John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Success as an American Composer



In The Center Of American Music: Excerpt #5





FRANK J. OTERI: (laughs) You said something that is interesting for composers out there, me among them, as a composer talking to you and talking about the career path and what it represents, about the money that’s out there in America that’s been able to create things, and in a way you’re in a very unusual position in that you are able to write big pieces, large, really significant works for orchestra, and now this piece for soloists, chorus and orchestra, operas, and certainly, even though these operas are some of the greatest operas written in our lifetimes, even these works are not getting a lot of performances, not getting the performances they deserve to get. I mean Nixon still hasn’t been done at the Met; it still hasn’t been done in Manhattan. It was done in Brooklyn. Even for somebody at your level, it’s still not getting what it should be getting in a way. There isn’t a lot of incentive for most composers nowadays to write the big works, to write for orchestra, to write opera, to write for chorus.
JOHN ADAMS: Well, I’m not exactly sure that’s true now. It’s been my impression that in terms of commissions there’s never been a more bullish period in American history. There are all these operas being commissioned. San Francisco Opera has commissioned 4 or 5 operas, and the Met is on a big commissioning program, Chicago, those are all the big ones, and the smaller companies are commissioning like crazy, and orchestras are commissioning works, so it seems like actually this is a tremendously good time to be alive as a composer of large-scale works. As to their durability and as to what you mentioned second performances or gaining repertoire status, I’m more philosophical about that. I think that large works are very expensive to produce, and companies need to feel that audiences are going to come back 5-10 years later and still have the same interest that they did at a premiere. It takes a long time for a work to trickle in and become an integral part of the American culture. So I just think that that’s a matter of time. You know you can look at the Virgil Thomson operas which are now being given a serious re-evaluation, and what, those were written in the 30s.
FRANK J. OTERI: There’ve been some fabulous performances of them recently.
JOHN ADAMS: Yeah, and the Bernstein Candide which was laughed off the map, and now is being taken very seriously and is becoming a repertoire item. I remember when I was a young composer that Wozzeck was a specialty item, and I personally played clarinet in the American premiere of Moses und Aron which had never been in the United States. That was in 1967 and it was already 30 or 40 years old at that time. Nixon in China may not have been done in Manhattan and may still be awaiting new productions in the United States, but it’s got a very healthy history for a new opera, and the Death of Klinghoffer is getting two separate productions next year.
FRANK J. OTERI: Terrific, who’s doing it?
JOHN ADAMS: The Finnish National Opera, and then there’s a full scale feature film being made of it that’s got a $6-7 million budget by Channel 4 in England.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s exciting.
JOHN ADAMS: So you know, it’s not a bad time for large-scale works.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well in some ways having an opera on film really is a way, once that film exists, to potentially reach a great many more people. Certainly it doesn’t replace a live performance but it has greater outreach. And I want to steer this into the whole question about outreach. Performances are just one thing, but you are also in a great position vis-à-vis having a recording company like Nonesuch that is willing to A) have the funds to make the recording, and B) to actually release the recordings and promote them and do great work for them to get them out to the press, to the radio, to everybody who matters. …Even to issue a 10-CD box set! You’ve also have had multiple recordings of works released by other labels. And on the other side of this is a publisher like Boosey and Hawkes who is able to get the material out there, to get me an advance on an un-proofed piano score of El Niño so that I am able talk about it with you before the premiere. This is great. But getting back to all these orchestral works that are getting commissioned, there’s still a sense that contemporary music is in some ways an interloper on the standard repertoire and composers get commissioned to write short, maybe 10-minute works, and certainly your most-widely played pieces are the fanfares. Short Ride in a Fast Machine gets a lot of performances, it’s a great concert opener. But I’d love to go to a concert where the featured concerto is the John Adams violin concerto instead of the Brahms or Mendelssohn violin concertos. I love these pieces, but I’ve heard them a lot, and I’ve heard them a lot live.
JOHN ADAMS: Well, you know it may happen. I can remember when I was in college that the Berg violin concerto was never played except in new music programs, and now it often takes the place of the Beethoven or the Brahms.
FRANK J. OTERI: But even looking at this point and time, there’s a geographical, and chronological disconnect even with the Berg violin concerto. He died in 1935. That’s a long time ago.
JOHN ADAMS: Yeah, but that’s it called classical music. I think people need time to absorb something. Often it isn’t that we need 30 years to listen to a piece over and over again to make a value judgment, it’s more that one looks back at a document from an earlier era, whether it’s a novel by Faulkner, or a poem by William Carlos Williams, or a painting, and we see, we feel the intensity of the experience that that creative voice had at that point and time, and that work of art is that artifact of that experience. That’s why Howl means so much to the Americans because it sort of embodies a particular period in American sensibility.
FRANK J. OTERI: To extend on that, there certainly was a long period in the 20th century where there was body of works which you could listen to over and over again and eventually realize their greatness as a listener, following the score, hearing this music. But not a lot of people are willing to give a piece of music a second chance, and certainly a new piece of music, at the premiere maybe it gets 3 rehearsals maximum from an orchestra, and it’s not a ideal performance, and maybe it’s in a very complex style that’s not immediate to most listeners. There is no second chance.
JOHN ADAMS: Well, if a work, if it’s got value, if it’s good, will find its way. And it may take time. That’s just one of the depressing features of being an artist. But very often something that is difficult takes many, many years, and it takes champions, and it takes a performer who will pick up a work and say, "You know this is a really great piece and I will devote my life to being a champion for it."