A Conversation with John Adams

By · Title Photo Vern Evans · Date 06/30/2016

This Tuesday, I spoke with John Adams by phone from his studio, in Northern California. He will be the Artist in Residence at the Berlin Philharmonic next season, and I thought I’d give him some unsolicited advice about techno music here. Does he listen to it? “Sometimes.”

Berlin also has a reputation as a paradise for political dissidents, particularly hackers. Adams and the filmmaker and activist Laura Poitras, who lived here until recently, were both on U.S. Department of Homeland Security watch lists at different times. Adams downplayed this episode, however, saying that “several senators were on it too. It was a strange and inexplicable thing. Some writers made a big deal of it.”

“I’m sometimes asked if I’m a political composer,” he continued. “It’s the wrong question. The word politics comes from the Greek politikos, which simply means ‘people.’ Atomic bombs, terrorism—these are events that are present in the psyche of every individual. [The operas] are a modern way of exploring the mythology of our time.”

Looking at the pieces planned for the Berlin Philharmonic residency, it’s as if there was a conscious emphasis on mythology in Adams’s work. His “Harmonielehre,” for example, reflects ironically on the monolithic status afforded to twelve-tone music following World War II. In his view, this myth persists: composers working in a “high-European modernist” style, such as Georg Friedrich Haas and Helmut Lachenmann, are afforded continued prestige, though they are “quantitatively, not qualitatively” different from total serialist composers such as Pierre Boulez.

A miniature of Mary Magdalene (1450) · Image NYPL
A miniature of Mary Magdalene (1450) · Image NYPL

His Cantata “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” (2013) combines texts from Biblical sources with modern writings by authors such as Dorothy Day and Primo Levi. “Scheherazade No. 2” for violin and orchestra honors the archetypal storyteller, reflecting at the same time on the modern women “routinely attacked and even executed by religious fanatics in any number of countries.” In one early English-language translation of the 1,001 Nights, Scheherazade’s plight is reiterated in a flat, repetitive style, a kind of early literary minimalism meant to capture the exotic, mythic nature of the stories. But Adams’s composition is virtuosic and discursive. He once referred to the “chaste purity” of early musical minimalism; perhaps reflecting a feminist bent, he avoids evoking this in his composition.

John Adams, “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” Act I, Scene 2, “En un día de amor yo bajé hasta la tierra”; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Gustavo Dudamel (Conductor)

His new opera, “The Girls of the Golden West,” which is scheduled for premiere at the San Francisco Opera in the fall of 2017, will tell the story of the California Gold Rush. As he immersed himself in books on the topic, like he’s done for each of his operas, a familiarly relevant topic reared its head: racial tension. In a 1924 history, the author and journalist Henry K. Norton wrote of the “evil” of small-stakes gambling among Chinese laborers in California during the Gold Rush; he added that American laborers hypocritically partook of the same vice in more extreme measures. A New York Public Library photography collection with images from the era is titled, simply, The Lure of the Frontier, a Story of Race Conflict. Adams told me, “It’s ironic and perfect that I would be writing this opera, with Trump, Brexit, and what seems like a Renaissance of racism that’s going on.” The world sometimes feels like a too-fast machine, disintegrating as it hurtles through space.

Considering Adams’s idea of operas that touch on universal, historical mythologies, however, I had to wonder: hasn’t the nature of discourse changed so much that, immediately following a given event, thousands of competing mythologies form, to the point that art about them loses its universal nature? Follow a political happening on social media, and you begin to get the sense that opinions form like crystals: hardening quickly and pushing up against each other, they end up in inflexible, strange shapes. Once formed, the aggregates, like online social groups, are self-contained.

Léon Bakst, Odalisque in “Schéhérazade” (1910–1916) · Image NYPL
Léon Bakst, Odalisque in “Schéhérazade” (1910–1916) · Image NYPL

Looking through The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer, you’ll notice a nearly 50-page section devoted to the controversy surrounding his 1991 opera “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The arguments played out in acts: there is the premiere; the controversy surrounding a Boston Symphony Orchestra cancellation of choruses from the work in November 2001; a series of protests of the Met’s 2014 staging. Until recently, the tenor of the conversation was vigorous and even harsh, but professional: as Alex Ross has written, the opera “inspired a meaty debate in critical and scholarly circles.”

Yet with the 2014 production, a changed media landscape made itself felt. A YouTube video, in the style of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, is titled “The Death of Klinghoffer – An Inappropriate ‘Opera.’ ” It claims the libretto “spews anti-Israel propaganda” and “[puts] Jews in a bad light throughout in general,” over dramatic music, a screenshot of Ross’s 2014 article (which actually argues in favor of the work), and a photo from the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. In comparison, the section from the book looks almost quaint. As does the idea of an artwork inspiring informed, public debate about the characters that people it, rather than its overarching politics, in 2016.

I asked Adams if he would ever considered writing another work that engages with public tragedy, such as the recent shooting in Orlando. “I’m not the kind of composer who would scan [the newspaper] for public events to write a piece on,” he said. It’s an admirable response. In my Facebook feed, composers shared their own work in the context of that recent horror, which felt, despite the medium, almost like a physical violation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMO-nWkJWo0

Adams, “On the Transmigration of Souls”; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Robert Spano (Conductor)

Perhaps the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 was one of the last of these events that affected large swathes of humanity in similar ways. (This is not only a positive thing—in a 2004 interview with Daniel Colvard, Adams speaks of the “disgusting,” numbing, saturating media coverage of the aftermath.) His chorus and orchestra work “On the Transmigration of Souls” attempts to act as an almost physical space, evocative of the “many, many souls” he perceived while visiting the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It reflects, quite literally, on passing away: the one event every individual will have to think about.

Adams told me that he is sometimes bothered by the lack of importance classical music, as a genre, has in the wider world. “Is what we’re doing even socially relevant? YouTube engineers, software engineers [who live nearby] don’t listen to my music,” he said.

Prospectors on the Summit of the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush · Photo NYPL
Prospectors on the Summit of the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush · Photo NYPL

But just because a music is marginalized, doesn’t mean it is without importance. A characteristic of Adams’s recent works, including the ones that will be played in Berlin next season, is that they approach relevant topics through metaphor and analogy, implication and comparison, through literature but also through musical abstraction. You can’t make a YouTube smear video about an opera set in the more distant past, without studying the opera (or the past) in the first place. You might, despite yourself, come to appreciate their nuances. No matter the number of people engaging with this art, it’s good to know that someone’s doing it at all.

Adams said that his son Samuel, who is also a composer, is “a more active listener than I am. I’m not as curious, not seeking things out as much. He has a wider frame of reference.” It’s understandable that Adams is focusing on his own work, though. Sometimes art needs a kind of healthy aesthetic narcissism. The ability to find temporary distance from the present may be one of the most important tools any artist has.

“I’m 70, and I feel like my music is old-fashioned compared to [that of] young people,” he said. At the beginning of our conversation, we were having trouble hearing each other, due to spotty cellphone service. He made it clear that he would soon have to get back to work. ¶