John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Beyond Experimentation

In The Center Of American Music: Excerpt #11

JOHN ADAMS: I think that literature has been through this same song and dance as music, there was a period when the novel went through this great experimental phase, certainly with Joyce and Gertrude Stein. I used to read a lot of women’s experimental works that were written in the 60s. And now the great novels that are being written, the great novels of American life, Russell Banks‘ novels, and Toni Morrison‘s, They’re really not experimental.
FRANK J. OTERI: Toni Morrison is…

The opening measures of John Adams’ Common Tones in Simple Time (1979-80)
© 1982 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JOHN ADAMS: Well some of Toni Morrison is, but certainly much of the great literature being written in America is not being experimental in the sense that Finnegans Wake or Donald Barthelme was. What people are really interested in now is the experience of the characters and the way the novel represents the intense moments of people’s lives. I just finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver… There’s this incredible story of this missionary’s family in the Congo. And I feel my music is very similar to that. I’m not interested in stretching boundaries of technique in the way that Cage was or even Carter was for that matter. I’m more comfortable with absorbing all the language developments that have happened over the last hundred years, and what’s more important to me is the actual content of what the work is about.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well one of most exciting recent novels that I’ve read in the past couple of years is Carol ShieldsThe Stone Diaries, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it…
JOHN ADAMS: No, I’m not familiar with that.
FRANK J. OTERI: It won the Pulitzer. It’s a straightforward narrative with a plot that moves you from beginning to end, but it’s also experimental on some other levels. It would go in and out of these diaries and these inner-thoughts but it kept gripping you with narrative, and it was a synthesis. And I hear, rather than see, what you’re doing is a synthesis, much like that’s a synthesis, much like so much of what’s happening now even in the visual arts, is a synthesis of all these influences. It’s a return to tradition but also a looking beyond the avant-garde, because now the avant-garde isn’t avant-garde anymore. It’s old fashioned to some extent. The avant-garde is what needed to be overthrown, so we are now in this post-avant-garde world. It’s kind of an exciting place to be in.
JOHN ADAMS: Well I’m always amused to consider the fact that the most avant-garde piece after Beethoven of the 19th century was Tristan und Isolde, and if you look at Mahler, if you look at something like the 4th Symphony of Mahler, he still hasn’t caught up with Tristan and Isolde. It was only at the very, very end of Mahler’s career that he started challenging tonality and form in the way that Tristan does, even though from his childhood he knew of Tristan. So I think that tends to show us that there are periods of enormous advance, like the period of The Rite of Spring for example, and then there are periods when there’s not so much a retraction or retroactivity as there’s this kind of synthesis. Certainly Mahler was much more a synthesizer, and so was Brahms. Not to put myself in the same class as those composers, but I think that that period, we’re in that sort of synthesizing period now, and a lot of the bad music that I hear is by composers who still haven’t psyched that out yet, who still are not quite comfortable where they are and feel that they need to be avant-garde in one way or another and there’s this sort of aggressive unpleasant confrontational aspect about their work which expresses their fundamental indecisiveness as to where they are.

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