John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Success as a Composer and Cultural Relevancy



In The Center Of American Music: Excerpt #1






FRANK J. OTERI: Thank you for taking time out of an extremely busy, busy schedule to talk with me. I know you’re just finishing orchestrating . Is the orchestrating done?
JOHN ADAMS: Yes it is. Now I have a manuscript, I just measured it this morning. It’s like a trout – it’s about 5 1/2 inches high. (laughs)
FRANK J. OTERI: (laughs)
JOHN ADAMS: Now I have to proof it.
FRANK J. OTERI: When did you finish it?
JOHN ADAMS: Probably about three days ago. My goal was to finish it before Election Day and I finished it on the 8th.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, considering it’s turned into Election Month, you had more time…
JOHN ADAMS: (laughs)
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to get things started by asking a rather loaded question but I figure it will spiral us out into lots of discussion. You’ve been referred to frequently as the most frequently performed living American composer. This mantle was once held by Aaron Copland during his lifetime, and I guess Gershwin during his… Your career in many ways is a role model for any composer in this country, and I think all of us as composers look to you, I know I do, as a model of what is success for an American composer, and not just as a composer but success as an American. And I think you’ve staked the claim to that. So, this is not so much a question, but a thought as to how you got there, and where you are today, and where you’re going, and how this could work as advice for any composer out there in the world today.


Frontpage of John Adams’ manuscript of the orchestral score
for El Niño (2000)
© 2000 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

JOHN ADAMS: Well, first of all, as far as the most performed, I think it’s like a tracking poll. Maybe one month it’s someone else, then of course it’s a question of genre. But early on in my career, I think I looked at what was happening to classical composers, this hole that they’d dug for themselves, and I found it very dissatisfying. It wasn’t just that it had become a very specialist occupation, but also that it seemed to me that classical composers not only in American but in Europe as well, ceased to be major figures, major cultural forces, they way they were in the 19th century. When Verdi died, Italy closed down for his funeral, and Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven, they were all majorly influential in their culture. And to some extent, in the 20th century, certainly Stravinsky was. But it always bothered me that as the years went on the model was not Stravinsky, not Verdi, and not Brahms, but Schoenberg. And so part of my voyage as a composer has been to try to create a musical mode of expression that was new, and provocative, and at the same time has some sort of accessibility that could communicate with a larger audience.
FRANK J. OTERI: Schoenberg has definitely been a ghost looming over a number of your pieces. Here’s something that speaks volumes to the perception of whether composers are a major social force… I’ve heard many times from different people, including people at The New York Times, that when somebody in classical music dies the staffers at the Times gamble on whether the obituary will make it "above the fold" or "below the fold"…
JOHN ADAMS: (laughs)
FRANK J. OTERI: And I believe the last time a composer made it above the fold was Leonard Bernstein. Messiaen was below the fold, but at least he made it to the front page. John Cage was also on the front page but below the fold. And that says something about the role of the composer in our society, the importance that that means. It’s interesting the pockets composers went into – the warring camps, there were uptown/downtown battles, east coast/west coast, avant-garde/neo-romantic, and in a way you’re on all sides of these battles! You are all of the above. You’re in the middle but you are all of them. I don’t know if you see it, or hear it that way. I find it really interesting. Even this east coast/west coast thing because you’re clearly a west coast composer living in California but you grew up in New Hampshire, and you went to school at Harvard… In a way, you are the sum total of where we are today. I know that’s a loaded thing to say. (laughs)
JOHN ADAMS: Well, I think I’m definitely below the fold, and probably will remain that. But you know I think one needs to be aware of what really is a lasting value in a culture. You know Herman Melville wasn’t even below the fold when he died. He probably wasn’t even mentioned in the New York Times. Emily Dickinson, maybe she made it below the fold in the Amherst local paper.
FRANK J. OTERI: I doubt it.
JOHN ADAMS: So you know, the ones who get to do the Absolut Vodka ads get the back the cover of The New Yorker. Those are very transient items. It’s very, very hard to predict what is going to be meaningful one, two, three generations on. You know the story of J.S. Bach. So the important thing really is to do one’s work. And I know I’m speaking somewhat discordantly. (I may appear to be contradicting what I said earlier about composer as a cultural force.) I think one can be a cultural force and not necessarily be a pop icon. In a way I admire French intellectual life because the French do identify the heavy thinkers in their culture. When Sartre died, the President of France attended his funeral. One couldn’t imagine an American president attending the funeral of, oh I don’t know, Elliott Carter, for example. Or, for that matter, Toni Morrison or Russell Banks… We live in a country where the influence of popular culture is so immense that those of us who don’t participate in popular culture must accept the fact that our audience is going to be, in numbers, small.
FRANK J. OTERI: I almost think it goes beyond that, and I’ve been making rallying cries about this for years now, about how composers, painters and authors are on currency in foreign countries, on money. Sibelius is on money in Finland.
JOHN ADAMS: Debussy in France.
FRANK J. OTERI: Villa Lobos in Brazil, Nielsen in Denmark, and Clara Schumann in Germany!
JOHN ADAMS: It would be more likely be Elvis Presley or maybe even Duke Ellington in this country, and that’s O.K.
FRANK J. OTERI: It would be great to have Duke Ellington on money.
JOHN ADAMS: Yeah, that’s O.K. It really does represent that we are a democracy. Look at this election that we just celebrated, I guess that is the word, or suffered through depending on what your point of view is. You know if one thing is proven by this incredible event, it is that America is a very complex country with very, very different opinions.

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