July 12, 2000
JOHN ADAMS: Okay. You're working too hard. I see lots of bow movement. And I have... There's a danger of going on automatic pilot here, okay, because it's the same figure for many bars. So please just use a very small amount of bow. This is just definitely background material -- just absolutely together.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Composer/conductor John Adams is having a very big summer. On this day in June, he rehearsed his work "Shaker Loops" in San Francisco with musicians from the Miami-based new world symphony, some of the best young players in the country. (Applause) That same week in London, a performance of Adams' opera" Nixon in China," which first premiered in Houston in 1987, was gathering rave reviews. (Applause) Adams is America's most- performed living composer. In San Francisco, he filled Davies Hall for a concert that included his piece, "Grand Pianola Music."
" Grand Pianola Music" was extremely controversial when it first premiered in 1982, because it poked fun at the great 19th century piano concertos, and because Adams used what is known as minimalist musical techniques: Repetition, pulsation, and long stretches between one key change and another. Adams says the piece has echoes of his musical childhood in New Hampshire, where he played clarinet in a marching band with his father. His parents were dedicated amateur musicians, Adams says, and in his household, Benny Goodman and Mozart were considered equally important. Adams got a BA and a master's in music composition at Harvard, but found he didn't like the way most modern classical composers had lost touch with their audiences.
JOHN ADAMS: They'd done away with Harmony, with tonality, with periodicity, with pulsation; all the things I think are the glue of the musical experience, and as a result, you know, a huge schism grew worse and worse been composers and their audience.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Determined to heal that schism and make modern music accessible again, Adams left Harvard in 1971 and headed West. After much experimentation in San Francisco, and under the influence of daring composers like John Cage, Adams discovered his own sound, which is a blend of old and new.
(MUSIC IN BACKGROUND)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where did you come up with the concept for "Grand Pianola Music?"
JOHN ADAMS: I can't explain how each of my pieces comes to life. I mean, every piece has a different way of coming into the world, but in several of them a dream image will generate the piece. And one dream I had, I was driving up a highway in California. And I looked in the rear view mirror and saw what I thought was a huge black limousine coming at breakneck speed. And when it passed me, it wasn't a limousine, it was a 50-foot- long grand piano spewing forth arpeggios in e-flat major. So it was sort of a funny, goofy image. And that was the image that brought about "Grand Pianola Music," which is in part a kind of outrageous, goofy piece.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The climax of the piece in the fourth movement, the very, very strong piano moments, are you poking fun at Beethoven or somebody?
JOHN ADAMS: Well, yes. (Laughter)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thought so.
JOHN ADAMS: You know, it's very much in the American ethos to prick the balloons of great myths. And, of course, I love Beethoven probably more than any other composer, but I'm having fun with it in the same way that, you know, Whitman or Alan Ginsberg or William Burroughs would poke fun at some highly prized cultural icon. (Orchestra playing finale) (applause)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In San Francisco, "Grand Pianola Music,"
with its huge finale, was a hit.
JOHN ADAMS: I had these little trash noises here, but only a couple of them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Here he is rehearsing a pop piece from his 1995 musical, "I Looked at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky."
JOHN ADAMS: Really heavy distortion, just... (Makes distorted guitar sounds) (distorted guitar plays) great. That's great.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He is probably best known for" Nixon in China," which grafts his own sound onto the spectacle of grand opera with a result that is often deeply ironic. Here is James Maddalena as Richard Nixon upon his arrival in China, singing about news.
JAMES MADDALENA: (singing) News, news, news, news, news -- has a... has a...has a... has a kind of mystery has a...has a... has a kind of mystery. (ensemble singing)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The other Adams opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer," is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian commandos who threw a handicapped American Jew overboard to his death. Both works are sometimes called "CNN Operas."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why did you make two operas about large moments in the news?
JOHN ADAMS: If opera has any hope of surviving as an art form, and if it has any meaning to future generations, it will only be if it reflects what our lives are like right now.
JOHN ADAMS: These stories, such as the collision between capitalism and communism, which is what "Nixon in China" is about, or the religious strife between Israel and the Palestinians; these really do constitute the mythology of our time, in every way... in much the same way that Shakespeare took stories from English History, or Sophocles dealt with Greek mythology.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: "The Death of Klinghoffer" got some good notices, but some critics found it too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Others just found it boring.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: "Newsday," for example, a" Newsday" critic, Tim Page, described it as "pompous, turgid, derivative, and hopelessly confused."
JOHN ADAMS: (Laughs)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It was picketed here, even in San Francisco. Was that really painful for you?
JOHN ADAMS: Oh, of course it was painful. You know, I spent two years working on the opera, and I felt that the libretto by Alice Goodman, who is Jewish, was a deep and profoundly felt piece of work that gave respect, deep respect to Leon Klinghoffer, his family, to the Jewish cause and yearnings for a homeland, but also to the Palestinians and to their situation. But I've been very heartened. There are several productions already in the works in Europe, and maybe someday "Klinghoffer" will be given a second chance in the United States.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think the tide has turned somewhat, that even though some people, when they see a modern piece get up and leave, that more people know that now there may be something they like in it?
JOHN ADAMS: I think there's been a huge sea change in classical contemporary music. Younger composers than I are very involved in rock, and they've found ways to incorporate both the sound and the spirit of rock and other ethnic music into their work. And I really do think that that period, that unpleasant, difficult, theoretical, fussy period of difficult music will be seen as an epoch, an era, a kind of strange tributary to the mainstream that had a beginning, a flowering, and an end.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Adams composes at home in Berkeley on a computer, sketching in the notes in pencil and then trying them out on electronic instruments that sound remarkably like the real thing. He's writing a nativity oratorio now, which was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and the Chatelet Theater in Paris. The work is Adams' version, partly based on the Gnostic gospels, of the story of Jesus' birth, and will include text in Spanish by the 17th Century Mexican poet, Sor Juana de la Cruz, among others. The oratorio will premier in Paris just before Christmas this year.