Composer John Adams' Remarkable Imagination
Adams is America's composer laureate, so why does the thought of penning a cello concerto give him sweaty palms?
One of the very first musical memories I have is from back when I was eight or nine, growing up in a small town in New Hampshire,” explains composer John Adams. “A friend had given me a ticket to the Boston Symphony,” he says, “so my parents drove me down to Boston, where they bought tickets at the door. I didn’t sit with them because their tickets were up in the balcony and mine was down front, just a few rows back from the orchestra. I sat all by myself. Though I’d listened to a lot of recordings of symphony music, and had already started playing the clarinet, I’d never heard a professional orchestra before.”
The first piece on the program, he recalls, was Vaughn-Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which opens with conspicuous and widely-spaced minor chords. Says Adams, “I was just completely overwhelmed by the luminescence and transparence and the incredible beauty of that sound. It was one of those primal experiences—the feeling and the emotion of that—and it has stayed with me ever since.”
That memory, says Adams, has been the source of much of his inspiration over the years. Born on the East Coast and now a resident of Berkeley, California, the 58-year-old Adams, as a composer, is a rare and paradoxical artist, somehow managing to create music that is daring and experimental, yet extremely, incontestably popular. He writes grand operas about contemporary politics—Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and the recent Dr. Atomic—and people line up to buy tickets. His compositions often carry names that either make them sound like 1970s rock albums—Gnarly Buttons, Fearful Symmetries, Slonimsky’s Earbox—or ancient volumes of theological philosophy—Christian Zeal and Activity, Shaker Loops, On the Transmigration of Souls.
There are other paradoxes: Adams’ compositions often are simultaneously minimalist yet melodic, stripped down yet emotionally complex. Such internal conflict has done nothing to hurt Adams’ creative output or his popularity. CDs of his compositions are among the bestselling classical recordings on the market. He is the most frequently performed of modern classical composers; the San Francisco Chronicle recently dubbed him “America’s composer laureate.” His works have been, and continue to be, commissioned by the leading musicians and orchestras throughout the world.
Learn more about the composer John Adams.
Adams began learning his craft at a time when atonality and musical intellectualism were at their most prestigious in American musical circles. But after dabbling in atonality, Adams became certain that he did not want to write that kind of music. There is no doubt that his earliest influences, including his aforementioned eye-and-ear-opening experience at the Boston Symphony, had something to do with the type of music he ultimately wanted to create. Still, his initial reading of the situation was that, if he didn’t want to write the kind of music that was in vogue then perhaps he clearly was not cut out to be a composer. But he persisted in writing music that, to some degree, combined a form of modern minimalism, with a decidedly old-fashioned penchant for emotion and beautiful melody.
Though famous for his large-scale work—including 1984’s orchestral Harmonielehre, the title an allusion to Arnold Schoenberg’s 1911 treatise on tonality, and 2003’s orchestral essay My Father Knew Charles Ives—Adams has composed quite a bit of chamber music over the last several years. Perhaps his best known and most frequently performed are the 1978 string septet Shaker Loops, his 1995 Road Movies, written for violin and piano (violinist Leila Josefowicz recorded the premiere CD), and the seldom-performed but celebrated 1994 string quartet John’s Book of Alleged Dances, a leap forward in its use of pre-recorded tape.
All of these works display Adams’ remarkable imagination in his sometimes astonishing use of strings, as does the minimally-titled Violin Concerto, a thrilling composition that is rarely played in public without receiving a standing ovation.
His 9/11 Commission
The mild-mannered Adams, who seldom gives interviews, agrees to meet at his home in the Berkeley Hills, where we sit late in the afternoon in his spacious, window-bedecked living room, discussing his unique ideas about strings and string music as the setting sun makes the room glow with a soft golden light. First I ask about one of his most beloved orchestral pieces, the monumental On the Transmigration of Souls, composed in 2002 in honor of those who died during the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It was commissioned for and recorded by the New York Philharmonic. The 25-minute work for chorus, children’s chorus, orchestra, and sound design contains some his most creative use of cello and violin. Requiem-like in its majesty and sensitivity to the thunderous pangs of grief and loss, On the Transmigration of Souls is quickly becoming one of Adams’ most performed pieces. On this fifth anniversary of that fateful September morning, when death struck from the skies, dozens of orchestras throughout the country are programming On the Transmigration of Souls in the coming weeks as part of their remembrance of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“One of art’s oldest functions is to serve memory. Adams’ art does that,” music critic John Shinners opined in a review of On the Transmigration of Souls. “No melodies will stay with you from repeated hearings of Transmigration; no structural development will immediately be apparent. But you will come away with an ache of dappled recollection, both personal and communal, of words of remembrance sustained in an almost liturgical musical frame. To this degree, Adams’ work is a success: it pulls us out of ordinary time and for half an hour inserts us into ‘memory space.’”
The work won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music. “I’ve been very encouraged by the fact that the piece is getting a considerable number of performances around the world,” he says. “There have been five orchestras who’ve done it this year, and there are plans for several more, and every time it’s been performed, the response from the audiences and the press has been very positive.”
One response, a comment in a post-performance review, he recalls, was especially touching. Says Adams, “The remark was that, since nobody seems to be able to get together and decide on some sort of memorial at Ground Zero, On the Transmigration of Souls seems to be the only one that exists at the moment.”
Upon hearing that CDs of the piece have begun being played at 9/11 memorials, and even at memorials and funerals that are entirely non-related to those attacks, Adams confesses pleasure that the work seems to be edging its way into the popular consciousness in a profound and unexpected way. “I’m pleased to know that piece has a life beyond the single event for which it was composed,” he says.
As to the technical innovations that make up On the Transmigration of Souls, he is often asked to describe how he created the overpowering and beautiful, some would call it holy, sense of ache and emptiness in the work. “In that piece,” he explains, “I tried to get a feeling of enormous physical space, like in a cathedral. One way I did that was to have the string orchestra as widely dispersed, musically, as possible, with the basses way down on the low Cs, the extension strings, and the high first violins way, way, way up high—and all the other instruments deployed somewhere in between, so the strings give this sense of cathedral-like space.”
I ask if that idea, creating space by positioning the chords so far apart, might have been inspired by that early experience of hearing the Thomas Tallis fantasia, with its similarly wide-spaced chords that had such an effect on his young mind.
He shrugs. “Of course,” he says. “Those kinds of things don’t go away. They stay with you, waiting, feeding your creativity for the rest of your life. I expect to be making use of those early memories, making use of the ideas and inspiration they provided, for the rest of my life.”
The Challenge of Chamber Music
As Adams attempts to persuade his longtime canine companion, Calvin, to settle down away from the table where we are talking, I ask about his choices regarding his balance between major compositions and smaller chamber works. Does he, perhaps, use the smaller pieces to cleanse his palate after spending months at work on an epic opera or symphony piece?
“Very often, the smaller pieces are just as challenging, and just as tricky, as the big ones,” he says. “It might be more labor intensive to write an orchestra piece, but on the other hand, when I am writing for orchestra I have a much a larger palate to work with, so in one sense, it’s almost easier to come up with ideas and deploy them when writing for an orchestra. I have more to work with. A piece for violin and piano like Road Movies, or a string quartet is, in a sense, a tougher challenge for the imagination.”
The toughest challenge, he says with a laugh, would be to create a solo work for violin or cello. “I have a sort of gentleman’s agreement—though that’s not the right word, since the agreement is with Midori, so let’s call it a gentleperson’s agreement—that I’m going to write something for her and Vadim Repin,” he says. “But I won’t write it until an idea comes.”
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has also asked Adams to compose a piece. The mere mention of it makes Adams laugh. “I am so completely intimidated by the cello!” he says. “Whenever I watch a cellist, I cannot understand how they can move around so fast, because the distances”—here he pantomimes playing a cello, working his fingers up and down the imaginary fingerboard, like a spider leaping and dancing it’s way forward and backward along an invisible vertical line—“those distances are so wide, and every time I think about writing a cello piece, I start to get sweaty palms.”
Even so, as with the piece he intends to someday write for Midori, he is up to the challenge, once the right idea comes along. Adams, throughout his career, has tended to veer toward difficult projects. His Violin Concerto, he says, was one of the hardest pieces he ever wrote. The concerto premiered in 1994 in Minneapolis with violinist Jorja Fleezanis performing the violin solo.
“It was hard, first of all, because the medium of the violin concerto is very intimidating for any composer,” he muses. “There’s something almost mythic about the scenario. You have this one small, not very loud instrument up against a mass force, so just that scenario becomes a kind of agon—you know the Greek word for struggle or contest, and the root of the word ‘agony’? Not being a violinist, not being a string player of any sort, I was up against a huge learning curve. My string writing, up to that point, was moderately conservative. If you look at a piece like Shaker Loops, you’ll notice that I get a lot out of very few ideas, violin-wise, in that piece. A lot of the string writing in my large orchestra pieces, like Harmonielehre or even Nixon in China, it’s not tremendously daring writing. After Violin Concerto, and of course, after having my daughter go up from Suzuki to playing Mahler concertos, those two experiences left me with a much more confident feeling about writing for the instrument.”
Adams had help, in terms of advice, from the many violinists he’s become acquainted with over the years. The person most helpful during the writing of the Violin Concerto was Fleezanis, an old friend he’s known since the days she played with the San Francisco Symphony. “I think, actually, it was Jorja who proposed the idea of my writing a violin concerto,” he says. “At that point, having avoided it for so long, I realized that you can’t be a classical composer without having at least one violin concerto. It was a challenge, the sort of challenge you want to have in life.”
When Adams stops to think about the violin, he thinks of its role as the universal instrument. “This instrument,” he says, “it exists, in one form or another, in many other cultures, though it’s often played differently. I listen to a lot of ethnic music. With the violin concerto, certainly the first movement, I was trying to create something that had the feel of a raga, long improvised playing with maybe a little bit of jazz. I actually think Shaker Loops is a very original piece for strings—there’ve been pieces with lots of bowed tremolo, but there’s never been a piece that’s made of either bowed tremolo or trilling, and that’s exactly what Shaker Loops is.”
So was that the initial idea? Write a piece with lots of tremolo? “That’s it,” he nods. “I think that composers often take a motivic idea and just run with it. It may be inspired by something from another culture, or inspired by another piece, or by a physical gesture as in Shaker Loops.”
Though Adams has never played the violin, he feels that he has a strong connection to string music, in part because of the music he played as a young clarinetist. “When I was young, when I was playing the clarinet, I started playing the Bach Partitas for solo violin—on the clarinet—without knowing what I was playing!” he says. “My father, who’d been my first teacher, found this arrangement that only said Bach for the Clarinet. It didn’t say what [the pieces] were. So I learned all those Partitas by playing them on the clarinet. It wasn’t until years later that I learned it was actually violin music. I learned the D minor Chaccone by playing it on the clarinet, including all of those rapidly arpeggiated figures.”
Adams says this kind of transpositional experience has had an undeniable effect on how he approached strings composition. “When I was growing up in Concord, New Hampshire, I played with this local concert band,” he recalls. “It was made up of people from the town, businessmen and schoolteachers, and I was one of the few kids in the band. We played concerts in the parks every summer. Of course, that kind of band repertoire in those days was made up of arrangements of Italian concert overtures—Poet and Peasant, Oberon Overture, Tanheuser—and the arranger would simply take the first violin part and transpose it up a step for the clarinet, so the first clarinets had some really mean stuff to play. I learned a lot of violin music by playing it a note higher on the B-flat clarinet. And I’m telling you, the Oberon Overture, that thing really rips on the clarinet.”
When composing, particularly when composing orchestral music, Adams tries to put himself in the place of the instrumentalist. “It hurts me to think of the violinist who’s practiced the instrument all of his or her life,” he says, “has gone to Eastman or Juilliard or Curtis or Indiana, and then gets a job with the Cincinnati Symphony or the Seattle Symphony or the New York Philharmonic, and then has to sit there doing a piece of new music, forced to play a part that is just not interesting—all because the composer was not educated about the instrument, was not very imaginative, or just had some shtick to do, some idea that was going to be worked out even if it meant the first violinists would do nothing but slam one chord over and over for 30 minutes.
“I try to think, when I’m composing, what it’s like to be sitting in the orchestra being a cellist or a violist or a violinist. I try to give them something meaningful to do. I really don’t like wasting the time of professional musicians.”
The other way in which Adams tries to keep the string player in mind as he writes has to do with the physical demands that a new musical piece might make on the player. To make sure that what he is composing is physically achievable, Adams keeps a T-square with a viola fingerboard drawn onto it, on one side, and the violin fingerboards on the other. The fingerboard has all the notes written on them. “I also have a large piece of balsa wood with the cello fingerboard,” he says. “Whenever I am writing and I have a repeated figure, or any figure I think might be difficult, I can hold the T-square up and test out the fingering, to see if it’s playable or if it demands that I come up with something else.
“Playing my music still isn’t easy to do,” he adds, “but at least there’s nothing that’s flat, outright impossible."