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From the Archive: John Adams at 70

Nothing Concrete text
9 Sep 2020

In this episode we step back to 2016 when John Adams celebrated his 70th Birthday. We spoke to the composer and conductor about the music, sounds and even dreams that have defined his life.


You know the real revelation in my life about music is that it is above and beyond all else it’s about feeling it is about the composer or the performer sharing his or her feeling with another


Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I’m Ben Eshmade and on this edition of the series we step back to 2016 when John Adams celebrated his 70th Birthday. We spoke to the composer and conductor about the music, sounds and even dreams that have defined his life.

John Adams: I often don’t have any clear idea what I’m going to do when I sit down. I’m sort of more like a jazz musician. I go in my studio and just kinda riff. Those of us who wrote music that in one way or another was a little more accessible. We were severely castigated by our colleagues for being sell outs. You know the real revelation in my life about music is that it is above and beyond all else it’s about feeling it is about the composer or the performer sharing his or her feeling with another.

BE: And in the second part of the podcast we speak to violinist Leila Josefowicz, who back then performed Adams’s ambitious new work Scheherazade.2. This new composition asks the question, could you write or play a melody so powerful it can save your life?

Leila Josefowicz: Getting to the heart of humanity so much emotion is just erupting…the whole piece is about me being definitely being put to the test.

Ben Eshmade: To give some background, from December 2016 to April 2017 you could have heard composer John Adams’s work alongside that of Philip Glass and Steve Reich in the Sounds That Changed America season. Across the concerts Adams’s work was celebrated by re-visiting career highlights such as nativity oratorio El Niño and his explosive opera Doctor Atomic. You could also hear the much loved minimalist work Grand Pianola Music and then bringing us as mentioned right up to date with his work for violin and orchestra work Scheherazade.2. I sat down with Adams himself to capture where possible the journey of the last 70 years.

BE: Do you like looking backwards and forwards? Are you always in that sense of somewhere in the middle?

JA: Well I always stay in touch with almost all of my pieces. I have a couple of dogs that I don’t perform very often and they don’t get performed very often and probably a good reason. But most of my pieces either I conduct myself at one time or another or somebody else does. It’s like having a nice family where your kids come to visit frequently. You know what’s wonderful about what we do as composers is we write music that never stays in one fixed because every once in a while some genius performer like Leila Josefowicz comes along and reveals something in your piece that even the composer didn’t realise was there. I’ve had pieces that I’ve had doubts about or thought maybe were not my most successful pieces and then a conductor or a violinist or a singer arrives on the scene. I’ve been around long enough now, 35 or 40 years, I’ve seen several generations of people doing my music and revealing more and more things to me about it.

BE: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a composer to conduct his own work?

JA: I can’t think of any disadvantages. I think the advantages are, well first of all when you look at a score by Mahler for example, or by Boulez, people who are great conductors, you see how practical even the most difficult passage is. It demands a great deal from the performer but ultimately it’s doable because the composer has had hands-on experience. I’m not a huge reviser, I don’t rip my pieces apart. Being able to do the piece myself, not be sitting out in the hall while some other conductor does it, gives me really a hands-on experience of what’s working and what’s not working. In the case of Scheherazade.2, the big dramatic symphony violin concerto that I wrote for Leila Josefowicz, we worked hand in hand on the violin part over the course of the writing and then the next step along the line is taking it from one orchestra to another to another and seeing what works and seeing what needs to be fixed.

BE: Across this season, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, New York Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra are performing your work. How do you see those different ensembles? Is it very much about different character, different ways of approaching?

JA: You know, orchestras do have personalities. And I love working with the LSO, they’re incredibly quick learners and they have fantastic rhythmic intuition and they know my music, they’ve been playing it for so long. I’ve got a long history with the BBC [Symphony] Orchestra as well, we did a semi-staged Nixon in China three or four years ago at the Proms, and I’ve done that opera with so many organisations including the Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic and [Oper] Frankfurt and there was just something utterly magical about the way the BBC players played it. When the idea came along for my birthday season to do the complete Doctor Atomic and also record it while we’re doing, I just felt that the BBC Symphony – that was the band I wanted to work with.

BE: We’ve touched on collaborators. Obviously collaboration is something you’ve always had with your work, somebody else who’s very important to the operas being performed is Peter Sellars. That collaboration is maybe one of your longest running?

JA: Yes, Peter and I have been working together since I guess around 1985. And I think that’s kind of an astonishing achievement because most collaborations will have a blossoming and then something often goes wrong, either egos clash or the chemistry isn’t there. But there’s just something very, very special about Peter’s personality, his creativity, the generosity of his mode of working and his patience. Because you know I can get very difficult, he’s obviously like most theatre directors overworked, and often running from one city to another whereas as a composer I stay in one place often and work very sustained periods of time. There’s something about our personalities, both the contrasting aspects of them and the harmonious parts of them, that seem to work and I consider it the most important element in my creative life is my relationship with Peter.

BE: One of the last major works that was performed at the Barbican was The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which is Peter Sellars’s collaboration. The other side of that, or the original point of that was El Niño, which is going to be performed again. That obviously fell on the millennium, so it was an important work for you.

JA: El Niño obviously is about the birth of Jesus and all the magical, almost fairy-tale quality of the nativity. And also the violence and terror of it. When Herod hears about this birth that’s going to threaten his authority and the resonances of 20th-century massacres of students.

BE: You mentioned it before but Doctor Atomic. It seems more relevant now than it’s ever done. The subject matter of that opera when you turn on the news seems to be something that’s constantly, history’s repeating itself.

JA: Yeah and you know it’s funny, I was just thinking the other day that language changes but the reality stays the same. First it was the atomic bomb and when I was growing up we used the term atomic bomb and then it became nuclear warfare, and nowadays people talk about weapons of mass destruction. But it’s all really the same. Just a few days ago my wife and I went to a photographic exhibit at the Imperial War Museum here in London of Lee Miller, who was a great American photo journalist who photographed World War 2, and in the museum is a whole exhibit of atomic weapons. It was just horrifying to look at how clumsy and primitive the technology of these weapons were. To think back on my childhood in the ‘60s and realise how close the world came to an all-out nuclear war, when Kennedy and Khrushchev went head-to-head about nuclear weapons in Cuba. I remember being a kid in school and the teacher talking about the very, very real possibility of a nuclear war.

BE: Seems like a good point to maybe move to this. In the ‘60s and ‘70s there seemed to be a real age of emergence of contemporary composers like yourself, alongside people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Does it feel like your music has had the chance to develop and get more prominence in recent years?

JA: You know it’s so hard to make any kind of grand judgement. The arts, they morph, and people’s opinions and sophistications change over time, so I always have to be extremely humble about anything good that happens to me because I carry a mental picture of [Giacomo] Meyerbeer around with me because Meyerbeer, he was the biggest name in his time and now he’s just sort of a footnote. People who were extremely dear to me, writers like Emily Dickinson or [Herman] Melville or Walt Whitman were virtually unknown in their time and the most key figures in 19th-century American literature. So all I can say is that I’m very humbly aware and grateful that there is an audience. I do think that Philip and Steve are ten years older than I am, so in a way they’re really the real pioneers to break out of a period that I think was a really toxic environment, the sort of post-war European avantagarde. Not that there wasn’t really thrilling and wonderful music but I think that, I came of age in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, there was a terrible sense of distrust between audiences and composers.

And the composers actually, instead of just dealing with it, they sort of poked it and made it even worse. Those of us who wrote music that in one way or another was a little more accessible, we were severely castigated by our colleagues for being sell-outs or glad-handing or whatever. I think now young composers, people in their 30s and 40s, even in their 20s, they’ve seen us, they’ve seen that audiences actually do appreciate and feel they can access our music and they’ve grown up very much aware of pop music and indie rock stars and they wanna have an audience. They don’t want to be like classical misanthropic Adrian Leverkuhns of the ‘70s.

BE: I wanted to talk about one of the other works that is being performed, which is the Grand Pianola Music. I was quite interested to read that this is very much about a dream, the idea that dreams were inspiring this work.

JA: Well I had a couple of pieces that, when I was in my 30s I had some typical writer’s blocks and I also got very interested in the psychology of Carl Jung, I even a Jungian therapist for about a year and a half. Part of that experience was becoming very conscious of dreams and so I had some dreams that were amusing and frightening and horrifying, and then some that were almost like R. Crumb cartoons. Grand Pianola was in part suggested not by a dream, but by an image I had while I was on LSD. I was at the Marlboro Music Festival and I walked into a rehearsal of the Beethoven Choral Fantasy and Rudolf Serkin was playing a big shiny Steinway and as the Beethoven Choral Fantasy is sort of an LSD trip in itself, it’s so weird, and as he played the piano got longer and longer and longer until it turned into a big, black stretched limo so that became a crazy image.

BE: We’ve touched upon the operas and Sheherazade.2 and I was trying to think of something that joined all of these together and maybe that sense of story. There always needs be some kind of story behind the work that you compose.

JA: Yeah sometimes there are narratives. Sometimes the narratives are very elusive or very vague, for example Sheherazade.2 has images which just give enough of a clue to what my thinking of. Obviously with the operas there are more succinct narratives. Other times I’m just motivated by images or ideas from my life as an American, as somebody living in the early 21st century and instead of writing a piece called ‘Sonata for piano and violin’ I called it Road Movies, which was suggested by the image of taking a road trip in a car through a long, differing and varied landscape, or The Dharma at Big Sur, which doesn’t have a narrative but was inspired by the idea of the beat poets, particularly Jack Kerouac, coming to the west coast and standing on the edge of the continent and looking westward towards the Orient.

BE: One of the other themes which has become apparent some of the works that we’ve talked about is religion. It seems to be you’re not necessarily a big believer, again going back to the stories, that’s important for you.

JA: Well I realise several of my pieces, particularly my two oratorios, they’re a jumping off point from Biblical narratives. I’m not a practicing Christian, I wouldn’t even call myself a religious person, but for me the real revelation in my life about music is that it’s above and beyond all else, it’s about feeling. It’s about the composer or the performer sharing his or her feeling with another. Obviously music can be appreciated on many levels, intellectual, sensual, just the gorgeousness of a composer like Ravel for example, but I think ultimately it’s about feeling. I guess if you’re a religious person you’re motivated by kind feelings hopefully, I guess that’s what music is for me, it’s communicating feeling. Not always lovely feelings, sometimes pretty awful feelings, but that’s what we do.

BE: I don’t know if this has changed over time but looking at some of the more recent works you very much enjoy having an incredibly array of resources, a big, wide canvas to draw upon with orchestras and choruses and children’s choirs. Is that just something that’s come over time that you now enjoy having more resources than you would have had?

JA: You know, I can write for orchestra. I mean, it’s been my whole life. I started listening to orchestral music properly before I was weaned. My instrument was the clarinet and I started conducting when I was 12 or 13 and wrote my first orchestra piece when I was about that same age, so my whole life has been very much governed by my awareness and my love of orchestral writing. But with that said, I’m more and more interested in getting away from grand projects. It’s hard because now I have all these conductors and orchestras who want to commission a piece for so-and-so’s retiring and wants a piece to celebrate himself as conductors love to celebrate themselves. It’s hard to say no but I really am anxious to get away from it for a while and work on smaller formats. I really am impressed with the young composers in the US and seeing how they work four, five, seven or eight players and seeing how imaginative and thrilling their work can be on small format.

BE: I was interested to ask what influences you? What is influencing you right now? You’re obviously someone who’s always drawing from different sources, whether that be music, art, poetry.

JA: You know I think people imagine composers are far more organised than we really are. I often don’t have any clear idea what I’m going to do when I sit down. I’m sort of more like a jazz musician. I go in my studio and just kinda riff until I come on something that’s interesting. Sometimes I’ll have an image, a sound image of a rhythmic image but most often it’s not until I get alone and I’m around an instrument like a piano or these days I use an electronic keyboard and a computer like everybody else does.

BE: I believe you have a little cabin, a place where you compose music. Going back to the broader canvas, the broader ideas of your life, you’re obviously a very busy man. Where do you feel most relaxed, where are you most happy?

JA: Well I can only compose at home or in, I do have a little Mahler hut that I had built in a really remote part of the Northern California coast and I’m very happy there. I can’t be up there anywhere near as much as I’d like to be, but I’m not the sort of composer who can compose in a hotel room like Duke Ellington, who was always on tour and he’d just do two sets and everybody would go home and he’d just stay with a bottle of coke and a pack of cigarettes and he’d stay with his piano and work until four in the morning. I can’t do that, I’m definitely a 9-5 guy. I get up, take my dogs for a hike in the park and get some exercise, then I get to work around 9 and I work until 5 or 6 every day.

BE: Last question, you’ve been composing since the age of ten if my facts are correct. Did you ever forsee yourself where you are now, was there any doubt?

JA: I wanted to be a composer and I think that happened in 1956 when I was what, nine or eight years old and a teacher read us a child’s biography of Mozart and I was just riveted by the idea of a boy who could compose music. All during my heavy, sweaty, anxious adolescence I had these fantasies of being a composer. Also a composer and a conductor. It’s kind of alarming how much of the fantasy life I had as a teenager actually mimics what I’m doing now. I feel extremely fortunate that I’m able to do that, that I don’t have to have a day job to pay the rent. There are wonderful composers and there have been composers who have been horribly stressed by financial problems. I feel very spoiled that I’m able to have the life that I have.

BE: Moving from John Adams to Leila Josefowicz. On the 8th December 2016 the violinist performed Scheherazade.2 with the London Symphony Orchestra. With this work Leila is a storyteller inhabiting the characters with dazzling, acrobatic writing for the solo violin. In our next interview she guides us through the music written for her and her relationship with its composer. I started with where she encountered John Adams’s music for the first time.

LJ: Well I had been very aware of his music for a while. I was at school, The Curtis Institute. At that time the school was very conservative in what they considered to be ‘new music’. ‘New music’ was Bartók and Berg. So when I left school I sort of exploded and I was listening to so many living composers and a composer that I knew just naturally would suit me so well was John, for his love of rhythmic impulse and just the way he uses tonality and rhythm. That was sort of a natural decision for me. And I didn’t know him at that time, I just thought that I would have a really good time learning and playing his first Violin Concerto. And I did learn that, and in Seattle I gave my first performance of that piece, with Seattle Symphony and he came to that. It was just amazing to have him come and then it was like a fireworks. All of a sudden we had many, many performances lined up together, including one here. That was, gosh I was 22, so only a year ago [laughs]. So many years back now. Since then we’ve done so many performances together of the first Violin Concerto, The Dharma at Big Sur, I’ve done his Road Movies, violin and piano stuff, some of his string quartet stuff and then finally here comes the big S point 2 as I call it.

BE: You mentioned rhythm there but I’m interested to know, what else are the strengths of him as a string writer?

LJ: Well I think he depends on any player whether it’s voice, piano, string or winds, to understand his rhythmic language which usually has a kind of groove to it. It’s not a European style, more irregular, maybe not quite as in motion sort of groove rhythm, this is something that, from what I’ve experienced, it’s either sort of in your veins or it’s not in your veins. It’s very hard to learn something like this if you don’t feel it instinctually. Just like you would snap your fingers to the beat or bang a drum at the right moment, there’s certain things like that when you’re playing his music that are constantly being asked of you as a player. Also just that with my sound I’m constantly experimenting. Searching for different ways to have something ring, or having something float or having grit and playing around with different rhythmic impulses, so there’s a sense of improvisation that I think is really important that I’m always working on.

BE: Let’s move onto Sheherazade.2. Even the title itself is a very bold declaration, because it’s the idea of taking what is one of the most well-known pieces of classical music and create something new yet I believe referring back.

LJ: It’s not following in any way the same sort of storyline as the original Rimsky-Korsakov, but he had very strong images in his mind of women over many centuries and many eras from many different places in the world who have stood up for themselves, for their strength, for their rights, for their voice. Again, many different odds. The third movement, the title is called ‘Sheherazade and the Men with Beards’, she’s tried probably by a religious group of men, condemned to death, this is a very dramatic moment in a very obvious place in the piece, and then escapes the evil. But there’s not really a very specific story, more specific than this. Basically the wise young woman, wise beyond her years, is pursued by the men, by the True Believers. And they are not believers of her. They’re believers against her. So the piece sort of introduces her, wise, maybe slightly naïve in the beginning, young but beyond her years is put in danger by the surroundings, by the circumstances, by the True Believers. The second movement is a long-phrased, like a very big tone poem, love scene, where she searches for love, is fighting for love, is floating in the ecstasy of love. Third movement is her condemnation where she is trying to rise above this evil and occasionally snaps back and fights back until she has a cadenza with the cimbalom, at which point the True Believers, the Men with Beards, pondering and skulking, to give their final condemnation, which they do and it looks like her life will be over. The last movement is about the escape from this danger and sanctuary that she finds.

BE: Do you consider yourself a sort of actress in this work?

LJ: I definitely see myself in a role, much more so than any other piece of violin repertoire that I’ve played. And it won’t come off unless the player thinks herself, and hopefully men will play this piece too at some point, unless this person considers themselves in a role as this figure, ready to really feel this drama. If you don’t it’s sort of like being in a movie without acting in it. It’s essential, it’s the blood life of the piece. He was working on it very far in advance and he had always told me ‘If I’m going to write a violin concerto it’s got to be so different than the other stuff I’ve written’, and he certainly did that. I think that he was thinking a long time about what is this going to be about, and then finally when he was at the Museum of the Arab World in Paris, it clicked.

BE: After maybe that initial idea, while he’s composing, does he use you as any kind of sounding board?

LJ: Well most of it was once he had composed a great deal of it and he wanted to know what was going to work better, a or b. Sometimes I would say a or b, or sometimes I would say but if you really want this to happen in an extra kind of way then maybe we should try this. He’s fantastic, he’s so open to it and I also, because I knew his writing so well for so many years, it was like a collaboration we’ve had already, since I was in my early 20s. So we had a huge head start to how this piece was going to get created and developed.

BE: The piece has been debuted, it’s out there in the world.

LJ: Well the premiere is always like taking a skydive from a plane, because you never quite know. You think you know how it might go, but that’s part of the beauty of what I’ve chosen to do with this, that I don’t want to play conventional, predictable repertoire, I don’t want things to be hummed before I even get to that spot. I really want to give people a fresh experience with music so this is what I do, this is part of the joys and you get definite surges of adrenaline along the way with all of this stuff, but it’s been wonderful to live more with the piece, having played it in more performances. Of course, it can’t help but grow and develop, all those beautiful words, but live with the experiences the piece is giving me, which is a huge load of emotions and things to express, it’s a big, big piece. It’s a lot to feel, it’s exhausting at times but it’s rewarding.

BE: One thing we maybe didn’t mention too much is the modern resonances.

LJ: It’s definitely a very, still and I think will remain to be indefinitely, a controversial topic. Men and women, especially in certain areas of the world, still in areas of the world where you think it should be more improved than it is, it’s a universal issue. With John, this is not in any way a surprising thing for him to write about and I’ve had a fair bit in my life of rising up and for my own rights personally, that he knows about, so he knew I would get it.

BE: I haven’t touched upon what it’s like to work not only with a living composer but also someone who conducts and directs his own work. How is that experience?

LJ: It’s sort of an experience that can’t be replicated in any way. It’s so exciting to have the creator also be up there with me and also collaborating with me. When he’s asking for something you know it’s coming from the source, which is a beautiful thing to have the directness.

BE: Does he challenge you as well? Does he push you?

LJ: Well I mean the whole piece is about me being definitely put to the test. It’s been great having so many performances now just lining up. I’ve experienced, because this is such a large, huge, emotional scope and thing to do, it’s something that I experience emotionally every time, and it’s definitely not something that you can ever go easy on. This is getting to the heart of humanity and so much emotion is just erupting from this piece that it’s an experience for me every time, it’s a challenge for me every time. One of the last few times I played this I was like ‘wow, I’m feeling the new challenges of playing this piece’, because every time I step on stage to perform this piece it’s like a huge roar. So it’s definitely wonderful to do.

BE: My last question, and one it’s maybe easier to ask you than him himself, this is part of celebrations that mark his 70th birthday. I mean how do you see his legacy? You’ve lived and breathed his music, you must have some perspective on that.

LJ: I call him Johnny, I’m one of the few people that’s allowed to call him Johnny, but I see the guy as kind of 45. I’m just amazed at his endurance, his intelligence, his strength, physical strength too. I mean, running around the world, living in California, jumping on planes, going all over Europe, doing mega rehearsal schedules, interviews, teaching, masterclasses and performing. This is a schedule that would challenge anybody much younger and here he is jumping around just doing everything, and trying to write masterpieces at the same moment. So I just think he’s a remarkable guy.

BE: Two incredibly generous and exceptional artists, thanks to Leila and John for speaking to us and their generous insight into the flight of fantasy of their playing and music.

I’m Ben Eshmade. You’re listening to an archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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