lately been garnering a reputation as a conductor; he is one of three conductors (along with Christopher Hogwood and Hugh Wolff) overseeing the activities of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. For Parrott the weekend was a triumphant return to the site of his American debut, a thoroughly magical concert given here in 1987; the founder of Britain’s first period-instrument orchestra (yes, pre-Hogwood and Pinnock) and one of its most prestigious choral ensembles (the Taverner Choir), Parrott is just starting to achieve the recognition that many of his less-deserving colleagues have long enjoyed.

Adams’s program consisted of Gershwin’s An American in Paris; a new piano concerto, Glosas, by the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra; Adams’s own The Chairman Dances; and Ravel’s Bolero.   ( . . . )

What I particularly admired in Adams’s reading of the [Gershwin] was his light, bouncy approach, emphasizing its jazz and blues roots. The problem with most performances of American is that they are given by conductors who are steeped in Brahms and apt to be heavy-handed and overly Germanic in their interpretations. The work calls for a French approach in many respects, an ability to project sonority above all. At the same time it needs a jazz-blues sense of rhythm and syncopation. Adams, it turns out, understands all this, and his performance was a real pleasure. His tempi seemed slower than his light approach warranted (presumably he chose to favor accuracy over speed), but the strings were getting a much purer, straighter tone than usual, and the winds had a delightful cabaret quality to them. There were some predictable brass blurbs, but the violin lead lines were very well rendered. Adams’s sense of form and tension and buildup were quite convincing, and I have never heard anyone approach the meter of the piece with greater playfulness and flexibility.

Roberto Sierra’s Glosas (“glosses,” as in textual expansions or commentaries) is in effect a piano concerto, based on elements, we are told, from Caribbean popular music. Its motivic material is very chromatic and makes great use of the tritone, a dissonant interval that creates a sense of tension which in this piece is never resolved. Not that that has to be a problem; Sierra is extraordinarily clever in the way he uses and transforms these materials, all the while mixing them with Latin rhythms to heighten the tension. The piece owes as much to Bartók, Prokofiev, Ginastera, and British horror films as it does to anything Caribbean, but it is a lot of fun and has a wonderful sense of color and style. Pianist Jose Ramos-Santana, for whom the difficult work was written, performed it with ease, and the Grant Park Symphony, thanks to Adams’s careful direction, didn’t miss a beat. Frankly I was surprised. I have often been critical of Grant Park’s tackling new works that it is unable to bring off effectively, but obviously with the right piece, soloist, conductor, and context, it can work very well.

I was also skeptical about how well Adams’s own work, The Chairman Dances, would go; Grant Park’s forays into minimalism have generally been quite scrappy. Minimalism often sounds simple, but repetitious phrases played tightly together across a large orchestra, varying slightly, are nightmares of counting and concentration for even the most accomplished players. Further I was aware that the work was an offshoot of Adams’s controversial 1987 opera, Nixon in China, which I found an insufferable bore. If Adams has a sense of how to write for the human voice, he did not display much of it in Nixon. Moreover I was put off by the opera’s unlikely combination of a minimalist score with a conventional linear libretto. Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, a minimalist opera that I found rewarding and memorable, does not attempt to tell the Gandhi story in a traditional Western sequence of events; rather it is a series of tableaux or meditations, in which the underlying musical repetition becomes a sort of public mantra, fitting the cyclical Eastern ethos and the mystical and sacred character of the Sanskrit verses that serve as the libretto. As for Nixon, there appears to be no particular reason why a minimalist style, versus, say, a serial style, was used for this opera’s subject matter.

The Chairman Dances is, according to Adams, who offered a chatty introduction to the piece, “an outtake from Nixon in China.” It seems that Madame Mao gate-crashes the final presidential banquet and suddenly disrobes before the guests (she was a film actress in the 30s). She beckons to her husband’s huge image on the wall, and the old man comes down from his poster and they fox-trot, “fantasizing all the while,” said Adams, “that they are Ginger and Fred.” The scene remained in the opera, but the full music was not used.

As a separate piece of music, The Chairman Dances is a fun-spirited and energetic piece–a hilarious spoof of 30s dance music as the Chinese might have imagined it, with wood blocks beating the time against piano and harp and a gushy, string-laden big-band accompaniment. The piece builds in momentum across a classic arc. The subtlety, accuracy, and good humor with which the Grant Park players approached it made the total effect all the more entertaining. Adams may have trouble writing for voice, but he is a master orchestrator and a superb musical craftsman.

What better to crown this concert than Ravel’s Bolero? Not only does it fit with the general theme of dance and meter that this program emphasized, but it too, it could be argued, is a minimalist piece, with constant repetition through shifting sonorities and dynamics. Also, because the two newer works were cleverly sandwiched between such “hits” as An American in Paris and Bolero, everyone in the audience stayed right through to the end. Adams brought out the work’s overtones in a nice, tangy way, and his sense of buildup was remarkably clear.

BD:   It’s all wrapped up together in the piece?

Adams:   Yes, but then there are pieces that are high art and difficult, yet one would not call them ‘entertainment’.  I don’t think I would call the Mahler Sixth entertainment, even though it’s done so often these days.  It almost approaches the level of entertainment.  It’s sort of a moot question, and one that I care not to address too often, but I do know that Mozart viewed much of his music as being entertaining.  I’m sure Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or even Don Giovanni had its entertainment potential in his mind when he was composing them.

BD:   He called it a ‘dramma giocoso’.

Adams:   Yes.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer!

Adams:   Oh, thank you!

Two months shy of a decade later, Adams returned to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two weeks of concerts.
We met again and continued our conversation . . . . .

BD:   It’s been ten years since we chatted.  Does it surprise you how far you’ve come in ten years?

Adams:   I don’t know how far I’ve come, really.  I’ve gone through a period in the early
90s of dalliance with a little bit of atonality, but I’m still basically the same John Adams... doing a little more conducting.

BD:   Why did you dally with atonality?

Adams:   [Laughs]  That’s a facetious way of putting it.  My second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, was clearly not the same environment that Nixon in China would be.  It dealt with a story that was, on the one hand, very tragic, and on the other hand illogical.  I just felt that my normal minimalist style of the
80s needed some depth, and needed to be able to feel some pain.
BD:   So, your subject matter really does dictate how the music will sound?

Adams:   It does, and one of the reasons I like to continue periodically to work in music theater is because the dramatic demands of music theater have an enormous impact on my language in general.
BD:   But if the subject matter does dictate a lot of this, are there are certain boundaries and certain limits?

Adams:   I think so.  First of all, I’m essentially really a tonal composer, and I’ve always felt that tonality is more than a feature of culture.  It’s actually a biological event.  It is very interesting that anywhere you go on the globe, to any cultureAsia, Oceania, Africa, wherevermusic is organized tonality.  It’s only in this little tiny pocket of a very small confined period of European music that you find this phenomenon of atonality.  Basically, I think people experience musically tonally.

BD:   So, the atonalists are the odd ones out?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Christoph von Dohnányi, Emanuel Ax, and Nicolas Slonimsky.]

Adams:   That’s been my feeling, even though Schoenberg proclaimed sometime in 1920 that by inventing the serial system, he had ensured the hegemony of German music for the next hundred years.

BD:   Is it correct to say that you’re not really singlehandedly bringing music back, you’re just doing your music the way you feel?

Adams:   Yes.  There’s been an enormous revolution in classical music in the last twenty years, and I attribute most of it to the advent of minimalism.  I can remember coming to Chicago in the early
80s, when Harmonium was done at Grant Park.  Minimalism was a controversial thing at the time, but one of the things that made it so controversial was the fact that audiences were coming back to the concert hall to hear a new music.

BD:   So, nobody liked it, but the public?

Adams:   Yes, right.  [Both laugh]  But just to say that people like it isn’t enough to explain what happened.  By the advent of minimalism, the direction that contemporary music was taking ever since Schoenberg was simply radically rerouted.  One of the reasons why minimalists
Glass, Reich, Terry Riley and myself, even though I’m ten years younger than they areall received so much ridicule at the beginning was that people said, “Oh, they’re just reinventing the wheel.”

BD:   They weren’t repairing the wheel?

Adams:   No, I like to say that I was suggesting a new way to ride it.  If you consider what minimalism brought about, it was new ways to experience musical structure, or the developmental space that utilized the primary musical elements
pulsation, tonality, repetitionbut did so in a way that was entirely new and fresh.  That allowed amazingly interesting and new structures to be created that had nothing to do with sonata allegro form, or the romantic symphony.

BD:   Did you set out to try and do all of this, or did you just write music that you liked to hear, and then saw where it fit into the path?

Adams:   When I left college in the early 1970s, I headed to the West Coast on sort of a wanderjahr [year of wandering], not really knowing quite what I was doing.  At that time I was very influenced by John Cage, and it was Cage’s philosophical writings and his general personality that attracted me more than his actual musical output... although I found his early pieces
the prepared piano pieces, and pieces from the 40s and early 50svery attractive.  But I had a funny feeling that the kind of music that I was involved inthe experimental avant-garde of the timesomehow didn’t satisfy me on the very deepest musical level.  I was going back to my apartment and listening to Beethoven String Quartets, or playing through Bach on the piano, or listening to Duke Ellington for that matter.  When I heard my first minimalist pieces, even though they struck me as very primitive, I thought, “Wow, here are all the elements that I need in music.  Here’s the possibility of creating very large architectonic structures, and having a great emotional impact as well.”  So, out of that realization, out of that desire came my very first pieces, like Shaker Loops, Harmonium, Harmonielehre, and eventually my operas.

BD:   Are you pleased with where they have led you since then?

Adams:   Yes, of course I’m pleased.  I have moments of self-doubt, but what creative person doesn’t?  I also have periods when the ideas are very calcitrant, and that’s usually at the beginning of a piece.  I remember very, very well trying to start the piano concerto that I wrote for Emanuel Ax, called Century Rolls.  [See image of CD above-left]  I had accepted this commission, and I wanted very much to write a piece for Manny Ax, because I like him so much.  He was a great pianist, and I sat down and realized that I had no idea in the world what a John Adams piano concerto would sound like, nor even if such a thing could be born.  So, I had to just live with the idea, and struggle with it, and it was several months before I hit upon an idea.  I’m in that very same state right now in between pieces.

BD:   You don’t like being between pieces then?

Adams:   One does have to have downtime creatively, especially if one creates a very large piece, like this last piece that I finished, which I’m doing in Chicago this week, Naïve and Sentimental Music.  It’s a fifty-minute work for huge orchestra, and it occupied me almost every hour of every day for about eight months.  You can’t just plunge from something like that directly into a new piece.  You need to recharge your batteries.


[See my interviews with George Shirley, and Lou Harrison]

BD:   Is it good to stay with this piece by conducting it, or should you get completely away and go star-gazing?

Adams:   I’m really not sure.  On one level, conducting is a tremendously important activity for me, because it brings my creative work and my introverted self out into the open, and it allows me to see a piece through.  But, on the other hand, it’s a huge and very complicated distraction.
BD:   You’ve conducted a lot of your works.  Are you the ideal conductor of your music?

Adams:   Not necessarily.  There are some really great conductors around, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have quite a few of them champion my music... people like Esa-Pekka Salonen, who gave the world premiere of Naïve and Sentimental Music [CD cover shown at right], Simon Rattle, who’s recorded quite a bit of my music, Michael Tilson Thomas, Kent Nagano, David Zinman and on and on.

BD:   Is there any chance that they show you how your music should go?

Adams:   Not necessarily.  Maybe in very subtle ways, but I would say that when anyone does a piece, you get interesting inputs on it.  But, I’m a good enough conductor, so that I can give an authoritative version of my own work.  I have little doubt that when I am no longer around, my recordings, and even archival tapes of my performances, will probably serve, if nothing else, as points of contention.

BD:   Being authentic composer/conductor performances, would those inhibit other interpreters from finding other things in your music?

Adams:   That’s a very good question.  I’m a skilled conductor, so I can achieve what I want.  I’ve seen conductors, like Henze or even Copland, who may have been greater composers, but they were not good conductors.  They could just barely make a picture of what it was they wanted.  I don’t know whether my performances will inhibit someone else. In one way it will, because there’s nothing worse than a conductor taking a piece at a wrongheaded tempo.  I’m having a very interesting time researching the Sibelius Fifth this week, which is a piece I’m doing with the Civic Orchestra [the
training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony, founded in 1919, and made up of young professional players] next week.  I’ve discovered that Sibelius was so furious and so frustrated with conductors’ stubborn inability to conduct at the tempo he wanted, that he finally provided tempo markings for his symphonies, none of which, strangely enough, have yet to make it into any of the scores.  Even today, conductors like Colin Davis and many of the great Sibelius interpreters, are doing these symphonies at the wrong tempi.

BD:   Do you always try to search out the right tempi?

Adams:   I have, and according to what Sibelius gave, in this case it’s shockingly fast.  I’m wondering whether people will dismiss my interpretation as being
out to lunch and not knowing that what I’m doing is actually Sibelius’ own tempi.

BD:   Should you put a little note in the program that the tempi used are Sibelius’?

Adams:   A disclaimer, yes!  [Laughs]

BD:   When you came to those scores originally, without knowing that these tempo markings were erroneous in the printed score, did you know that they were wrong, and did you feel something was out of place with them?

Adams:   Actually, no.  I know this particular piece mostly from recorded experience.  The general way with the first part of the Fifth Symphony is to do it very broadly.  Even a supposedly authoritative conductor such as Esa-Pekka Salonen takes it very slowly, and takes the molto moderato very seriously.  I’ve been meaning to ask him if he knew about the Sibelius markings, and if so, why did he ignore them.

BD:   Are you pleased with the markings that you have now found?

Adams:   We shall see.  I haven’t had my first rehearsal yet.

BD:   [Somewhat concerned]  Can’t hear it in your head that fast?

Adams:   I can, but I’m just not sure whether doing it at that tempo, for which no recording exists now... except for a very old one by Robert Kajanus, a Finnish conductor.  No other conductor has done it with this tempo, and I may just find it so uncomfortable that I will back off.  We’ll see.

kajanus Robert Kajanus (Helsinki, 2 December 1856 – Helsinki, 6 July 1933) was a Finnish conductor, composer, and teacher. In 1882, he founded the Helsinki Orchestral Society, Finland's first professional orchestra. As a conductor, he was also a notable champion and interpreter of the music of Jean Sibelius

He founded the first permanent orchestra in Finland, the Helsinki Orchestral Society (later to become the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Finland's national orchestra). He brought the orchestra to a very high performance standard very quickly, so that they were able to give quite credible performances of the standard late classical/mid-romantic repertory. Kajanus led the Helsinki Philharmonic for 50 years, and among the milestones of that history was the first performance in Finland of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in 1888. His early-electric 78-rpm atmospheric, authoritative recordings of Sibelius symphonies are still interpretive milestones.

Kajanus composed over 200 works, of which Aino and the Finnish Rhapsodies are enduringly popular. He also orchestrated the Finnish national anthem, Maamme (Our Country) and Christian Fredric Kress's Porilaisten marssi (March of the People of Pori), the honor march of the Suomen puolustusvoimat (Finnish Defense Forces) and thus, effectively, the Finnish presidential march.

Kajanus had a decisive impact upon the development of the career of Jean Sibelius. He was considered an authority on the interpretation of Sibelius's music. He and Sibelius were close friends, but this was compromised in 1898 when Sibelius was appointed to a university post for which Kajanus was himself a candidate. Kajanus appealed, and the decision was overturned. But they reconciled for the orchestra's tour of Europe in 1900, where they appeared at the Exposition Universelle at the invitation of the French government. Kullervo, Sibelius's epic masterpiece, was written in the wake of Kajanus' symphonic poem Aino, although Sibelius denied any exertion of influence of this piece over his own work. Additionally, as a conductor, Kajanus was responsible for commissioning one of Sibelius' most popular and enduring works, En Saga, following the success of Kullervo. Pohjola's Daughter was dedicated to Kajanus. When Kajanus took the Helsinki Orchestra on a tour of Europe in 1900 both he and Sibelius conducted, including what proved to be the first performances of Sibelius's music outside of Finland. This ensured the spread of the young composer's reputation far beyond the borders of his homeland, the first Finnish composer to receive such attention.

Kajanus was the first to make recordings of Sibelius's First, Second, Third and Fifth symphonies and Tapiola. They were recorded in the early 1930s, with the London Symphony Orchestra. The relationship between Kajanus and Sibelius was such that his interpretations of the composer's music are usually regarded as authentic.

In 1930, the Finnish government and Britain's EMI-Columbia label, perceiving a potentially wide audience for the composer's work, jointly arranged to record Sibelius's first two symphonies, and Kajanus was selected to record both at the insistence of the composer. In 1932 Kajanus recorded Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5, along with orchestral suites and tone poems. This was a massive recording project for the work of a living composer, and the recordings have been considered definitive for many years, and are regarded as necessary listening in the study of Sibelius. Only his death in July 1933, at the age of 76, prevented Kajanus from recording all of Sibelius' Symphonies.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You may find that the composer was wrong???

Adams:   [Smiles]  Well, it’s hard to know.  Composers are generally right, even though Stravinsky often wrote one thing and then conducted another.  But when composers generally write a tempo down, one should really respect what they’re asking for.

BD:   Are you generally right in your music?

Adams:   In my tempi?  Yes, I am.

BD:   Are you rigid?

Adams:   Close to rigid.  No one wants to be called
rigid, but I get extremely upset if someone is not doing the right tempi.

BD:   Being a conductor as well as composer, and experiencing these problems as you mentioned with the Sibelius, are you more careful to litter your scores with more directives to help other conductors along?

Adams:   A composer should use every means available to get the message through.  I’m always impressed when I open a Mahler score.  It’s so clear that Mahler had no confidence whatsoever in his colleagues, both musicians and conductors, because when you’re conducting a Mahler score, you have this feeling that he’s standing right behind your shoulders, just shouting in your ear, “Slower here!  No.  No.  No, not faster!  Not too loud!  Now, the brass should be loud, but not ugly.”  It’s all this imploring.  You can see what kind of personality he has.

BD:   Also getting the horns and the clarinets to raise their instruments at times.

Adams:   Yes.

BD:   Do you do the same thing?

Adams:   I do it, but I’m not quite so such a nattering nabob.  I don’t have quite so many verbal implications in my music, but I use notation as thoroughly as I can to get the point over.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You want to be a
nattering nabob of positivism?  [This adapts the famous phrase nattering nabobs of negativism used by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, but written for him by William Safire.]

Adams:   That’s right.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to Mahler just for a moment, he also took the Beethoven Symphonies and
retouched them.  Do you ever retouch other people’s scores?

Adams:   No, I don’t.  Not at all.  I orchestrate other composers’ works, such as Debussy piano works, but this is a totally different experience.  This is a creative experience.  But no, I do not retouch another composers’ scores.  I sometimes re-bar them, particularly in the case of Copland.  His metrics are impractical, and they make life much harder than it has to be, like having a 7/8, plus a 5/8.  Sometimes just doing it as 4 3/4 bars gets the job done by putting in a few accents.

adams BD:   You’re just making it sound the way he wants, but it looks easier on the page?

Adams:   Exactly.  These days, when you have only a couple of hours to prepare a very difficult piece with an orchestra, wasting time on complex metrical patterns that really don’t have to be so complex, is just a loss.

BD:   What advice do you have for the conductor 150 years from now, who wants to re-bar some of your pieces?

Adams:   I don’t think that will be necessary because I made all the right choices.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Copland didn’t make all the right choices?

Adams:   No, he clearly didn’t in his metrical pattern.  But, as for my advice, as long as it all comes out to the same number at the end, then it’s fine with me.

BD:   How much leeway for interpretation do you want, and allow in your scores?

Adams:   Interpretation is a very funny thing.  We think of interpretation when we think of somebody playing Chopin, and the difference between Martha Argerich and Rubinstein, or Murray Perahia and Emanuel Ax.

BD:   They have their own
right way of playing each piece?

Adams:   Yes, theoretically.  One could look at a Stravinsky score, or a Messiaen score, or even one of my scores and feel the composer didn’t leave much room for interpretation, yet there’s enormous room for it.  I can’t quite explain what that is.  If one obeys precisely what the composer asks for, there is lots of room for interpretation, for personalizing the work.  That has to do with one’s concept of sound, and one’s concept of attack, and, of course, with one’s concept of the mix.

BD:   Do you really want everyone to obey, or do you want everyone who interprets to understand?

Adams:   Well,
obey sounds very German.  I want them to respect.  I don’t want to get too precious about this, but I clearly want them to respect what’s notated.  Then, there’s still a lot of room left over.

BD:   Are they respecting you, or are they respecting the score, or are they respecting music?

Adams:   All three.  For example, there are two very interesting recordings of a big orchestra piece of mine called Harmonielehre.  One is by Simon Rattle, and one is by Edo de Waart [both CD covers shown below].  In both the tempi are all right, and in many ways they are almost identical, and yet they’re profoundly different.  Simon’s recording feels more luscious and more romantic.  The larger architecture is there.  Edo de Waart’s recording feels more modern, and it’s more precise and more brilliant.  Some of this has to do with the orchestra, but there’s so much pleasure just to compare those two performances, that I realized there’s lots of future for my pieces.

BD:   You don’t have to say which is which, but is one of them right, or are they both right?

Adams:   They’re both right.

BD:   Is there one that you prefer?

Adams:   There is, and I won’t tell you which one.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Does that preference perhaps change over years?

Adams:   It could, possibly, yes.


adams BD:   Does the enormous popularity that some or a lot of your music has attained surprise you?

Adams:   It would have surprised me enormously when I was starting out 25 or 30 years ago, because at that point, 1970 to 75, contemporary music was really very confused. The post-war avant-garde European serialists, such as Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez, and Ligeti were all major players on the scene.  They were very great composers, but it was a very theoretical and difficult and even confrontational time.  I didn’t really think an American composer could become a major voice any more, in the way that Copland or Bernstein had been.  I thought that the future was in composers like John Cage.  Music had become a very theoretical philosophical event, and he just completely ignored entirely the traditions of classical music, including orchestras, operas, the whole concert hall etiquette.  He ignored many other things, including rhythm, and all the cultural operettas that came with a listening experience.  I really thought that’s what the new millennium is going to be.  Music was simply going away from Beethoven, and even Stravinsky, forever, and would never go back.  But things didn’t quite turn out that way.  We’ve ended up, now, at the end of the century, in a very pluralistic state, and that’s a very good state.  I also think it’s a fantastic phenomenon, not unlike 1899 when there were Elgar, and Mahler, and Strauss, and Sibelius, and Debussy, and Stravinsky all writing at the same time.

BD:   They all survived.

Adams:   Right, they all survived, and hopefully that’s the situation here.

BD:   So, in the next millennium, all the current composers hopefully will survive?

Adams:   I think so, in one way or another.  The happy thing for me is that my music has found a very large audience.

BD:   You don’t mind sharing the platform with Stockhausen and Boulez?

Adams:   Well, I think one should ask it the other way around!  It’s very controversial in Europe.  I’ve seen my name several times in Le Monde and various other French newspapers and magazines placed along with Boulez as the other end of the spectrum.  This creates some kind of alpha to omega.

BD:   You being the lesser and he being the greater?

Adams:   Depending on who is talking.  I’m often used as a stick with which to beat Boulez, which makes me intensely uncomfortable, because we’re talking about one of the major figures of 20th century music.

BD:   Should we put a great big picture of you shaking hands with Boulez in some public place?

Adams:   You mean in front of the Great Wall of China?

BD:   Something like that, sure.

Adams:   We’re all in the same bath tub together.  Stylistically, it’s a very large stew, a big bouillabaisse right now, and that’s exciting.  The difference between a composer like me and a composer of Boulez’ generation is that in terms of language, that generation was very, very exclusive.  They were looking for what they thought of as a highly refined, highly evolved language.  This comes from the whole Schoenberg idea that there’s a musical mainstream that goes from Bach to Beethoven to Schubert to Brahms to Schoenberg.  I find that a very blinkered way of looking at life.  How unfortunate to discount all the other wonderful music there is.

BD:   Gamelan music, perhaps?

Adams:   Yes, gamelan music, or Miles Davis, or Tammy Wynette.

BD:   Should we include rap music in that mix?

Adams:   Of course.

BD:   So you’re ultimately completely pluralistic?

Adams:   I am.  I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal that will find value in everything.  I have certain kinds of bop and certain kind of gamelan music and certain Afghani artists that I love, but I hear a lot of music that I think is just junk, much of it coming from my son’s bedroom.

BD:   But you give everybody a shot?

Adams:   Yes.  I’m more to the acceptance scale, but I’m not a totally accepting person.

BD:   Is the bath tub big enough for everyone?

Adams:   What I’m saying is that there’s good music and bad music in every tradition.  The really sophisticated listener is one who can identify what’s good.  It’s part of our experience, right here at the end of this particular century, to be able to draw inspiration and ideas from all kinds of different music.  You can hear it in all of my work.  You can hear rock and roll, and disco, and Turkish music, and gamelan music.
BD:   Is your music good?

Adams:   I hope it’s good.  Most of it pleases me a great deal.

BD:   Do you write it to be good, or do you write it just to be you?

Adams:   Of course I write it to be good!  I write music that is integral in itself, that follows its own logic, and that it’s as good as I can make it.  I wouldn’t let something out of the house if it didn’t please me.

BD:   Are there degrees of pleasing?

Adams:   Yes, and there are moments in each piece that please me more than others.  I don’t think it’s possible to write even a small piece of music and have every bar of it be absolutely heavenly.  I can’t even imagine a piece of music that would be like that.  I suppose Mozart at his very best is sort of that way, but if you listen to a Bruckner symphony, there are acres and acres and miles and miles of fairly uneventful stuff.  But you need that stuffing, you need those long runways to get these space capsules off into orbit.  That is the case in quite a few of my larger works.  There are longueurs [tedious passages].  I had that experience in Naïve and Sentimental Music.  The second movement struck me as just too long.  It’s a slow movement.  It’s very spacious, and there isn’t a huge amount of events going on, and I said to Esa-Pekka Salonen after the second or third rehearsal, “I wonder if I ought to make a cut in that movement.  It just doesn’t seem to have anything happening.”  Fortunately, he said, “No, no.  We need that space in order achieve the sense of scale that the entire piece has in all three movements.”

BD:   That cut would throw it out of balance?

Adams:   Yes.  It could conceivably throw it out of balance, and I would be yielding to a desire to entertain.  The minute there’s not something interesting happening, I get fidgety.  Maybe in my dotage I’m learning to create works that have area where not a hell of a lot is going on, and then that somehow allows the events later upstream to have more impact.

BD:   Well, you bring up an interesting word, and that’s
entertain.  In your music, or in music in general, where is the balance between the enlightened part and the entertaining part?

Adams:   Well, in what I just spoke about, I was using
entertain in the loftiest sense, meaning an event to keep the mind occupied.  But on a more demonic level, entertainment, meaning humor, or nature, or cleverness, also has a place in music.  That was another very, very strong criticism I had of avant-garde music, and particularly serial twelve-tone music.  I found it amazingly humorless.  When it came to their art, I found the old avant-garde to be just impossibly grim.  That just struck me as not necessarily required.  I thought that a good artist could embrace all sorts of human affects, not just serious and not just lofty and not just intense, but also relaxed and funny.  There is a place for humor in music.  We can find it in Haydn and Mozart and Stravinsky.

BD:   Certainly in Mahler, with those Laendlers.

Adams:   Yes, they are certainly fun.  You’re being chased by a neurotic with a knife.  [Both laugh]  Yes, they’re there.  It’s a childlike humor.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What’s the purpose of music?

Adams:   It has no purpose.  It’s just pure play.  I think of all the arts as being pure play.

BD:   Play for the creator, or play for the receiver?

Adams:   Both, and that’s why we need art so desperately in our lives.  That’s why it should be the principal teaching in schools.  It shouldn’t be left out there with gym as after-school adornment.  It is a fundamental human activity.  If life is nothing but work, if it’s nothing but gaining one’s food, one’s shelter, one
s clothing, the basics of life, then there’s no real meaning to life.  I’m speaking about all kinds of play, but fundamentally, very divine play is one in which for no ostensible purposes one takes the materials that God has given us, and puts them into interesting and whimsical order.  Whether that’s color, or sound, or words, or shapes, or the gestures of the human body, it’s fundamentally all the same.


BD:   Is there something spiritual about every one of your works?

Adams:   Not necessarily.  I have some pieces that are pretty funky and low down.

BD:   Let me change that a little bit.  Is there something spiritual in a few of your works?

Adams:   Absolutely.  Even in Nixon in China, despite all the flashbulb-popping, and the handshaking, and the speeches, and everything, the fundamental themes in that opera are, if not spiritual, very deep and philosophical.  They have to do with issues like capitalism versus communism, and what each means to the human spirit.  For the people who are in positions of great power, what are their real responsibilities, not just to the world, but to the ones that are closest to them?  These are very spiritual issues.

BD:   What is the responsibility of the composer?

Adams:   [Matter-of-factly]  The responsibility of the composer is to write good pieces.

BD:   That’s it?

Adams:   Yes... but that’s a lot.

BD:   Is it too much?

Adams:   There are days when it feels like it’s too much,  but I feel very, very fortunate that I can have a life in music, and that I can support myself and my family by writing compositions, and go off to conduct them.  That’s a real gift.  I’m very humbled to be able to do that.  Not many people are allowed to do that in life, and I feel very fortunate.

BD:   I assume there are people lined up around the block trying to give you commissions.

Adams:   Commissions are an interesting phenomenon.  In a way they’re something wonderful.  If they’re big enough, they buy time for a composer.

BD:   How do you decide yes or no to each one that comes in?

Adams:   What I do now is decide the piece I want to write, and then I go out and drum up a commission.  Occasionally somebody will come to me with an idea, for example, when Emanuel Ax approached me.  My first response was, yes, simply because it was him.  As I said earlier in this interview, then I discovered I didn’t realize I didn’t have a piano concerto in me.  But normally I think of the piece, and then I organize a commission.

adams BD:   You have enough to keep you busy for the next several years?

Adams:   I do, yes.

BD:   Is that a good feeling, or is that a scary feeling?

Adams:   It’s neither.  Yes, if I didn’t have them I’d be very upset.  I’d have to be thinking about a career in real estate, or selling cars.  But fortunately the economy is very flush right now.  There’s never been a time in the history of American music when more operas have been commissioned as there is right now.  Also, most orchestras in the country have some kind of commissioning program going on, either something official or unofficial.  But the downside of commissioning is that both the public and presenters now have an idea that they feel a piece is not worth presenting and not worth having on the program unless it’s a world premiere.  So, we have this overpopulation happening.  We need some birth control, because composers are just reproducing pieces like crazy.  Getting a second, third, or fourth performance is more important than anything.  Getting a work into the repertoire is a huge undertaking.  I have two of the most well-known contemporary operas, and I wouldn’t call either of them repertoire yet.  No one else has written a repertoire opera that I can think of since Benjamin Britten.

BD:   Do you want either Nixon or Klinghoffer to be as popular as Aïda or Bohème?

Adams:   Of course.

BD:   Really???

Adams:   Yes.  I suppose the downside of that means a lot of really bad performances.  [Both laugh]  But the whole point is that your works get into the culture.  I’m convinced that Nixon will be.  It’s just a matter of time.  My orchestra works have become repertoire... not all of them, but some of them, and that’s also very rare.

BD:   But even some of the Beethoven symphonies are not repertoire.

Adams:   [Protesting]  Oh, of course, they are!

BD:   How often do you get Two, or Four, or Eight in comparison to the others?

Adams:   They don’t get performed as often, but when I’m saying something is not repertoire, take, for example, the Copland Piano Concerto, which I’m also doing this week with the Chicago Symphony.  That work has never been played by the Chicago Symphony.  It was composed in 1926, so we’re talking 73 years.

BD:   But that’s a heavier work.  It’s not Appalachian Spring.

Adams:   [Protesting again]  Are you kidding???  This piece is a thinking-man’s Rhapsody in Blue.  It is a great piece.  It’s jazzy, and it’s beautifully put together.  It is absolutely a wonderful piece of music.

BD:   But it’s more complex.

Adams:   It just hasn’t made it in the repertoire for reasons we can’t quite understand, and it will.  It’s only a matter of a few years.  It just happens for one reason or another.  We even allude to it because of the enormous success of Copland’s other pieces.  But that’s what I’m talking about, the struggle of getting a work into the repertoire.  Copland is the composer who has the fortune of having many works get into the repertoire, and that’s very rare.

BD:   Is this your ultimate goal, to be a repertoire-composer?

Adams:   No, it’s not my ultimate goal.  My ultimate goal is to be a great composer.  There are great composers who had to wait a long time to get into the repertoire, like Charles Ives.  This is just a business thing I’m talking about, whether your pieces get played or not.  It also means whether you had an impact on the culture.  But there are great artists such as Kafka, Melville, Ives as I mentioned, even J. S. Bach, who had to wait decades.

BD:   Bach had to wait until Mendelssohn resurrected him.

Adams:   Yes.
BD:   Does it please you to know that you don’t have to wait, at least to a great extent?

Adams:   It pleases me, but it also makes me slightly anxious.  I tell people I keep a mental picture of Meyerbeer on my work desk.

BD:   [Laughs]  Because of the fashion going in and out?

Adams:   Exactly.  Milton Babbitt, who’s now in his 80s, once told me that he could remember back in the 1930s, when the most popular American composer by a long shot was Roy Harris.  Copland was considered a radical, who was played only by Koussevitzky and one or two other conductors.  Sessions wasn’t even acknowledged, and no one knew about Ives except a handful of close friends.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Fellow insurance agents?

Adams:   Yes.  [Both laugh]  Look how much things have changed in the 60 years since that happened.

BD:   How upset will you be if you go completely out of fashion in 60 years?

Adams:   If I’m even around, I’ll probably be too old to be upset.  But talking theoretically, it would be a great disappointment.  History can be merciless.  It can be very here today, gone tomorrow, so one needs to have great respect.  There’s a lot of artists who are very approachable at this time, and who have great popularity, and then, in another generation or two, are found just to not deliver enough.  On the other hand, there’s art that was very popular from the word, go, like the Firebird, or like Chopin, or like much of Mozart, and they have always remained popular.  So, it’s hard to know.

BD:   [Asking about a detail]  Which one caused a fist-fight
Rite of Spring or Firebird?

Adams:   Rite of Spring, and even that’s a myth.

BD:   [Laughs]  It’s a fun myth.

Adams:   It’s fun myth, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is composing fun?

Adams:   It’s fun in a way, I suppose, if one is a long-distance runner.  When those endorphins kick in, there is a certain acceleration.  It’s very, very labor-intensive. You can’t farm out anything.  I’m always very jealous of architects, for example.  They have a huge responsibility to shoulder, but on the other hand they can say, “Here, you take care of the heating system,” and to another person they’ll farm out the electrical system, and to another the stairs and super-structure.  But a composer has to do all of that by himself or herself.

BD:   You wouldn’t want to farm out the woodwind section to somebody else?

Adams:   No.  There have been some composers in history who have had their works orchestrated by others, but they tend to be film composers.  Generally, composers have to do everything themselves, and it’s a lot of work.  As I said, the hardest, most difficult work actually comes at the beginning, when you don’t know what the piece is, and you really suffer not knowing, and waiting, and having to write a piece.

BD:   How early do you find out what the piece is?  Is it before you set anything down on the paper, or is it as you’re working, or is it when all the notes are there?

Adams:   It’s usually as you’re working.  You start with a rough draft, but the hard thing about the piece is that your first attempts are always so profoundly disappointing.  They confirm your worst suspicions
that you’re all washed up, that you never were any good in the first place, and that all those critics who wrote bad reviews are going to go to their graves happy that they made the right evaluation.  All of these suicidal paranoid visions come and haunt you like the proverbial pink elephant, and that can go on for months.  But usually there comes a day when you realize you can’t dabble any more.  That’s why I always work with a deadline.  At that point, you simply have to kick your engines in and get going.

BD:   Do the ideas have to be forced out of you?

Adams:   No, it’s just that one is very critical at the beginning of the piece, and then one becomes, interestingly, I wouldn’t say less critical, but ideas tend to come with more ease as a piece gains weight and mass.  At the beginning, the ideas are very fugitive, and one often doesn’t know which one is the right one.

BD:   Are you always sure you make the right choices?

Adams:   No.  There are some pieces where the beginning is the weakest part.

BD:   Can’t you go back and change things a bit, or will that make a domino effect into the rest of the work?

Adams:   Very often I do go back and change the beginning, but sometimes, despite its weaknesses, the beginning is so integral that it would be impossible to go back and rip it apart.  So, one simply lives with it.

BD:   [With a wink]  Naïvely I ask, why don’t you begin in the middle?

Adams:   Well, some composers do.  Some composers write fragments, and then the act of composing is a mass assemblage.  But I’m an A-to-Z guy.  I like to start at bar one, and go forward from there.

BD:   How do you know when you have come to the last bar?

Adams:   Sometimes it’s a very, very difficult thing.  For example, with Naïve and Sentimental Music, I had a hard time getting going, and then, once I was up and running, I forget how many bars there are in this piece.  It
s in the thousands.  It was hard work, but there was no problem.  I felt like I had this freight train going at 80 miles an hour, and I couldn’t stop it.  It was very, very difficult to find a way to stop the piece, because the way it ended was intensely important as to what the whole work meant.  It was fundamentally a tonal piece, and yet I didn’t want to end it with a big blazing major triad.  It was very hard to decide on how to end it.  It’s an interesting and provocative ending, because it is this enormous wall of sound, the entire gamut from the very lowest to the very highest of pitches.  Everybody’s playing, and then suddenly everybody stops, and it leaves this one single note being blared out by the trombones and horns just standing alone in space.  The ending is very shocking.  Audiences who don’t know the piecewhich means virtually everybody right now, because it’s brand neware always just shocked by the ending.  It’s just kind of bizarre.  You suddenly have the whole orchestra stop, and this one note is standing there like some warrior.

BD:   Does the piece end itself or do you end the piece?

Adams:   It’s a symbiotic decision.

BD:   Do you consider the piece something that you’ve created, or is then a living friend?

Adams:   I think of pieces as being very much organisms.  I think a composer is an organizing mind, but also one that basically cares and feeds this living organism.  When you get the piece going, when you’ve actually decided what the real DNA of the piece is, then very often composing is a matter of simply respecting the natural flow of these organisms.  There are very strict nursemaids.  One says, “No, no, no, you can’t eat now, and you can’t go to bed until this hour.”  Then there are looser ones
like mewho tend to allow the children to play, and to grow into whatever way they want.  A great composer is one who understands and identifies the organic nature of the material, and then really allows it to fulfill itself.

BD:   You’re more of a cultivator than a creator?

Adams:   No, it’s both.

BD:   [Knowing when to end a conversation]  Thank you very much for coming back to Chicago.

Adams:   It’s great to be back with one of the world’s best orchestras.




See my interview with Christoph Eschenbach

© 1989 & 1999 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on July 6, 1989, and May 3, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1992, 1997, and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.