In Conversation with Thomas May



Thomas May

  • READ an excerpt from The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer edited by Thomas May.

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    Molly Sheridan: I frequently overhear a certain lament that there is no Aaron Copland-style composer figurehead on the larger stage of American culture today. Would it be possible in this day and age for a man like John Adams to take up such a mantle? Why/why not (both in terms of modern culture and Adams own personality/inclinations)?

    Thomas May: Any attempt to address the significance of figures from classical music for the “larger stage” has to take the whole contemporary cultural context into consideration. And from that perspective, I think it’s doubtful anyone from classical music today—no matter how powerful or charismatic or universally regarded for their achievements—could have the kind of effect you’re suggesting. Indeed, I think even in the case of Copland we have a tendency to look backward with a nostalgic glow at whatever role he may have had as a “figurehead.” There are a lot of reasons for this, but let me single out two crucial ones.

    The first cuts across all the arts—literature, painting, theater, film, indeed popular music—and has to do with the loss of the very idea of figureheads, which I am taking to mean icons of ultimate achievement, gold standards. The very idea of such monoliths as The Great American Novel is just as obsolete as that of The Great American Symphony. Just look at the recent hype over the New York Times‘s proclamation of “the best fiction” of the last quarter century. Some of the most astute reactions have pointed out that such polls are ridiculous precisely because they assume some old model of the Great American Writer who can speak to our entire culture with some sort of universal, vatic authority. It’s just not possible any longer (to the extent that it ever was—and consider, too, how some of the famous contenders of the past, like Moby Dick, were all-but-ignored in their own age), with the many cross-currents and subdivisions of our culture. The same certainly goes for classical music. Even the image of the universal “rock star” who can cut across all these lines is a thing of the past. Why do you think we see so many dinosaur acts continuing along the tour circuit? A lot of it is fueled by pure nostalgia for something lost.

    And another key reason why I don’t see anyone able even to play at playing this role is, of course, a direct consequence of the marginalization of classical music itself. So Adams has, in fact, received some of the most-coveted accolades—the Pulitzer and a bevy of Grammys—for his 9-11 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls. That’s hardly his most significant work. But aside from that, even with such public acknowledgment—what is, you could say, a way in which Adams had de facto been offered the “mantle”—it has almost no impact on our celebrity-obsessed culture at large, where someone like Paris Hilton is actually considered a “music maker.” Maybe a boost in record sales for Transmigration, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the new Dixie Chicks album, or even the reissue of Steve Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle. What’s more, if you stop to consider the abysmal state that the marketing of classical music has reached, with its desperate and clueless attempts to find new audiences, it’s as if there are now two parallel universes that have no possible point of intersection: that of actual artistic achievement and quality vs. that of what gets advertised, hyped, etc. And obviously, discerning music lovers have learned to tune out the latter.

    MS: You’ve drawn from a range of sources for this collection, from friends of the composer such as Ingram Marshall, to critics like Ross and Rich, and included quite a few of Michael Steinberg’s notes for the San Francisco Symphony. But then you’ve added original interviews that you did yourself with Adams and others. What areas were lacking; what made you decide to dig deeper?

    TM: There was some very rich pre-existing material in terms of thoughtful commentary on individual works and actual reception/critical reaction to Adams’s music. But I wanted to give close-ups of important collaborators who have lived and worked with Adams and his music over the years—Dawn Upshaw, Robert Spano, Manny Ax. I thought it was especially important to get direct input from Peter Sellars, who has been such an ongoing presence and partner for Adams’s stage work, so was quite happy to be able to interview him. And there are a number of excellent career-wide profiles of Adams, several of which I was fortunate to be able to include. But I felt it was necessary to offer a portrait as up-to-date as possible—particularly as Adams was working on one of his most significant projects, Dr. Atomic—so that became a focal point for the fresh interview material I did with him. Adams is so extraordinarily articulate about his work and inspirations that this became a central part of the collection. I also wanted to flesh out more of the early picture, the first years in San Francisco.

    MS: Speaking of inspirations, for all the controversy that has attended some of Adams’s work, these very same elements, this relevancy, has made his work of interest to a wide audience, not to mention generated buzz in the critical community. Does Adams actively pursue this as part of his artistic MO?

    TM: We have to be clear about what is meant by “controversy.” Clearly there are connotations both positive (“though-provoking,” “initiating discussion”) and negative (“publicity-seeking,” “superficial”) to labeling something controversial. Not to make light of it, but, in other words, there’s a sort of ongoing controversy as to whether Adams is intentionally controversial. There’s no question that Adams is interested in shaking up received notions of what a composer should be, and that in itself has both a serious and a wry side. When I say Adams “has made a point of pressing buttons,” I’m really referring to both of these. He wants to engage with serious moral and cultural issues, say, in the stage works, but always from the point of view of a master musical dramatist who doesn’t have the answer. In fact, I think that’s where a lot of people see the “controversy”—where they expect an answer, or a pat response, or a predictable pattern, Adams will deny that. One of the things that made Nixon in China so intriguing was precisely that it refused to turn Nixon into some clown to debunk, which was what a lot of people who were first encountering the opera expected.

    But there’s also a witty side to “pushing buttons”—you can see that in what has been called the “trickster” element in Adams. And Adams, I think, is very much aware of tapping into an indigenous, Mark Twain-like sense of humor and self-deprecation. Look at his quasi-clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons—its title referring to Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons” but also to the very idea of pushing buttons, if you think of the clarinet’s keys are kinds of buttons, literally being pushed.

    When people refer to Adams as whipping up controversy in the negative, publicity-hounding sense, they’re almost always referring only to the operas (though there are certainly areas of controversy in the instrumental music: Grand Pianola Music‘s play with rhetorical grandiosity, or the use of amplification in his sound engineering). Usually this charge has centered around The Death of Klinghoffer. If it really were a matter of Adams and Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman sitting around saying, “Hmm, what’s the most controversial topic we can think of for our next opera,” I really doubt that process could have generated the depth and intensity of the score Adams produced. It would have been enough to generate the buzz, make a splash in the press, and that’s it. But the real controversy about Klinghoffer is precisely that it offers no easy solutions—that it, again, grapples with this subject matter in serious musical dramatic terms. It’s hard to think of a major opera composer who has not made use of elements that could be construed as pursuing controversy for its own sake: whether it’s Mozart and Da Ponte’s determination to set Figaro, or Verdi’s courtesan heroine in Traviata, or Strauss using Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. But the real irony with Klinghoffer is that the “controversy” involved a layer that no one could have predicted, a full decade after the opera was introduced. One could hardly say the controversy over the cancellation of scheduled performances of the Klinghoffer choruses that happened a few months after 9-11 was a calculated “effect” on Adams’s part. If anything, he was so taken aback by the level of hostility to this work that he was determined to give up opera altogether. We’re very fortunate that forces prevailed to encourage him to accept the commission to write Dr. Atomic for San Francisco.

    One last point, which brings up the figure of Copland again: One of the pieces in the Adams Reader is a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” from Alex Ross (about that second stage of the “Klinghoffer controversy”). Alex points out that Copland’s first Symphony, premiered in 1925, was the work chosen to replace the Adams Klinghoffer Choruses, and that, in its own day, the Copland was not exactly without controversy. The man who conducted it, Walter Damrosch, famously declared that “if a young man can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder!”

    MS: You mention in your introduction some of the negative reviews and the hostile critics who have written about Adams. Do you include any of their pieces in this collection?

    TM: You bet—the chief “contra”-Adams voices are those of The New York Times critic Edward Rothstein and the esteemed musicologist Richard Taruskin. Both are integral to the Adams Reader, since they focus on critical moments of Adams’s reception. Rothstein writes about the early works (actually, for The New Republic in this case), back when Adams was just beginning to emerge as a major phenomenon, and I think it’s important to give voice to his perspective. The Taruskin piece is at the epicenter of the “Klinghoffer controversy”—it appeared in The New York Times Sunday Arts section, front page, so this presented Adams to a much larger world than followers of classical music, as you can imagine. The diatribe is an important part of the opera’s reception and had a large impact, I think, on perceptions of Adams. Here it can be seen in fuller context—for example, the book also includes Alice Goodman’s deleted Klinghoffer scene, which these critics refer to, so readers can judge for themselves the claims they make.

    MS: Adams, perhaps, is only as famous as his music—by which I mean his art is not competing for popularity against his personality. Anecdotally, after spending so much time with his colleagues and digging around in all this material, anything surprise you about him?

    TM: As my knowledge of the scope of Adams’s artistic achievements grew, I became even more impressed by qualities that were already apparent from my first contacts with him. We’ve become so used to expecting extravagant or “bad behavior” from our artists—all sorts of self-indulgent outbreaks—in a way that our celebrity-worshipping, gossip-mongering media encourage. But when you have someone who has reached the artistic level of John Adams and encounter a person who is so allergic to hype, who combines the most amazing eloquence with an honest humility, that’s extraordinary. I think I was perhaps most surprised by his self-effacing attitude—his ability to create as he does despite acknowledging how marginalized the art has become in our culture. And this wasn’t just my impression—time and again the artists I spoke to corroborated it. There were also some great anecdotes and depictions of the very young Adams that folks like Ingram Marshall provided—these really gave me a vivid picture of how exciting the whole San Francisco scene was when Adams settled there and was just beginning to make a name for himself as a composer. I hadn’t realized how deeply Adams imbibed the experimental music scene back then, well before the mantle of “Minimalism” was laid over his shoulders.

    MS: I love Rich’s review of Grand Pianola Music, which includes the woman next to him groaning just because the piece is new and Adams (not old and Beethoven). As you note, many have tried to pigeonhole his work in various and not-quite-appropriate categories. One hundred years from now, how do you suspect Adams will be discussed—for what pieces, for what impact?

    TM: This brings us back to the first “mantle of Copland” question, in a way. Even though I don’t really think anyone can fulfill that sort of role nowadays, in a quieter, behind-the-scenes sort of way I do believe Adams has been writing music that exhibits that kind of enduring power. He’ll be talked about in terms of this curious, unpredictable, frustrating but also exciting period in American music and in classical “art music”—this period, decades after the Second World War, when classical music was seen to have become utterly severed from its audience, and then tentatively began to find ways to reconnect. Adams has been a crucial player in all that. And he’s done so without gimmickry, without dogma, or coming up with one “new” sound, but as a composer who has found a way to open up a positive dialogue with the store of past musical tradition and reinvent it for a new world. There will be a long life for such significant works as Shaker Loops, Harmonielehre, the Violin Concerto, Nixon in China, Klinghoffer, El Niño, Dr Atomic, Naïve and Sentimental Music, The Dharma at Big Sur. Adams will be remembered as a representative 21st-century American composer who also was able to command the full range of genres—opera, chamber, symphonic epic, concerto—and to infuse them with a richly inquisitive, open-minded personality.