Interview with John Adams, part 2 – Cynthia Closkey

This is the second part of my interview with John Adams, the PSO's Conductor of the Year. The first part is here. I'll be posting this interview over several days, in anticipation of two special concerts that he will be conducting with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on January 16 and 17.

In this segment, John talks about blogging and history, not being recognized, and what it's like to sit in the audience when his works are performed. 

Q: In your book [Hallalujah Junction: Composing an American Life], you used a phrase from a book that you had read, "the lexicon of musical invective"?

JA:  (laughs) That's right.

Q: In the blog world, I worry a lot about that — the personal attack when you would rather have some greater discussion.

JA: No editorial wisdom exerted. It's a unique thing. But if you read the history of this country, in the 19th century for example, what was said in pamphlets — in addition to newspapers but there was this whole tradition of pamphleteering, both in England and here — just vicious, vicious things were said.

I was just reading about the elections in the Abolitionist period. This morning there was a review in the New York Times about a new biography of Andrew Jackson, and they make Sarah Palin and "palling around with terrorists" sound pretty … almost friendly. So, you know, the blogosphere has its ancestors in a tradition of unbridled American expression.

Q: But despite the larger context of it, personally … like you said [in your book] you have a rule against looking at blogs about —

JA: I have a rule, which I frequently break, much to my chagrin. Yeah, I mean, one can just simply elect not to pay any attention.

And I have to say, I was curious to know with Doctor Atomic, because it played in a very large hall — the Metropolitan Opera — and there were nine performances, three thousand seat hall, so that's a lot of people. And I was curious to know what other people, besides my friends or besides the New York Times or the Washington Post, thought of the opera. And … you know, you get all kinds of responses. Some people are clearly not very educated musically and they're just speaking from the gut — which is interesting to me.

Of course then, just having to sit in the audience while your music is being performed can be a really challenging experience, if you get seated next to somebody who doesn't know who you are and they're not having a good time. And that frequently happens to me.

Q: I would think that, over time, that would happen less for you.

JA: (laughs)

Q: I mean, not that people will like it more or less, because people are always feeling what they're feeling, but certainly you're recognizable, aren't you?

JA: Well, you know, yes and no. People who are following the world of contemporary music would know who I am and recognize my face, but there are people who go to the Metropolitan Opera who may not be even musically literate at all. They might be in town for an anniversary or something and they bought tickets to the Met, and they don't even know what they're going to see.

I had a couple, a middle-aged couple sitting in front of me Thursday night — the ninth and final performance of Doctor Atomic. And it was a fabulous performance. Everybody was just really on. And this couple so clearly were not having a good time. The man was sort of looking around and scratching his head and coughing, and his wife kept whispering to him. I was just hoping that they wouldn't come back after intermission. And they didn't.

(laughs)

I remember for the world premiere of On the Transmigration of Souls I had to sit at a mixing board with my engineer Mark Grey, who will be here for my January concert. We had the mixing board actually out in the middle of the audience — they'd taken five or six seats and designated them for the mixing board. And my engineer Mark looks like a rock and roll engineer. He's got hair down to his behind. And of course there's this big … looks like the cockpit of a 747 with lights and wires and everything.

So I'm sitting next to this woman who comes down and sits in what's obviously her subscription seat, and she was just so put off. And here I am, trying to concentrate on the world premiere of my piece, which is a very, you know, moving and complicated piece for me. And this woman that's been sitting next to me all the thirty minutes of the piece just glaring at me and the sound man.

Q: Like why couldn't you have fixed this before.

JA: Yeah, I mean, she didn't know who I was. And she probably didn't realize what this was for, but it was clearly a major imposition on her evening.

Q: You were destroying her cultural evening. Although, in a rock show, that [the mixing board] is kind of part of the expectation.

JA: Of course. But some of these people in their 60s or 70s are coming to the New York Philharmonic or the Met to get away from that kind of music. And of course I do use technology. I use very subtle sounds around them, and a little bit of amplification for all my operas, and that's very controversial. Some purists get up in arms over it.

SEE ALSO: "A listener's thoughts on John Adams' 'On the Transmigration of Souls'" by Matt Campbell at the PSO Blogs Inside Perspective.

Continue to Part 3 of the Interview.
Go Back to Part 1 of the Interview.

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Jan 10