Why John Adams is America's most popular living composer

by Elizabeth Kerr / 10 August, 2017
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US composer John Adams. Photo/Vern Evans

American composer John Adams draws on US history, but don’t expect a Trump opera to go with his Nixon one.

John Adams, Pulitzer Prize winner and arguably America’s most popular living composer, turned 70 this year, an anniversary marked worldwide by performances of his music.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra will perform his exuberant fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine, the third of three Adams works programmed this season.

Named after a wild 1am drive in his brother-in-law’s old Ferrari – “not very wise, we had both had way too many beers” – the 30-year-old Short Ride is still one of his most crowd-pleasing. “It started,” he says, “with the idea of a wood block, like a rhythmic juggernaut, a gauntlet that the rest of the orchestra has to run through. It’s not easy – even I, having conducted it many times, get a little butterfly in my stomach when it starts.”

Adams says with a laugh that as a composer, he had no choice but to embrace his American identity – his namesake was the famous patriot and second US President. “The only other name more American than mine is probably George Washington.”

He grew up in a small New England town, his father a clarinettist and his mother a jazz singer. Adams played clarinet in marching bands with his father, who taught him the instrument. From an early age, it was clear he was prodigiously talented, and by his early teens, he knew he would be a composer.

In his colourful memoir, Hallelujah Junction, Adams confesses that he was 30 before he found his voice as a composer. By then, he’d migrated to California’s heady experimental scene. A decade younger than minimalists Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, he describes their approach as a major breakthrough in contemporary classical music at a time when audiences were turning their backs on avant-garde composers.

Yet Adams wasn’t really one of them. “Minimalism was like Cubism in painting, a revolutionary moment,” he says, “but ultimately very limited as a pure language. There were many things that I was grateful for, but it had to move on and be absorbed into a larger musical palette.”

Clues to his approach can be found in his major symphonic work, Naive and Sentimental Music, which was performed with verve by the NZSO in May. The name refers to concepts explored by the 18th-century poet Friedrich Schiller.

“I think,” says Adams, “my musical personality is driven by an eternal conflict between, on the one hand, the intellectual, logical and historically minded and, on the other, the spontaneous, almost unconscious, activity.”

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 Nixon in China. Photo/Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Adams is now busy with his new opera, Girls of the Golden West, created with a long-time colleague, director Peter Sellars, which will open in San Francisco in November.

When Sellars was asked by La Scala in Milan to direct Puccini’s California gold-rush-inspired La Fanciulla del West, he found it had little regard for history.

He and Adams decided to create an opera about the era and fashioned a libretto out of archival material.

“A lot of our lyrics come from gold-rush songs – and letters, journals and newspaper clippings,” says Adams. “And a true story from a little gold-rush town in the mountains, near where I’ve had a cabin for 30 years, about a young Mexican woman lynched by a mob of white miners.”

And his musical approach? “Using these gold-rush texts, a large part of the opera sounds more like songs than serious contemporary opera. It goes in and out of song mode and back into opera mode. I could compare it to Nixon in China. I’ve never been a very purist composer, never beholden to a stylistic straitjacket, and if you’re going to be a good opera composer, you need to be able to move through a huge bandwidth of expressive tools.”

Nixon in China, created with Sellars in 1987, is Adams’ most famous opera. Others include The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic.

This month, the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra will play a piece drawn from Nixon. The Chairman Dances is a microcosm of Adams’ composing practice – a scene described over a propulsive minimalist texture overlaid with an eclectic collection of other styles.

“It’s rather tongue-in-cheek,” Adams says. “Madame Mao interrupts the ceremonial state dinner for President Nixon by taking off her Mao suit and revealing herself in a cheongsam as the sexy movie actress she was in the 1920s.” Mao steps down from his portrait on the wall to dance a slinky foxtrot with his bride.

Nixon in China deals with American politics, but Adams declares he has no interest in composing a work about President Donald Trump. “The political situation in this country is profoundly disturbing, but I don’t think artists or works of art are going to change that. Change is going to come through economic and social eruption. I think art has another function – it has to do with speaking to our deepest selves.”

NZSO and Edo de Waart, Wellington, August 12, and Auckland, August 19; Dunedin Symphony Orchestra International Series 2, Dunedin, August 12.

This article was first published in the August 5, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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