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A vast synthesising approach: interview with John Adams

A vast synthesising approach: interview with John Adams

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Composer John Adams spoke to Robert Davidson in 1999 about his creative process, studio setup, relationship with earlier music (including minimalism), notions of musical landscape and the future of classical music
Composer John Adams spoke to Robert Davidson in 1999 about his creative process, studio setup, relationship with earlier music (including minimalism), notions of musical landscape and the future of classical music

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categoriesTopics, Art & Design
Published by: Robert A. B. Davidson on May 10, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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 A Vast Synthesising Approach An Interview with composerJohn Adams
 by Robert Davidson
"The basic way I compose is to take a cluster of sound, like ahandful of paint. First of all I give it some kind of rhythmicimpetus, and then I let it go forward. There's a sense of a vehicle travelling forward across terrain."
 Robert Davidson:
It's clear that you've moved a long way from minimalism, though you are oftendescribed even now as a minimalist composer. What connection do you have with that music?
John Adams:
My music has minimalist influences rather than being minimalist itself. When I firstheard early minimalist music, I was greatly attracted to certain principles I heard in it - principles likeclear tonal centres, clear pulse and slow harmonic rate of change. If you look at almost any one of mypieces, you see traces of those principles. In some cases, like the Violin Concerto or the ChamberSymphony, it's been quite an attenuated form of it. In other pieces, like the new piano concerto
Century Rolls
, or this gigantic orchestral piece I've just had premiered last week,
 Naïve and Sentimental Music
,there's actually a renaissance of those principles.
 It sounds like you're baiting the critics a little with that title.
Actually that title comes from Schiller, from a very influential essay written during the period thatSchiller and Goethe were collaborating and - well, yeah, of course I used it because it has a verystrange and somewhat provocative ring in our own time because those words mean something ratherdifferent than they did in the time of Schiller, but it has a nice
double entendre
which a lot of my titlesalso have.
One fairly recent piece was
Hoodoo Zephyr
 , which seemed to tap into some of the minimalist  principles you describe.
Was there a sense of homage to people like Terry Riley in that album?
Well yeah - if you look at periods of stylistic unity, for example at the Abstract Expressionists in NewYork in the 1950s, or you look at Baroque composers in the early part of the eighteenth century, oreven if you look at Impressionist painters, artists do give a nod to one another, but basically what'shappening is that people are working with similar elements and ideas at a given time, so their ideasoften tend to bump into one another. I think that Terry Riley was on the scene a good fifteen yearsbefore I wrote my first mature work, so a piece like
 In C 
definitely had some influence on me.
 Did you have experience of that piece in the ensemble you were directing at the San FranciscoConservatory?
Yeah, we did it a couple of times. It's a very, very simple, almost childlike piece, but it had a veryeffective, groundbreaking power to it when it arrived on the scene in the mid-sixties.
 Many people have seen all of minimalism in seed form in that piece
.Yes it's true. Oftentimes, major revolutions are not necessarily announced by a masterpiece, like
The Rite of Spring
. Often they can be announced by a rather simple, almost childlike idea, andthen later more sophisticated composers can take off from it and produce masterpieces, which I think isthe case with a piece like
 Music for Eighteen Musicians
which takes the ideas that are inherent in awork like
 In C 
, but takes them to a much higher level.
This is something Kyle Gann has discussed, that often musical genres go through a period of innovation, development and then finally over-intricate mannerism, only to be blasted through by anew style.
I'm always a little nervous about those historical rationalisations, because often people will take threeor four elegant examples of it, but then you try to turn it to some other phenomenon and it just doesn'twork. But then again, I do acknowledge that styles tend to have a birth and a flowering and a dyingaway or decay, and very often it's the decaying era which is the most interesting and the most fruitful. Icertainly think of Mahler as a wonderful case in which there's the summation of Romanticism andeverything that was started with Beethoven's Ninth, and included
and whatever, but also in itsglory has the seeds of its own decay.
Stravinsky would have included Schönberg in that area - the last of an era.
I suppose so - basically I think that people's sensibilities after World War One changed so radically thatthere was not much desire for a continuation of the romantic kind of expression.
One of the great things that happened in the sixties with minimalism was how far its diversified. Glenn Branca and yourself come from that source but are very different, which seems to me to demonstratethe rigour of the original source.
One of the problems not so much of minimalism, but of the various offshoots which it fostered is that alot of composers who had one individual, very strong idea, but nothing beyond that - it's also a typicalthing of a lot of American
art, not only in music. A figure will arrive on the horizon (so tospeak) who has one very strong idea. Take Morris Lewis for example (the abstract painter) - you canalways identify Morris Lewis and you'll always know him, but he was basically a one-tune guy. It'ssomething I've perceived a lot in the
You certainly couldn't be accused of that yourself.
That's why someone like Stravinsky is so important to me, because he had such enormous breadth, notonly of culture, personal culture, but also of techniques and styles, and he continued to tutor himself right up to his very last days. I recently attended a lecture by Richard Taruskin about Stravinsky's firstexperiments in serial writing, and it was wonderful to see how childlike he was. He went out andbought a book on serial composition and he did all the exercises - it's kind of remarkable that a man inhis seventies would do something like that.
Coming back to the idea of this American tendency to make almost a brand name when you make anartwork, that seems to be more prevalent in New York as a means of getting attention and surviving.
I think in the art world that seems to be pretty much
de rigeur.
This is clear when you look at someonelike Cindy Sherman, whose entire body of work is based on one conceit, but in her particular case,she's taken that conceit in so many different directions that it's managed to sustain an important body of work. But that may not go on forever. That seems to have been something which has been around sincethe fifties, but I'm not sure that that's something which will have to continue.
What took you to the West Coast - did you need to escape the East Coast?
Well, I'd grown up in New England, went to college there, spent the first 22 years of my life there. I'dnever gone to Europe or anywhere else in the world, and instead of going to Europe to study, I sensedthat the right thing for me was to go in the opposite direction, to the West Coast. This was the early1970s and I felt that Europe really seemed to be stuck, at least in its orthodoxies of new music. Therewere extremely prestigious and influential figures at the time, like Stockhausen and Berio, Boulez,Lutoslawski, but none of that interested me. I was a person who grew up in a family of jazz musiciansand had a lot of interest in ethnic music, pop music, music from India and the Far East, and it seemedto me that California was a potentially more open environment, even though I didn't know anyone
there. I had no contacts. There was one person I knew in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I landed inCalifornia, I didn't have a job or a place to live or anything. The first year I was there I worked part of the year in a warehouse on the waterfront in Oakland. Then through a fluke I landed a job at theConservatory, which was a very small, seat-of-the-pants institution at that time. I stayed there for aboutten years, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me at the time because I was very young - only about24 when I started. During that period I gave a lot of concerts in the Bay Area. I brought completelyunknown composers, like Gavin Bryars and Alvin Lucier, to San Francisco. We did performances fromthe Scratch Ensemble, and lots of Cage and his followers, and we commissioned a lot of pieces and dida lot of live electronic music. It was a nice place for me to let my early ideas grow.
 I've been curious about that English connection with California.
Actually the only one I knew was Gavin. He sent me a lot of music and I performed it with thestudents. The students were not in any way a virtuoso group, so in a certain sense they paralleled theScratch Orchestra of Cardew.
 Did you play Cardew pieces?
I believe we did pages out of his
and he did write a piece for us actually. It was one of hisChinese communist folk song arrangements (laughs).
 How did come to know Gavin Bryars?
Strictly through correspondence. I think Robert Ashley gave me his name. He'd met him in London andsaid "you might be interested, and you guys would probably get along." So we started correspondingand eventually I invited him over to San Francisco. This is a long time ago - 1973.
 Do you keep in touch?
Yeah, I do. Not too long ago, I did a series of concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony andGavin came and with me did the pre-concert lectures - it was wonderful to get together that way.
 It seems there is more than just language shared between the UK and the US (and other Englishspeaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada) - there are musical connections as well,not shared with continental Europe.
I suppose so, given that Americans are terrible linguists, and don't speak language other than English.But there's an enormous interest in American music in France now. The biggest number of CDs sold of my music are sold in France. I'm not sure, there may be more in the US, but France is the biggestoutside of the US. Almost on a yearly basis I go to Holland where there's a fantastically vibrant musicalculture, and there's a great deal of interest in American music there. Of course, Germany has been avery open and interested culture for American music. Steve Reich has had a huge following inGermany for 25 years, and I perform a lot in Germany now too.
Something which has continued through your musical language since the early days in an interest invertical sonority.
That's close to the mark for my earlier music, such as
 Nixon in China
, which is very verticallyorganised. The basic way I compose is to take a cluster of sound, like a handful of paint. First of all Igive it some kind of rhythmic impetus, and then I let it go forward. There's a sense of a vehicletravelling forward across terrain. This goes back to early pieces like
Shaker Loops
andeven to the two pieces I've written in the last year. I guess you're right referring to vertical sonority - it's just that vertical makes me think of up and down on the x-axis. I don't think of it so much as vertical asI think of it as a harmonic field, which expands, and to which sounds accrete, and then which suddenlygoes through transformations. That old idea of gates, which I used back in the late seventies with apiece like
Phrygian Gates
, and borrowed the term from electronics. It's a sudden, immediate change of 

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