A Vast Synthesising Approach An Interview with composer John Adams

by Robert Davidson "The basic way I compose is to take a cluster of sound, like a handful of paint. First of all I give it some kind of rhythmic impetus, 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 often described 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 first heard early minimalist music, I was greatly attracted to certain principles I heard in it - principles like clear tonal centres, clear pulse and slow harmonic rate of change. If you look at almost any one of my pieces, you see traces of those principles. In some cases, like the Violin Concerto or the Chamber Symphony, 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 that Schiller and Goethe were collaborating and - well, yeah, of course I used it because it has a very strange and somewhat provocative ring in our own time because those words mean something rather different than they did in the time of Schiller, but it has a nice double entendre which a lot of my titles also 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 New York in the 1950s, or you look at Baroque composers in the early part of the eighteenth century, or even if you look at Impressionist painters, artists do give a nod to one another, but basically what's happening is that people are working with similar elements and ideas at a given time, so their ideas often tend to bump into one another. I think that Terry Riley was on the scene a good fifteen years before 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 Francisco Conservatory? Yeah, we did it a couple of times. It's a very, very simple, almost childlike piece, but it had a very effective, 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 or Ulysses. Often they can be announced by a rather simple, almost childlike idea, and then later more sophisticated composers can take off from it and produce masterpieces, which I think is the case with a piece like Music for Eighteen Musicians which takes the ideas that are inherent in a work 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 a new style. I'm always a little nervous about those historical rationalisations, because often people will take three or four elegant examples of it, but then you try to turn it to some other phenomenon and it just doesn't work. But then again, I do acknowledge that styles tend to have a birth and a flowering and a dying away or decay, and very often it's the decaying era which is the most interesting and the most fruitful. I certainly think of Mahler as a wonderful case in which there's the summation of Romanticism and everything that was started with Beethoven's Ninth, and included Tristan and whatever, but also in its glory 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 that there 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 demonstrate the rigour of the original source. One of the problems not so much of minimalism, but of the various offshoots which it fostered is that a lot of composers who had one individual, very strong idea, but nothing beyond that - it's also a typical thing of a lot of American avant-garde art, not only in music. A figure will arrive on the horizon (so to speak) who has one very strong idea. Take Morris Lewis for example (the abstract painter) - you can always identify Morris Lewis and you'll always know him, but he was basically a one-tune guy. It's something I've perceived a lot in the avant-garde world. 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, not only 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 first experiments in serial writing, and it was wonderful to see how childlike he was. He went out and bought a book on serial composition and he did all the exercises - it's kind of remarkable that a man in his seventies would do something like that. Coming back to the idea of this American tendency to make almost a brand name when you make an artwork, 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 someone like 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 since the 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'd never gone to Europe or anywhere else in the world, and instead of going to Europe to study, I sensed that the right thing for me was to go in the opposite direction, to the West Coast. This was the early 1970s and I felt that Europe really seemed to be stuck, at least in its orthodoxies of new music. There were 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 musicians and had a lot of interest in ethnic music, pop music, music from India and the Far East, and it seemed to 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 in California, 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 the Conservatory, which was a very small, seat-of-the-pants institution at that time. I stayed there for about ten years, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me at the time because I was very young - only about 24 when I started. During that period I gave a lot of concerts in the Bay Area. I brought completely unknown composers, like Gavin Bryars and Alvin Lucier, to San Francisco. We did performances from the Scratch Ensemble, and lots of Cage and his followers, and we commissioned a lot of pieces and did a 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 the students. The students were not in any way a virtuoso group, so in a certain sense they paralleled the Scratch Orchestra of Cardew. Did you play Cardew pieces? I believe we did pages out of his Treatise and he did write a piece for us actually. It was one of his Chinese 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 and said "you might be interested, and you guys would probably get along." So we started corresponding and 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 and Gavin 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 English speaking 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 biggest outside of the US. Almost on a yearly basis I go to Holland where there's a fantastically vibrant musical culture, and there's a great deal of interest in American music there. Of course, Germany has been a very open and interested culture for American music. Steve Reich has had a huge following in Germany 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 in vertical sonority. That's close to the mark for my earlier music, such as Nixon in China, which is very vertically organised. The basic way I compose is to take a cluster of sound, like a handful of paint. First of all I give it some kind of rhythmic impetus, and then I let it go forward. There's a sense of a vehicle travelling forward across terrain. This goes back to early pieces like Shaker Loops or Harmonium and even 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 as I think of it as a harmonic field, which expands, and to which sounds accrete, and then which suddenly goes through transformations. That old idea of gates, which I used back in the late seventies with a piece like Phrygian Gates, and borrowed the term from electronics. It's a sudden, immediate change of

state from positive to negative. More recently I've been using modes to generate harmony. In several pieces I've used some of the modes that Nicolas Slonimsky collated in his.. Thesaurus of Musical Scales Several of my pieces have been almost entirely predicated on those modes. Any connection with Indian raga as well? Especially in the Southern Indian technique of ragamalika (garland of ragas)? Well, yeah, I experimented with that in the Violin Concerto, but I really don't know enough about that to say that it's a major influence. But the Slonimsky's obviously been a very big influence. I've been developing a software program over the past three or four years, and entering modes (some from Slonimsky and some of my own invention) into the program. It allows me to survey a very large structure of music and transform it instantaneously by the mode that I happen to be working with. So there's some power in the idea of restricted pitch sets. Yeah, but in some ways it's just plain old transposition, but it's a more systematic and I think a much more novel approach to it. In an interview many years ago, you mentioned your discovery of the resonance of consonance through use of a simple synthesiser - it sounded much more resonant with consonant pitches than with dissonant combinations. I think what I was trying to explain was why I had embraced tonality, because back in the seventies, believe it or not, that used to be a controversial issue (laughs)! Do you use software to model your music? I'm very anxious whenever I mention the use of computers, because it gives people the wrong idea. I utilise a computer like anyone else does, but I certainly don't let the computer make decisions for me, I simply use it as a tool. I meant do you use it to listen to midi or sampled versions of the music before giving it to the performers? Yeah. But I don't want to say I rely on the computer. There are a lot of composers who are using the computer to make decisions for them, which to me usually doesn't have a happy ending. One distinctive thing about your music is that there is often a lot going on at one time. Yeah, I think it's always set my music (be it minimalist or not) apart from the other minimalists - that my music has been much richer and more polyphonic. I that that's lost me a lot of listeners, because I think a lot of crossover listeners who've been attracted to other minimalist composers have just found my music a little too daunting, even though compared to other avant-garde music, my music is termed "accessible", but being compared somebody like Glass for example, my music is much, much more complex. I've always wondered whether piling things on top of one another was a way to freeze time. Do you think much about how your music uses and affects time? Well, I think that my music is absolutely dependent on a sense of flow, a sense of pulse. Even though I adore some composers like Morton Feldman or Takemitsu and I often conduct their music, I have absolutely no compositional relationship to it. I absolutely need that sense of pulse, even if it's a very

slow sense of pulse. In listening to an early work such as Harmonium, I find the sonority becomes primary, and I am absorbed into the multilayered texture of sound. It's interesting to hear you say that, because I would say there's never been a point where sonority has taken over. For me it's always been pulse and structure. I think that the greatest music is a union of all of those elements. One of the misfortunes of the twentieth century has been the splitting off of elements into separate fields of interest. So you'll get a composer like Nancarrow, or a composer like Feldman, or Xenakis, who've taken one aspect and have gone monomaniacally down one route. They've come up with extraordinary discoveries, and ocassionally very interesting music. But for me these experiments and their results have been done at enormous cost, because if we look at the really great artists - what someone like a Shakespeare or a Mahler or a Stravinsky attempts is a wonderful union of all these aspects. That's always been the model for me. A more synthesising, summarising attitude towards the art, rather than a kind of specialist interest. In a way I think that defines Modernism, that Modernism was a deconstruction of the elements and a focussing on individual materials, rather than on a vast, synthesising approach. When you look at what younger composers are doing, do you see them embracing this idea of synthesis as we move away from Modernism? Well, some of them are and some of them aren't. Some of them are continuing with what Levi-Strauss would call the "raw". . . As opposed to the cooked. Yeah. There are composers like Michael Gordon (one of the Bang on a Can people, whose work I very much admire, and whose music I've actually performed) who is always extremely spartan, and has reduced elements to an almost primitive state. Then there are composers who are much more inclusive - someone like Thomas Ades who's had a huge command of materials and techniques from the previous century and seems to be using them all. I would say there's all kinds of people coming from different directions. What are you working on now? I think I'm at a point in my life now when I look back on 25 years of artistic activity and I'm able to see certain rivers which seem strong and have a lot of potential current in them, and then other tributaries which went off in different directions and maybe weren't so fruitful. I've come to grips with certain facts: I was always not exactly sure whether the orchestra really had a future or whether I was at the very tail end of a tradition, and so my feeling about writing for orchestra was always very ambivalent, and I knew I did it very, very well, but I wasn't sure I was relevant. I think I've come to grips with that and realised that that's something that I can do and I probably will always continue to do. I'm interested in the theatre, and continuing work in dramatic compositions setting text for voice. I'm doing a big project now which is basically the nativity story using texts mostly from Latin America. For Jesus' 2000th birthday I suppose? Yeah. I can't predict much beyond that. Could you talk about Naive and Sentimental Music? It's a very large piece of 50 minutes for very large orchestra. It has some familial resemblance to some of my big pieces from the 80s. I think the idea of naive was something I was very drawn to, because I saw that very strongly in Mahler and also in Ravel - the desire to achieve an utterance that was as simple and as uncorrupted as possible. Of course it's very difficult for a sophisticated artist to do that, but I think just the act of attempting to do it (as Mahler did it for example) was quite a wonderful thing.

I think that my music exists in an interesting tension between the naive and the sophisticated and in a sense I was celebrating that tension in this piece. Is the music which means the most to you the Western classical canon? Oh no, not necessarily. I obviously love a lot of that music - being an orchestral composer I'm very familiar with it. But the music which gets me going - a lot of it's been vernacular music, it's been jazz and rock and a lot of music from non-Western areas like India, Pakistan, Africa. You seem to be able to produce music more rapidly than in earlier years. I produce a little more rapidly now because I'm able to support myself economically through composing. But I wrote two three-hour operas over the last twelve years, and each of those took two years, during which I did nothing else. One year I wrote Ceiling/Sky and that took me an entire year because it was a three-hour event too. The big piece I just did took me about eight months. When I'm not on the road conducting, I basically work all the time. It's not compulsive work, it's just regular bluecollar work. I just work on a very regular basis, so I don't see myself as unusually prolific. I'm certainly nowhere near as fast a composer as Philip Glass, who can write a whole opera in a month! Do you find that you usually begin a piece at the piano? I usually work with some kind of instrument. I did use the piano for a long time; now I tend to use the synthesiser. I have an extremely personalised studio setup which I developed over many years. Is that the one we can hear on Hoodoo Zephyr? Yeah, though it's evolved since then. I think that's a very good example. How do your ideas come to you? While going for walks in the Californian woods? Sure. And I often get ideas listening to other music. I don't mean stealing something, but you'll hear one sonority or one rhythm - it could be anything from Monteverdi to Duke Ellington - and just a simple chord progression or a texture or a rhythm will spawn a whole new piece. The Chamber Symphony program note mentioned Schönberg and cartoon music as springboards. It made a good program note, but I think there's a lot more in that piece than just the Schönberg. That piece is definitely an homage to a lot of my favourite music from my childhood. There has been quite a revival of interest in early minimalism in the last few years. How do you interpret that? When something's been around for a while, people want to go back to the roots and see if anyone's been overlooked. You see that in the rock 'n' roll nostalgia now. If there's a successful style that arrives, people often just can't get enough of it. Witness people that are trying to dredge up stuff from the early nineteenth century, or reviving pieces that should probably have been left dead! Do you think that in the 21st century the classical music establishment will finally begin to take more notice of the 20th century? People's taste will change. I can remember that as a teenager in the 1960s that hardly anyone played Mahler. It seems hard to believe - the only Mahler anyone every programmed was the First or the Fourth Symphony. Now, you can't get away from him. It's impossible to predict what people will listen to in the future.

Interview conducted 27 February 1999

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