John Adams: I always want to write the best piece I have ever composed

Composer, conductor, and creative thinker—John Adams occupies a unique position in the world of American music. Among Adams’s works are several of the most performed contemporary classical pieces today: Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, Chamber Symphony, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and his Violin Concerto. His stage works, in collaboration with director Peter Sellars, include Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, El Niño, Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree, and the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Adams’s most recent opera, Girls of the Golden West, set during the 1850s California Gold Rush, was premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2017.

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, written for piano soloist Yuja Wang, the LA Phil, and Gustavo Dudamel, premiered in 2019 and continues to tour this season, with performances Edinburgh, London, New York City, Paris, Amsterdam, St. Louis, and Seattle. The season also sees the world premiere of Adams’s new orchestral work I Still Dance, written for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. The piece premieres in San Francisco in September 2019 before touring to Amsterdam, New York, and London in March 2020.

We met with John Adams in Los Angeles on 26 July 2019, just before his new Piano Concerto was performed by Yuja Wang with the LA Phil conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at Hollywood Bowl. On November 18, 2019 the Piano Concerto will be played before London audiences as part of the sold-out LA Phil residency in the UK.

Photo credit: Vern Evans

John, my first question is – and maybe your answer has been changing through life – what is special about being a composer, as say compared to being a painter, writer or a normal human being? How does a composer begin to feel himself/herself as such and how a wish to express oneself musically is born?

You start with the hardest question! I don’t know if I can answer that. I think I got the first impulse to be a composer when I was very young – when I was about nine years old. I went to a small school in a very rural area in Hampshire, and the teacher read us a biography of Mozart - and I was entranced by the idea of being able to write music. As fas as how it is different to being in other arts – well, it is different and yet it isn’t. In my family everyone is an artist: my daughter is a very wonderful painter, my wife is a photographer, and on certain levels we think the same in terms of working with materials, and also we all have art-historical awareness that can be a real obstacle if you take it too seriously. I think with music my feeling is that it is something that everybody needs. They say that human beings need food, shelter and warmth, but they also need music. There is no one who doesn’t – in one form or another, and I don’t know what that is so. It is a subject for a great philosopher like Adorno – he never asked that question, though – why do people need music. I think it has to do with the fact that it expresses feeling, and feeling that cannot be articulated in words. When I have to give a lecture or a class, I often say that music is essentially about communicating feeling. Obviously, it communicates other things, also – like a sense of form, intellectual and sensory pleasure, as listening to a beautiful sound gives you pleasure on a sensual level. But ultimately it is feeling. Today I was sitting through the rehearsal of Gustavo [Dudamel] working on the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which is an amazing movement, one of the greatest in terms of its combination of structure and form, and integration of ideas, but it grabs you just because it is feeling. I think part of the reason that contemporary music has in the last 70 years or so become a problem for many listeners is that the feeling they get from, say, Schoenberg and other modernist music, makes them feel bad. It sounds dissonant, the music is very much difficult, aggressive or conflicting emotions, and most people don’t choose to feel that way.

However, it is one thing to have a certain feeling, and another is to know what musical form to express it with. In your life you went through exploring different phases in finding your own way of expression. I guess someone having certain feelings wouldn’t necessarily lead to them writing a piano concerto. How does this connection between experiencing certain feelings and writing music work?

I think the greatest challenge for composers nowadays is that we don’t have any templates. Mozart was a genius but he worked in an accepted template, so in a sense he did not have to worry about form. Obviously he was brilliant, took a template and made it into something wonderful, but now every composer has to invent a new form, a new template, and that is a real burden. What is interesting about the early work of Steve Reich or Philip Glass is that they found a new template. In the case of Steve Reich it was a simple idea, and then repeating it over, and then changing it, and creating texture, and that was very successful. He had invented something new. But it is his – now. If somebody else does it, it would feel like they are imitating. I think I have been different from a lot of other composers because I probably love the classical canon more than most people do. So I try to find ways to work with a format of a symphony orchestra or a string quartet, or a piano concerto and still say something new, but I realize that I might be in the very, very end of the tradition. I often feel – for example, in the concert that we both will listen to tonight – my piano concerto is put between these two masterpieces, great works by Barber and Tchaikovsky, and in the middle it is me. I sometimes feel like a goldminer who is trying to find gold while they have taken all the good stuff out of the mine already. However, I am not that pessimistic, I feel that there is still material to work with, while continuing the tradition.

Could we compare your search of style with what Stravinsky did when he experimented with all the existing musical movements, while keeping connection with the classical canon?

I think Stravinsky was much more conscious about changing his clothes. When he began living in Paris, he really put all Russian things behind him – it was after Les Noces. And when he decided to take on the twelve-tone writing, it was again a very, very conscious decision that by that time he had squeezed everything out of the lemon. I don’t feel quite so conscious about that – on the other hand, I haven’t written The Rite of Spring. But one thing I don’t like to do is to repeat myself. I think that a lot of artists (not just composers) if they find they have a success and the public likes them, they tend to do the same thing all over again, and this is not my thing.

Today whatever a modern composer does, it may become a quote from somebody else’s work. Our times are too postmodern – everything has already been tried and used. When a musical idea comes to your mind, how do you know it is new? How do you check the validity of your creation against the backdrop of all the musical legacy?

I think it is just a matter of judgement – and I hate to use the word, as it is rather elite. But it means taste – you have to have taste or judgement as to whether something is going to work. In my case often – not always – but often – there is a certain ironic level. For instance, in my latest Piano Concerto ‘Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes’ some of the material is quite funky – yes, you’ve heard that before, but you’ve heard it in pop music, and the way I bring it to the classical realm is ironic and hopefully enjoyable. But I don’t think that is ground-breakingly original like The Rite of Spring or Tristan in a way that nobody has ever done it before.

Now that you’ve brought pop music up, can I ask if you think that classical music is in need of infusion from other genres?

I actually do. In this way it is now more exciting in the States than it is in Europe. I think that in Europe they are still intimidated by modernism. If you go to music festivals, or you see what works are being commissioned, or what kind of operas are being produced in Germany and France, they are still under the cloud of modernism. In the USA all the young composers who are now 30-40 (50) years old have grown up listening to all kinds of music, and there is great prestige given to pop culture in this country. I don’t always agree with it, but the group like Radiohead, or Kanye West or Beyonce are taken very seriously by the intellectual community. The Pulitzer Prize was given to a hip-hop composer last year. I think that now a lot of young composers are consciously trying to access elements of pop culture and bring it into their music. Americans are always very anxious that they are not thought of as snobs (laughs) – in fact, almost too worried. So we have a great tradition of what is called ‘anti-intellectualism’ here, and it is transferred to classical music, too.

Photo credit: Vern Evans

Esa-Pekka Salonen aspires to reinvent forms of classical music as the future Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. Do you think it is possile?

Yes, I think so. San Francisco is very different from Los Angeles. Los Angeles has a long history of being very open to cultural ideas, San Francisco is a little more conservative. It is impossible to change the public very quickly. However, he is very interested in technology and may be he will be able to draw in people from that sector. It has been very hard so far. We have all these famous corporations in San Francisco – Google, Twitter, Facebook – and yet they have made almost no impact on artistic culture. Most of the people who are involved in those giant companies, really don’t have an interest in culture, or if they do, it is pop culture – and I don’t say it in a demeaning sense, but it is the way it is. May be it also has to do with their age – may be when they are 60 they might want to go to the opera… I heard that Brad Pitt went to hear Mahler 2 two nights ago (laughs), but that’s LA. When City Noir was done, the person who came and sat next to me, was Tom Hanks (laughs), although he didn’t know that I was a composer. But those things happen only in Los Angeles. We have to see what will happen in San Francisco.

What do you have to do, apart from composing music, to have this flow of inspiration coming from other spheres of human activity? For instance, your Dharma at Big Sur was influenced by works and lives of Henry Miller and John Kerouac, and for almost every piece of yours there has been a book that has inspired you. Does it mean that a composer has always to look into other arts to create music?

Well, you know, it is just me. I know some great composers who as far as I can tell don’t read much (laughs), but they watch a lot of movies and have other interests. It depends on the invidiual – I don’t know how many books Brahms read. I know some composers who were very intellectual – Stravinsky and Mahler had read deeply. I always like to read, but it depends on the artist.

Say, you want to express the Californian landscape, as in Dharma at Big Sur, or you want to explore your own biography, as in My Father Knew Charles Ives – but what happens next? In a book we know that there is a theme expressed through a story and language. How in music do we use the knowledge from the composer’s notes about the intention when writing a piece when applied to the actual act of listening?

Well, music is abstract, but it can also be about something. We bring a history to our listening experience. There are, as French structuralists would say, signals and signs for us to interpret. For example, in Mahler you’ll hear a fanfare, or a march, or some kind of figure that was collectively understood. We hear a lot of that in pop music. I think you can indeed tell a story in music. I don’t tell stories like graphically like Richard Strauss does, but in the case of Dharma at Big Sur I simply suggest an image of being at this particular beautiful location that has its own history. There is the ocean, and on the other side of the ocean we envisage the Orient with its dharma. It is a romantic use of imagery, but I do that a lot.

But then you can create music inspired by any other form of human creation. Could there be a music of an architectural building, of a landscape, of the Hermitage Collection?

Well, yes, it is possible. For example, Pictures from an Exhibition by Mussorgsky is such a successful piece because it brings images to people’s minds, and when listening to it, they are stimulated to imagine certain visual imagery. I have a piece called City Noir which I wrote for Gustavo Dudamel and LA Philharmonic. I wanted to write something about Los Angeles, and so it is a symphony which is also an imaginary film score for some kind of a noir film of the 1950s which would have jazz in it. There is nothing specific in it, there is just this particular mood.

What happens if that assumed collective understanding of certain things is lost? How do we know that music continues to evoke the images it was initially supposed to? What if a new generation comes to a concert hall in a tabula rasa state?

What you are defining is what culture is. Culture is the collective memory. And you are right, if somebody comes from Mars and has never heard Beethoven’s Fifth or never heard a march, may be it would be completely meaningless for them. When I listen to Chinese music, I have no reference, and that’s probably because I am not cultured in this tradition. A certain cultural tradition has to be passed from generation to generation for us to continue understanding music.

Let’s explore your biography as a composer. I was interested to see you saying that at some point you were afraid to join Tanglewood Programme, as the incoming conductor superstars might have ruined your composer’s integrity. Should one only be a composer, or is combining composer and conductor professions still possible?

I think at the time I felt I had to make this decision, but I ended up conducting a lot, and I am very spoiled here as I have conducted the world’s best orchestras. I think I have found my balance between composing and conducting. I could do a lot more of the latter, but I probably prefer to stay home… These occupations are radically different. When I have to leave home and conduct an orchestra, I have to change into a completely different person.

Noon to Midnight, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Craig Mathew / Mathew Imaging.

While we expect from a conductor to have a strong and influential personality, does a composer have to behave in a certain way, to create a certain image, to give public talks? Or is he or she allowed to be seclusive and non-talkative, referring listeners to their music only?

There are all different types of people. Most creative people have some way of getting their work promoted. Either somebody cares about them deeply, or they are extraverted enough to speak out and present their work. For instance, Herman Melville and William Faulkner – they both lived in tiny towns, but at some point somebody realized how great they were. I think most young composers are good with social media and know how to present their work and to speak about it. It is a broad spectrum here, of course, with some people just being obnoxious and constantly promoting themselves, with others not doing it enough.

But how does a modern listener choose what is just well-PR-ed, and what is really good stuff?

You just have to listen and to make mistakes sometimes. I commission a lot of pieces by young composers, and they sometimes turn to be OK, but nothing you want to hear for the second time. It is very, very rare to have a piece that gets played and has what we call a shelf life, that is a future of many successful performances. You wouldn’t think there are many classical composers in this country [USA] as it seems there is nothing but pop culture here, but it is amazing how many of them there are. We had an event in Walt Disney Concert Hall called Noon to Midnight, and we had about 50 composers with a huge number of performances, and we had 10-12 different ensembles, and most of them were from Los Angeles area. I was impressed by the sheer variety, although I must admit that most of what I heard was not that interesting. But the energy was there, and it was good.

I guess in terms of fostering new composers it takes a specifically-minded person like Michael Tilson Thomas, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gustavo Dudamel to seek out and commission new music. Unless they are interested in finding new music, nobody would hear it on a large scale.

Hmm, yes, I don’t think that Valery Gergiev has discovered a lot of young composers… You are absolutely right, a person in a position of influence like Esa-Pekka or Simon Rattle is very important. Simon invited me to Berlin two years ago to have my music performed, and he thought it was very important, because Berlin audiences did not have a very friendly attitude to American music.

Do you consider your work as specifically American? Aren’t we perceiving you more as an individual name in a classical music landscape?

With my name – I have to (laughs). I would like to think that it is universal, but we still tend to associate most works of art with the locus of where they are from. We think that Shakespeare is English and Tolstoy is Russian, you must admit that (laughs). I think my identity will always be associated with being American, and I don’t mind that.

At some point in your life you were interested in all the new ways of composition that electronic music and the technology of that period had to offer. Do you think there is a new wave of interest in technology now? Will it be productive for new music, in your opinion? Will music be enhanced by contact with technological advancements?

Forgive me if I say something very bland, but it is impossible to know what is going to happen. Brahms could never have imagined an electric guitar, and now if we think of what electric guitar actually did – it created a whole new world of music. You could say the same thing for a saxophone, and for a piano-forte. So these are technical inventions that nobody could predict, but they came and revolutionized art, just like the invention of a camera did. But as I live near San Francisco, I have to confess – I am sick of hearing about technology. It is all people want to talk about nowadays. I acknowledge that we are in an important period in history of the human race, like at the time when electricity was invented. If you now go to a place which has no electricity, it is such a shock! We have a place way up the coast where I sometimes go to work, and I was there by myself, and once there was a storm, and the trees knocked the power down… It was just so disturbing. I said to myself – oh, well, I’ll just read a book. But I couldn’t – it was too dark. Well, I will have some coffee – oh, I can’t grind the beans. So, the internet has brought all kinds of unpredictable things that we would never have done or tried if there wasn’t internet or twitter. Bad things can happen, good things can happen, we are in a very unusual time. But as I said there are other things in life besides technology.

What is your composition routine and self-discipline to finish the piece by a certain deadline?

I tend to work every day. I usually start at 9am in the morning, as those are my best hours, and then I work again in the afternoon, which is usually less efficient, although I may have a very good spurt in the end of the day. When I am writing a piece, the way I work now, I do use a computer. So for the composing, creative part I work in this software program that is very flexible. It is a software program that was made for television composing, and I can do all sorts of things there, while also marking them up with orchestra samples. But then I go back – and this is where I am very old-fashioned. I use a pencil and manuscript paper which most of composers don’t use anymore. Our son Samuel uses pencil for sketches, but for his final product he delves into the program called Sibelius. I am different here. When I go back and actually write out the score, it is very labour-intensive. I would say I have a creative phase and then I have this tedious time when if I have a rhythmic figure I have to work out what it is – is it a seven-group, or a six-group – and to really shape the form of a piece. I don’t have any other people who can figure it out for me apart from myself (laughs).

Could you speak about your collaboration with conductors you have been working with – Simon Rattle, Michael Tilson Thomas, Gustavo Dudamel?

When you are working with a conductor, there isn’t actually a great deal of time you spend together. Usually conductors are so busy that they don’t look at the score until a few days before the premiere, and when they do they usually look to see how much rehearsal time it would take. They are so busy, especially Gustavo – I love him, he has done so many of my pieces and he is such an incredible talent – but he is so busy! He is very quick and very sharp, and he has incredible musical instincts – as all the others you have mentioned – but when we talk it is not a heavy philosophical conversation. Simon is more into intellectualism, he is interested in talking about the depth of things. Michael is very verbal, he needs to find a way to make a piece his own. He needs some way to get into it so he can put his personal mark on it, and that makes him a very interesting conductor. And I can speak to him because I am a conductor muself – in fact most composers don’t know how to relate their music to a conductor.

Noon to Midnight, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging.

But in a real-life situation, what is your input during a rehearsal?

It is always a very delicate situation, because you understand that time is very critical, and the conductor’s way of handling the rehearsal is very important. You have to have a sense of order here. Usually I keep notes – small pieces of paper that I slap on the score. If something (like tempo) is radically wrong, I might go up and just stop the rehearsal, but normally you would not want to interrupt a conductor. When I conduct a new piece, I ask the composer to be right next to me, and I always try to engage them in a dialogue with musicians – may be not with the full orchestra, but if it is a small group, it is always the case. I remember last January I was doing a world premiere of a new symphony by Philip Glass, and the parts were not proof-read. And here I have a big orchestra in front of me, and and while conducting I hear music that is not on my score. Philip is 81, so I couldn’t keep asking him to come up to check the parts, so literally got off the podium and came to him and asked about different moments. But that is unusual.

How do you feel when your piece gets played as part of the big public event?

I am happy if that happens. The problem with much contemporary music is that it never gets played, especially on such occasions. You might think I am a famous composer, but in many cases if a piece of mine is on a program, the marketing people would not even admit it. They would treat it as if it is not even there, because they think that even mentioning a new work will frighten away the audiences. So I might have a world premiere, and a brochure would say: «Come to hear Beethoven this week!»

The opera – when you were beginning your career, you thought you would never delve into this genre. How did you get acquainted with opera and start writing them? Could you speak about your collaboration with Peter Sellars on the operatic projects?

It is interesting, because I don’t really like opera that much (laughs). But I love music and I love telling stories. There isn’t a history of operatic tradition in the USA. There is Porgy and Bess, but not much beyond it. But we have a theatrical tradition with Broadway musicals. It was Peter who stimulated me to write an opera, and I am very grateful for that, because I hope what we have done has been very important for American culture. We both did a great deal of research when working on them. I read all kinds of books – I even read bible when I was writing The Death of Klinghoffer, as I had never read the Pentateuch before. And with the most recent opera – The Girls of the Golden West – it is a true story, it took place in 1850s, but what happens in it is just like today.

Can you comment on the controversy that The Death of Klinghoffer sparkled at the time?

It is an American issue. I have a feeling that if we did that opera in Israel, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But doing it in New York brought problems. There is a group of people in the country that feel that everything that acknowledges the Palestinian story is subversive, secretly sympathetic and therefore anti-Semitic. And it is so easy to label something as anti-Semitic. Once it is labeled so, it is impossible to get read of it. What happened at the Metropolitan Opera that there was an online campaign that started months before the opening, and it was probably a very small group of people who everyday posted something saying how terrible this opera was and accusing the Met of being irresponsible and glorifying terrorism. Most people didn’t even read the libretto. They read a couple of lines which they kept plucking out of a libretto – and the lines that we gave to kidnappers, in fact, as those were things that some of those terrorists would say. So they took the lines out, and everybody began to imagine that the whole opera is like that. I was terribly upset by this reaction for two reasons. One is that the Metropolitan usually does an opera broadcast all over the world, and they had to cancel it. And secondly, despite whether it is fair ot not, the opera had a bad odour and nobody would go near it, and thus it has not been produced since.

What is Peter Sellars like? How does it feel to work with him?

He is an absolutely extraordinary person. There is nobody in the world like him. He has unlimited energy, he is extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings, he is a wonderful listener. One of the great moments in my life would be when I play something new for him and to get his reaction, because he immediately gets to the depth of the piece. For me, I have to listen to something five or ten times before I know what is going on, while he clicks much more quickly. I also respect his social commitment – he believes that art can change society. I don’t think I agree with that, in fact, but I appreciate his constant engagement and unprecedented energy.

Photo credit: Vern Evans

Can I ask you about instrumentalists you have worked with? Yuja Wang, Leila Josefowicz have performed your works. How do you develop relationships with them?

You always hope that other people will take on the piece, too. No one has played Scheherazade.2 because I think they are intimidated by Leila. It is fifty minutes long, and she is a master of it, and she plays it from memory. But somebody who is now 12 years old will probably take it on sometimes. You know, with Leila I did collaborate – I sent her material, and she played it back and suggested things. With Yuja Wang – she is so busy… while she can also do anything. The only thing that I could not write anything larger than a ninth in my new Piano Concerto, just because of her hands’ structure. She has played the piece for 8 or 9 times since it was premiered, and then she hadn’t played it since March. And this morning [July 2019] they had a rehearsal with Gustavo and LA Phil, and she was really focused and had quite a few ideas for its interpretation. With some musicians it is not a question of sitting down and discussing things – it is more a question of doing it. This is why Balanchine was a great choreographer – you try this, you try that, and something grows over time. I am going to do this Piano Concerto with a young Icelandic pianist – Vikingur Olafsson. I know it is going to be different. And also I will be conducting it – it has only been Gustavo who did it to that point. So I think the piece will grow and probably change when I work with somebody different.

Are pieces having the same weight in your memory and mind? Or do some of them fade away, while the newly-born compositions become more important to you than the old ones?

I do my old pieces a lot. The problem is that people now compare my new works to my old ones (laughs). They would say: ‘Well, his new opera is OK, but it isn’t as good as Nixon in China’. That is very frustrating, but I think it is very common – with novelists, if they had a very good novel when they were 35, at 70 they would still be writing novels, but people would just want to read the first one.

What stimulates you to continue writing music? I guess by now you could just rest on your laurels… Is it curiosity?

I am always driven by the hope of writing a good piece, a better piece. I always want to write the best piece I’ve ever composed. And speaking of laurels, you know, Charles Ives, when he received a Pulitzer Prize in music, said: «Prizes are for boys». Although I can’t say it now, after #MeToo movement (laughs). I should say now: «Prizes are for boys, girls and transgender».

Wrapping up our talk: what do you think the role of classical music will be in future?

I don’t know. On a bad day, when I am pessimistic, I feel that classical music for most people is essentially from Haydn till Shostakovich. And what I and other people are writing is for them like a coda, an appendix – those are my thoughts on a bad day. On a good day I feel that this art form is not exhausted, and there is still something to say. You know, there was a time in the 1960s when Susan Sontag pronounced that the novel was dead. She said it was a relic of the past. However, in her 1970s she herself was writing historical novels. I think she understood that it was a vehicle that still had meaning. I hope that it will be the case with classical music, too.