It’s Tuesday morning in California (and early evening in Finland), as we sit down with John Adams for a Zoom interview. Despite being one of the most prominent composers of our times, Adams’s first thoughts deal with the everyday realities of life. Times have been testing in California too, on many levels.
”We’re waiting some rain, which is really very, very badly needed here. We had terrible, terrible droughts. Two years ago, the fires started in November, last year, they started in October and this year, they started in August. For several weeks we couldn’t even go outdoors, because the smoke was so bad in the air.”
In addition to the wildfires, 2020 scored terribly on almost every level in the U.S., be it politics or the pandemic.
”Everybody calls it the year from hell. The election was sort of disturbing because it did not really result in what many people hoped it would. We’ve fortunately got rid of the president, but the country is so radically divided. I live in the bubble of urban California, and most of my friends live in New York. And we tend to see the world in a certain way, if you drove but just fifty miles inland, there were Donald Trump signs everywhere.”
Adams has spent the long pandemic months in on home ground in Berkeley, where he lives with his wife.
”Our daughter and our son and their families live not very far away, so we are very fortunate. And I also have a place in the very remote woods, about three hours from here, where I’ve built what I call my Mahler hut. So I go back and forth between the two places.”
With the concert venues closed since March, a lot of performances were lost in the course of the year, including the Cleveland premiere of Adams’s latest piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018) or the concert performances of his 2017 opera Girls of the Golden West.
”Of all the cancellations, my biggest disappointment was a production of Nixon in China, that was supposed to be running in Washington on the week of the election, before going to L.A. on the week after that.”
Even with all the performances gone, the lockdown months have been busy time for Adams, for he has been working every day on a new opera.
”For a long time that was just a kind of existential activity, because you just couldn’t know what the realities would be. And I still don’t know.
The opera a definite departure for me, in that it’s a Shakespeare play. It’s Anthony and Cleopatra. It takes place at that time, it does not take place in Texas or Washington D.C.
The reason I’m doing it is that there were two scenes in my most recent opera, Girls of the Golden West, where I ended up setting some Shakespeare. (The stage director and librettist) Peter Sellars had discovered in his research that Shakespeare was a popular form of entertainment during the Gold Rush era.
So we added a couple of short scenes from Macbeth, woven into the story. And I found that I just loved setting Shakespeare.
I love the Anthony and Cleopatra story, because it’s a love story of two people who, as we say, have ’been there, done that’. They’re older people. Anthony is definitely, by Roman standards, middle-aged; he has had a very distinguished career as a military man, and now just wants to have a good time. And he’s been constantly troubled by Rome, who needs him, for his political and military skills.
Cleopatra is really interesting person. She’s, I suppose, again by the standards of that time, approaching middle age, even though she’s probably only thirty years old. She’s had a child by Julius Caesar when she was a teenager, and she’s a very, very intelligent, capable woman.
Their love relationship is full of hurt. They continually do terrible things to each other, and then realize they can’t live without each other, So, in that sense, it’s a very modern. I’ve read almost all the Shakespeare plays and I feel that, despite all the trappings of Egypt and Caesar and Rome, it is intellectually and emotionally the most modern of the Shakespeare plays, in terms of the human relationships.
And then we have Caesar, who is Caesar Augustus, who is young, he’s barely twenty years old. He is sort of like one of our Silicon Valley masters of the universe; he does everything right, he has no sense of humor and everything is about his business model – Does this sound familiar?
He drives Anthony crazy, because Anthony keeps thinking he can fall back to his old way of doing things. And Caesar is the new man; he’s like Elon Musk on Mark Zuckerberg. That’s also a very interesting spin.”
Despite being set in ancient Rome, the era is not reflected in the score.
”It’s John Adams right from the start to finish!”
When completed, Anthony and Cleopatra will be Adams’s ninth foray into the realm of music theatre. Going back forty years, having a career as an opera composer would have seemed an unlikely prospect for the composer in this thirties.
”My one and only with opera was when I was in college. We had a house at Harvard that had an opera society, and every year they produced an opera. So I conducted The Marriage of Figaro in their large dining hall, with full orchestra, and that was my really only exposure to opera. I never studied opera, when I was a student. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way people sang it, nor the style of operatic production.
Then I discovered Wagner, sometime when I was probably in my late twenties or so, and that was a very important moment for me. Of course, eventually, it was my meeting Peter Sellars that began the whole idea.”
For a composer living in California since the early seventies, composing a new opera on a subject also dearly loved by golden age Hollywood is, in fact, quite natural.
”That’s American culture for the better or worse. What’s interesting, of course, is how there’s a whole new renaissance due to cable television. There are television series that are really great.
People will be looking back on, for example, the Wallander series with Krister Henriksson from Sweden. It’s like Ibsen! It’s phenomenal! And my wife and I just saw this series from Iceland, Trapped (Ófærð), and it’s amazing! They’re really very strong.
I’m sure eventually it’ll go out. Most discoveries in the arts tend to have a blossoming period and then a decline, but it’s interesting that most good things are coming from Europe right now, particularly Northern Europe.”
While many things may be gained from experience, Adams says he is sot sure if the very act of composing gets any easier with age.
”It depends on the day you ask me. Today, I could say it’s very difficult. But I can say that the one benefit of growing older is that you have a personal history of your own struggles.
If you have fought the battle in the past, when you have a block, you know it likely will not last, if you keep working. When you’re thirty years old, or twenty five years old, and you have a block, you think that’s the end of the world. You just can’t imagine success for yourself. So that’s the only thing I can say.
People ask me how I compose and I say, I don’t know. I am always amused reading Schoenberg, or particularly reading Hindemith, how the Germanic way is just so intellectual and so confident about procedure.
My metaphor has always been that it’s like being some explorer, like Magellan, who got in a boat and went out to the sea. He knew maybe there was something out there, but did not know what it was.
So it is very difficult. I’ve never wanted to repeat myself. I know some artists, composers, painters, find a particular trope, and the public likes it, and they just keep, basically, doing the same thing over and over again. For me it is not interesting, because I don’t learn anything new about myself.”
One of the composers for whom writing music did come increasingly difficult with age was certainly Jean Sibelius, who eventually fell silent in the 1930s, following a long and productive career.
”I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with the story of Sibelius, because, well, first of all, he stopped. We have to realize that most of us know seven symphonies and maybe ten tone poems and the violin concerto and that’s it. But if you look at his complete output, it was staggering, it was like Rossini! He wrote so much music, most of which, at least here in America, we don’t know. And was in his sixties, when he stopped composing, so that’s almost twice Mozart’s lifetime or Schubert’s lifetime. I respect the fact that he did not continue to compose.
There’s one quote that I always remember, I think it was in a letter or a diary, where he said ’I am a slave to my melodies.’ The reason that speaks so much to me is that it shows how much integrating his material meant to him. He would find a melody or a motif, more often it was more a motif than an actual melody, and the process of composing was creating this larger form out of this atom; like a gene growing perfectly from its little dna information.
One of the pieces I was supposed to be conducting last spring was the First Symphony. I’ve conducted almost all of the Sibelius symphonies, but I’ve never done the first. And I’ve always thought that the first was, you know, sort of lukewarm Tchaikovsky. But then I started learning it, and I was full of admiration for it, because the way in which the material is so beautifully integrated and woven; the material from the first movement comes back in the last movement. In fact, there’s a real economy of ideas, which is, for me, one of the reasons why Sibelius has been, along with Beethoven, such extremely important figure for me.”
As we keep talking, our mutual interest lead us examining those very special late works of Sibelius, Tapiola (1926) and the Seventh Symphony (1918-24).
”Tapiola is such a difficult piece to program, because it is too long but it is not long enough. And unless the audience knows it they just don’t know what to make of it. I’m very proud to say it’s my son’s favourite piece.
I did a tour about ten years ago, with a youth orchestra, and every program had the Seventh Symphony. That piece is only twenty minutes long, and I would come offstage absolutely soaking wet. And I could never figure out why. It was as if I’d been in some terrible physical fight, or something. But it is just the amount of emotional energy that it takes to make the piece work.
And the ending just, you know, it is a puzzling ending. It’s almost not quite well-composed. It’s like you know what he wants to do, but he didn’t quite get it right, so you have to give it that extra effort as a conductor, to make it work.
When I was preparing the Seventh Symphony, I listened to a lot of recordings. There were many very, very interesting recordings, including (Leif) Segerstam, and, of course, Simon Rattle. And I love Osmo Vänskä’s Sibelius. And I have a funny bit of gossip; I listened to the Herbert von Karajan recording, and do you know that he doubles the trombone! It’s like putting meat tenderizer on it! Some MSG!”
Being both a composer and a conductor is an intriguing dual role. Does the input from conducting affect the process of composing?
”Well of course, and one of the dangers is for a composer is to write to his or her conducting abilities. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, when I have some decision to make.
For example, the other day, I had this long phrase, where there was singer. When I write for voices, I try to keep the meters simple, because when you see singers struggling to memorize something, and you realize that for a composer it was nothing to write 5/8, but for a singer…
So I had a simple meter, but I wanted to put a long passage for the strings in quintuplets over it, but in very slow quintuplets. And I thought, ah it’s too hard, maybe I’ll make it in triplets – and then I realized, I was imagining myself at a rehearsal: ’Oh it’s gonna take a whole half of a rehearsal to make it right’. So these are the decisions you just have to forget about, and do what’s musically right.
Where having had a great deal of experience on the podium particularly helps, is just in the knowledge of how things are gonna sound. Yesterday, I was taking a break and randomly picked up a book, and it was one of Norman Del Mar’s volumes about (Richard) Strauss. He is not one of my favourite composers, but I was amazed that when Strauss was writing all those operas, he was also conducting something like a hundred concerts a year.
And then you look at the score like Salome and it is just astonishing what he understands about the orchestra. He did very, very risky, crazy things! There’s a passage in Salome,where there are all these double stops for violas, and he’s written in there nicht geteilt, so he wants everyone to play the double stops. That’s normally the sort of thing that, as a composer, you wouldn’t do. But he’s aware of that, because he’s spent so much time with the musicians. Same thing with Mahler. Same thing with Wagner.”
Not all composers, who write for the orchestra, have the benefit of hands-on experience of being around the symphonic ecosystem and knowing the ropes.
”So often I end up conducting a premiere by a composer, not necessarily young composer, but sometimes composers in their fifties, who had become well-known for having made music in different form, and now suddenly the orchestras want to commission this person. And the music is just simply written without a knowledge of the orchestra.
Now, sometimes you can have someone who is naive, but that naïveté can produce something astonishing, for which we are grateful. But more often than not, we end up with a piece that’s just awkward.
I can think of a piece I premiered earlier this year. It had some wonderful moments in it, but the string players were doing something that was very uncomfortable for sixty bars. And the balance of the instruments; a flute, acoustically, makes a much smaller sound than a trumpet, that would seem a no-brainer. But a lot of composers, who have not been around the orchestra, just don’t understand those things.”
Before the orchestral apparatus became the highly organized affair of our times, conducting new works was mostly left for the composers themselves, with varying results.
”There were some really bad conductors like Debussy and Ravel; they were both just apparently terrible conductors. For Debussy, that was a form of income for him.
But then again, we’ve had wonderful composers in the last fifty or hundred years, who are not performers, people like Ligeti or Elliott Carter or Babbit, Sessions, people like that.”
Alongside operas, Adams has written a compelling list of concertos over the years. His most recent forays into the genre include the dramatic symphony Scheherazade.2 (2014) for violin and orchestra for Leila Josefowicz and the piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? for Yuja Wang. Does the music reflect the personalties of the dedicated soloists?
”Oh, I think that in those two cases it is obvious that they did. I mean, I’ve known Leila for 25 years, maybe, and she’s a very, very special person. She had very difficult times in her life when she was little. She sort of followed the road of a glamorous young virtuoso, until she did this amazing thing, at an early age, when she was in her early twenties; she just decided that she did not want to play the Tchaikovskyconcerto any more. What she wanted to do, was to just do new music.
Just to give you an example, some years ago we were together in Montreal, with the Montreal Symphony. She was playing my piece for the electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur. And the following week she was going to play the Tom Adès’s concerto somewhere, and the week after that, she was premiering Esa-Pekka’s (Salonen) concerto.
And everything from memory! Now, she’s not someone who learns like that, like Simon Rattle, who looks at something and has got it learned. She has to work and work and work and work, note by note. But that’s the kind of devotion she has.
So my piece has that kind of feeling of a great emotional intensity and also an emotional nakedness. The second movement Love Scene is like one of those Eugene O’Neill domestic dramas, with some violence in the love. I’ve also accessed that in the new opera as well.
As for Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? for Yuja, I was not much in touch with her during the composing of it, because she was always so busy. But I had a feel for her, who she was. And I liked her playing.
Of course, when she finally focused on it, she made a wonderful impression with it. And it grew. She played the piece at least twelve times over a period of four, five months, and she became more comfortable with it.
I also had the pleasure of doing it with Vikingur Ólafsson. We were supposed to do it in Cleveland last fall, but, but Trump didn’t give Vikingur a visa. Well, actually, we would not have been able to do it anyway, but we did it together in Paris and in Amsterdam. It’s been wonderful to hear two very great and incredibly intelligent musicians play my piece.”
While there are two pianists playing Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, the numerous performances of Scheherazade.2 by far have all featured Leila Josefowicz as soloist. Will the piece be picked up by other performers some day?
”Well, I’m hoping so. For some reason, it seems to me that it should be a woman. I think that there are two problems, one being that its really long, some fifty minutes long. The other is that, I think, most young violinists now feel that Leila owns the piece; she does it by memory and she’s played it everywhere. So it’s almost going to be another generation I have to wait, until there’s somebody else to do it. But somebody will, I think.”
One of the most wonderful aspects of the intricate instrumental fabric of Sheherazade.2 is Adams’s use of the cimbalom as a part of his orchestra.
”I’m obsessed with the cimbalom. I first wrote for it in The Gospel According to the Other Mary and I have a big part for it in the new opera as well. I love the sound. I don’t use it to create exoticism, but it still does… It’s just this wonderful sound!
And then you think about how the orchestra is so conventional. For example, there are these wonderful pieces by Louis Andriessen that never get performed in the United States, because they’re too big for a chamber group to do and they’re too strange for an orchestra. Think of a piece like De Staat, which I love; it has four oboes and two electric guitars, a lot of brass and violas.
Yes, the orchestra is a very nice convention, but there are wonderful sounds and instruments that just should be blended with them. And it’s always a challenge. I have the steel guitar in Naive and Sentimental Music, and getting the balance is so difficult, it’s either too loud or not loud enough.”
Somewhat surprisingly, one of the instruments that has proven to be somewhat troublesome for Adams over the years, has been the synthesizer.
”In a lot of my early pieces, I have synthesizer, and that has turned into an incredible headache! Because they don’t make the synthesizers that I wrote for any more. The Violin Concerto and Nixon in China, both have a synthesizer part, and in The Death of Klinghoffer, I originally wrote for four synthesizers. Ah, what a headache!
So my engineer and I, we’ve had to keep on resampling the original sounds. And every time you resample, you loose detail. So one of the projects that I’ve had going on during the lockdown, is to try to go back to those pieces, The Wound Dresser, Fearful Symmetries, Nixon in China, Chamber Symphony etc. etc., and find the original voices and resample them.
Nowadays, if somebody wants to do one of these pieces, they need an electronic keyboard controller and a laptop, and then a downloadable program called Contact. Unfortunately, still, a student group in a university, they can’t afford the software. It costs four to five hundred dollars. But that’s the only way we can play these pieces.
I just listen to all the current voices, and the problem is, I want my sounds. I don’t want just any sound. Some of them have gone through all these different generations of sampling and they’re OK, but the others have degraded. I think the technology now is so good that we can go back and restore the originals.”
Some day, sooner or later, the music world will eventually be released from its lockdown captivity. It is, of course, still unclear what lessons from all these days of streaming and social distancing will carry on to our post-covid lives, but it is easy to see that there has been some fascinating innovations around in the course of the past year-or-so.
For Adams, one of the most imaginative affairs has been the online gala opening by the San Francisco Symphony and their new Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen back in November. The hour-long performance included an excerpt from Adams’s 1978 classic Shaker Loops, alongside various new works by younger composers.
”Normally a gala concert for the San Francisco Symphony would be an evening with some big name soloist, like Renée Fleming or Yo-Yo Ma, or some opera tenor, and a lot of pieces on candy, so to speak. And there would be there would be a banquet beforehand, and the program would be designed to please their wealthy audience.
Instead they we forced by the circumstances to come up with something that worked in this strange new world that we’re working in now. As a result it was an extremely original, and for a large part, very pleasing hour. And I was thinking, do we have to go back?
I wrote to Esa-Pekka afterwards to thank him for his performance, and I said, I much prefer an experience like that, than having to listen the Beethoven’s Ninth again. And I’m sure he probably agrees with me.
The trouble is, symphony orchestras, opera companies and dance companies are these huge economic machines. And they live on the edge of catastrophe all the time, because we don’t have the government support. So they’re very dependent on corporate support and wealthy individuals. If they do something that is radically different, like the San Francisco did, the question is, can they continue to do things like that.
What was most interesting, was that the program was mostly about young, creative people; young composers, young composer-performers – even to the point with the older members of the orchestra looking pretty old, including me! But it was a very refreshing thing.”
Having a lot of the standard orchestral repertoire gone, at least for a while, may not be an entirely bad thing, after all.
”For year’s I’ve been saying: Oh, they should put the Mahler symphonies in a space capsule and shoot them out, so nobody has to listen to Mahler for five years. And then you can come back to these symphonies and love them. Instead we just get drugged with them, over and over. So it’s kinda interesting that this happened.”
Not long ago, Adams reviewed a new translation of Pierre Boulez’s lectures, called Music Lessons, for the New York Times. As we turn our discussion to the legacy of Boulez and his generation, our perspectives seem somewhat different. The musical climate I was bought up with was indeed much more relaxed the one Adams was growing up with.
”I was in school during the bad old days, and they really were bad days, where the music was just so obscure. It was unpleasant to listen to, so much was about the theory of it or this great historical consciousness.
Now, Boulez’s wisdom is incredible, nobody living in the latter part of the twentieth century had that kind of experience as he had. But his viewpoint on what was valuable, what he valued, was just ridiculous. It was so, as we say, blinkered, he had tunnel vision. And I think, as a result of that, we lost a lot of our audience. The audience became gun-shy. If there was going to be a piece by John Adams, they’d be like ’Who’s that? Oh, I’m sure that it’s going to be unpleasant’.
That has changed over time. We’ve had some really great composers like Steve Reich, who’ve written music that is very appealing to listen to and yet is original and important. And now there’s a whole younger generation, people in their fifties, forties and thirties.
Not all of them write accessible music, though. There’s still now a younger generation who have just discovered Xenakis! But I think that we’re now in a period of more plurality. And there isn’t that terrible, ideological necessity that I felt there was, when I was in my twenties.”
In his late years, Igor Stravinsky, the gravitational centre of the entire twentieth century, eventually ventured into the serialist realm long with Boulez and Stockhausen, and their cohorts.
”The last fifteen years of his life were so strange. There’s this wonderful biography by Stephen Walsh, in two volumes, about Stravinsky and the second volume talks about Robert Craft and Boulez, and how Stravinsky was terrorized by Boulez. He was afraid that he was no longer the most important composer and that he was old hat.
I’m just so amused by the story how the Vatican commissioned him to wrote a mass. And the Pope and all the cardinals came, and I think they were expecting to hear something like Sympnony of Psalms. Instead, they heard a bad performance of Canticum Sacrum, in the cathedral in Venice.
You gotta hand it to Stravinsky! He didn’t give a damn, he just did it. But he was so desperate to stay au curant. There are certain serial pieces of Stravinsky, that I prefer to almost any other serial piece. For example, Requiem Canticles is just magical piece!
It is interesting that some composers actually really do try desperately to keep moving with the times, and others are just comfortable doing what they did.”
Another inescapable figure of the twentieth century, Leonard Bernstein, almost became a game-changer for the young Adams. Some fifty years ago, the Maestro indeed invited Adams to become his personal assistant. Had he said yes, would something extraordinary have come out of it.
”Well he asked me, but it was after quite a few drinks, so I don’t know. It could have happened. I don’t make a big deal out of it, because he was the sort of person who burned through people very quickly. You know, he was an insomniac and he was very demanding, and could be very difficult. I think I made the right decision.”
Alongside Sibelius, another important model for Adams the composer has been none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.
”I wish it were somebody less well-known, then I could be special. But Beethoven is like Shakespeare. There’s just such a wealth of humanity.
Years ago, I was very interested in Jungian philosophy. One of the things Jung spoke about, was the integrated, or individuated, personality. On a musical level, I think Beethoven was the most wonderfully individuated being: in the sense that we could have the slow movement of the Emperor Concerto and then we could have the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, which is almost camp! Or some parts of the finale of the Ninth Symphony. I mean, they’re just like bad taste.
And then there’s the very public, grand statement of the Ninth Symphony, or Fidelio, and on the other end of the continuum, the extreme intimacy of the piano sonatas and the string quartets.
On the other hand, if you read Maynard Solomon’s wonderful book about Beethoven, you’ll learn that, as a person, he was a catastrophe. Every aspect of his personal life was a catastrophe; his obsession over his nephew his behavior with his publisher… But, as I say, his inner, artistic soul was the most wonderfully integrated thing.
And then, of course, I just love the rhythm, I’m a rhythm guy! And as I was talking earlier about Sibelius, the economy and the way the structures are built out of small germinal motifs that enabled him to create these wonderful structures with enormous emotional movement – that has been my ideal.”
Is some of his more recent work, Adams has even reworked some of Beethoven’s musical ideas into his own compositions. How does Adamsizing Beethoven feel?
”Well, I’m grateful I don’t have to pay for licensing. The most obvious case in this respect is of course Absolute Jest, which, I think, is a piece that just gets better as it goes along. I don’t think I’m that different from a lot of composers who wanted to, so to speak, eat, digest, some other music that they loved. Berio did it, Schoenberg did it, Benjamin Britten did it, Tchaikovsky did it, Stravinsky did it. And Bach did it with Vivaldi. Its natural cannibalistic activity we all share.”
As our time runs out, Adams prepares to set down to spend another day composing Anthony and Cleopatra. On a Tuesday morning, the idea of composing bears an aura of the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd classic The Blues Brothers.
”In the movie, they go to a Catholic school, and there’s a great scene with the Mother Superior just beating them. Some days I feel, when I go up to my studio, that Mother Superior is there waiting for me.”
© Jari Kallio