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."
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?
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
, 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
which a lot of my titlesalso have.
One fairly recent piece was
, 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
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
, but takes them to a much higher level.