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Interview with John Adams

The musical season in Geneva will kick-off this coming Friday with the festival La Bâtie which will include a series of activities around the American composer John Adams: a meeting with the audience on Saturday the 3rd, a concert with Phrygian Gates and Hallelujah Junction and Friday evening the conductor-composer’s first appearance in Geneva with the Swiss Romande Orchestra (OSR) in Victoria Hall with Leila Josefowicz as soloist.

John Adams has found some time in his schedule to speak to ConcertoNet.

J. Adams, A. Lévy-Leboyer ConcertoNet)

Have you played in Switzerland before ?
I have been in Switzerland numerous times. I first came here way back in the 1970 with a group of young American kids, adolescents, and coached them as part of a summer music week in a tiny village in Appenzell. I did this two summers in a row. I returned there by myself in 1983 to compose music for a film about Carl Gustav Jung called Matter of Heart. I thought it would be a nice idea to come to Switzerland and compose the music where he worked in Bollingen. I actually was one of the very few people allowed to visit the tower that he built.

You know, we have a history of composers writing pieces in Switzerland.
Yes, I know of a certain piece was written not far from here... and then I came in in the mid-90s with a gigantic orchestra made by Ensemble Modern in Lucerne. The program started with the Ives 4th Symphony, a piece by a young American, Michael Gordon, and a 50-minute symphony of mine called Naïve and Sentimental Music. But this is the first time I have performed in the French part of Switzerland. I suspect I am not well known here.

No, the OSR played Harmonielehere last year and it was packed.
Ah yes, Markus Stenz, I remember.

There are many of your works which have a historical connection. Does this mean that you are, say like Wagner, a political composer ?
Well, naturally, I would not like the term “political composer” because it sounds very confining. The Greek root of the word, it is “polis” (πόλις) which means “people.” In this sense, I have an interest in the relationships among people and particularly, relationships of power, between men and women, men and men, one nation over another, or in the case of Nixon in China, one ideology over another. These are also the subjects of the works of Mozart, Verdi or Wagner. These are thrilling material to work with.

We alluded to the Rite of Spring. Did you have a moment when your work resulted in the violence that greeted the premiere of Stravinsky’s work ?
Yes, it was not a premiere. Two years ago, you may have read about it, there was an opening at the Metropolitan Opera of the Death of Klinghoffer. This was an evening as dramatic and chaotic as Stravinsky’s premiere. There were police helicopters flying over the building, a crowd of 400 angry protestors in front of the building. I had to have a bodyguard. Some people bought tickets to come to the theater specifically to stop the performance, which they did. Before that evening, there were three months of articles both pro and anti, even in the editorial pages of the New York Times. There were people standing in front of the theater with images of Isis beheading, saying my Opera was equivalent to that. This was the most shocking experience that happened about a piece of mine.

What happened after the premiere : did things settle down ?
The second night, there were a handful of demonstrators. Then the opera sold out and was the second best-selling opera of the season. People read about it and wanted to see if it was as scandalous or not. I am not saying all the people that went liked it but I felt that many saw it was an honest work of art and not the vicious work as it had been described.

I saw the work at the American premiere in the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There was nothing anti-Semitic in it. What was unusual was that both parties were given a voice and could express their opinions one to the other.
It is hard to do this in the United States. With the death of Edward Said, there is not a single articulate and acknowledged spokesperson for that side. Even when Said was alive, you hardly saw him. He was never invited in the NewsHour which is the kind of esteemed liberal podium for reasonable discussions with someone on the left and one on the right. These people have no voice. As Peter Gelb learned at the Met, the lobby of the Anti-Defamation League are very powerful people but I had good people on my side like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice, who came on opening night. I thought Peter Gelb did a noble thing to continue. I was very sorry that he had to cut the telecast. He told me he had no choice and I have no reason not to believe him, as I thought people around the world should have been able to see the work.

Back to music, you describe in your autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, the premiere of Harmonielehre. How did you go from Phrygian Gates, Shaker Loopsto a work of such scale and scope as Harmonielehre ?
I was a young man and guess I was not afraid of taking risks. There was a wonderful Dutch conductor at the San Francisco Symphony at the time, Edo de Waart. At the time, I was nobody, a young composer living in San Francisco. We were introduced and he asked to see some music. He came to see a performance with myself conducting. A new hall was opening, which was big even in San Francisco. He asked me to write a piece and said he wanted a chorus. I had heard him do the Mahler 8th so I thought it would be great to do something with that same feeling. When you are young, you do not realize how foolish your projects are.

There is another thing you tell in Hallelujah Junction. You speak about the time when Pierre Boulez came to conduct the Boston Symphony. You express both a certain respect but also a certain distance about him. Is this correct and is this how you feel toward the avant-garde composers ?
Yes, and later in my career I said more critical things about him. I do not regret the substance of what I said about him. I regret the tone but I was adopting the same one he used in his early writings, which were pugilistic. The articles I read were Relevés d’apprenti ,when I was in college. That was back when he said that a composer that would not write 12-tone music would be useless. I did not understand that this was how a French polemist would speak. But more seriously, there was a combination of a certainty among European modernists, a certitude about historical inevitability that music was destined to evolve in ever more complex systems. There was an arrogance about it and I felt it in the encounters I had with Berio and Stockhausen. There was a kind of “Haut-en-bas” attitude, particularly towards us Americans. At the time, I felt that we had this fantastically vital musical culture in the United States: Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, Billie Holliday, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and Leonard Bernstein. I felt that trying to make rules on how the historical course of music would go was foolish and I think history has proven me right. What these European modernists did was in some instance quite wonderful. There are some pieces by Xenakis, Stockhausen, Boulez himself which are really wonderful but to say this was the future was simply wrong. You cannot predict in the world of art what the future is going to be.

Scheherazade.2 which you will play with the Swiss Romande orchestra is a very epic work like a tone poem. You made a reference to Harold in Italy by Berlioz. There are some woodwinds passages which evoke the critics in Strauss’s Heldenleben. Is this an evolution in your body of works ?
As I have grown older, one thing I have learned was not to worry about style. Style is important, it is basically how you do something. What I am interested more is voice. I really make a distinction between the two. This dichotomy comes from the work of the novelist Saul Bellow, whom one does not describe as a great stylist. He did not transform literature like Joyce or Hemingway. But his voice is so distinctive and the story he is telling is so compelling. This is what I am trying to with my work. If someone says about my works that it sounds like romantic music or minimalism, I have absorbed all of that and take pleasure in the resonances of the past. You can hear some the Prokofiev Violin Concertos, maybe some Ravel even some Ligeti in my piece. I have to feel a sense of liberation. The opposite is to say that I could not do this or use this chord because it has been used before and I have to do something totally new. This is the pathology of modernism.

Why did you select Shaker Loops for your program with the OSR ?
I said I would no longer do Shaker Loops because I have done it so many times and it is exhausting for me. I thought it would make a really strong contrast with Scheherazade because it is an early piece of mine so it shows the arch of my works. It is associated with minimalism but you can see me trying to break the mold.

It has a long line like a Sibelius Symphony.
It depends of the commitment of the players. This is why I asked that they would choose string players who would really want to play the piece. It is a physical work which involves your body and not your brain.

Do you have students, composers you work with ?
Yes, I conduct a lot of young composers. My wife and I have a foundation to commission works from them. There are many young American composers I am excited about. I will play them in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic Academy in January. One of them is Andrew Norman. He is interesting because of all the young American composers, he probably is the one most interested in the European avant-garde in terms of sound. He works very hard to make a violin not sound like a violin. He has a lot of imagination. Another one is Timo Andres. There was an article in the New York Times about him last week. He is a very fine pianist who can play the Ives Concord Sonata and Phrygian Gates. He can bring a strong knowledge of the classics to his composing. Unfortunately, a lot of young American composers are not aware of the canons. They have specific pieces which they have studied in college or which they dearly love. My son is a composer. There are pieces he loves: the John Cage String Quartet, In Vain from Georg Friedrich Haas which is performed in complete darkness... Most of young composers love a piece by Steve Reich or Conlon Nancarrow but they do not know the Bruckner Symphonies, Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet... But I should not generalize. There are deep interest about former composers, many projects about Schumann for example. This article about Timo Andres mentions composers taking about Buxtehude or Beethoven. I am very happy about that because I believe the knowledge of the canons is very important.

Is your next opera about gold-diggers going to be performed in Switzerland ?
It will be performed in the Netherlands, San Francisco and La Fenice, which will be interesting. But there has been no interest in my operas in Switzerland, which is a pity.

Are there differences in the way European and American ensembles react to your work ?
It was very difficult for continental orchestras 20, 30 years ago. England has always been different, where the musicians there are so quick. I remember when Kent Nagano was rehearsing Klinghoffer in Brussels. This is not such a difficult piece but it was hard for them, particularly the chorus. I recently did a program with Scheherazade, the Doctor Atomic Symphony and a very short opening piece with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. We needed all the rehearsal time and I got more than what I usually get with an American orchestra. They have done quite a bit of my music but the hand does not go in the glove so easily. Work was slow, but in the end the performance was wonderful. I was very excited. It was a different sound and it was thrilling and there was tremendous energy on the stage.

We hope you have the same here.
I do, too, and am looking forward to it.

John Adams’s website

[Interview by Antoine Lévy-Leboyer]



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