Interview with John Adams, part 3 – Cynthia Closkey

This is the third part of my interview with John Adams, the PSO's Conductor of the Year. See also the first part and the second part. I'm 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 how technological tools have changed composing and how the Web has affected the business of making music.

Q: When you were first making music, there was no computer-aided composition or anything along those lines. In writing, from when we wrote with typewriters to when we started writing with computers, the way that people wrote changed. The books themselves changed because the tools changed.

JA: How about the change from when they were writing with a pen to writing to a typewriter? Imagine what that was.

Q: Exactly. What about music? Do you think that changes in tools changed the music?

JA: Yeah. I don't know if the average reader of your blog is aware of the kinds of software that are available now, and that most young composers use. But they're basically called sequencers, and you have a bank of samples. You have a B flat played by a trumpet, and a C played by a trumpet, and a B flat played by an oboe and a C played by an oboe, and you can literally create an artificial orchestra. It's labor intensive.

I would say 95 percent of the music you hear now on commercial television, and much of what you hear on the radio, is created this way. Maybe not bands, but music behind commercials or films.

And so a lot of serious composers are using these computer programs, and they compose from the start on them. And I use them too. But I always use these technological software aids with enormous suspicion, because they can do certain things very well. They can allow you to hear your piece in a mock-up. But they're also very limited. They're very stiff, they don't have flexibility — creating a ritard, slowing down, speeding up, doing all the kind of things that make Mahler or Debussy or Mozart so intensely human. They're not impossible to achieve, but they're fantastically complicated.

And so what I'm seeing, when young composers bring me scores now, I'm seeing this really disturbing new trend towards a very motorized, mechanical kind of composing, because I know what they're doing. They're writing to the dictates of the software rather than vice versa.  And so, you know, I see a lot of pieces that are in 4/4 time, and they've now gone back to very tonal writing.

I had a young girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, in Berkeley where I live, ask if she could come by and show me her music, her pieces. I would say she's moderately talented. She's very ambitious, very sweet, and really I'm very impressed with the fact that she wants to be a composer. And she arrived with an enormous stack of scores, all printed out perfectly as if they'd been engraved. And I could see that she was smart enough to learn how to do all this on her laptop. And she was writing an orchestra piece in a week. But the pieces all were superficial, and they were too much a product of the technology.

Q: I wonder whether … again drawing a parallel to writing, in writing you have to write something like fifty or a hundred pieces or stories before you write one good one. You have to work through a lot of crap. Maybe this will help them work through their crap faster?

JA: No, I actually don't think so. First of all, we have to admit that it's always been the case that there've only been a handful of really great composers alive at one time. It's probably the same for literature as well. So I think the natural winnowing process is always going to be there.

But I do think … you know, my son is a composer, and he has been astonishingly aware of the dangers of this kind of technology. He went to Stanford, and he can do all these complicated … he can write program code and things that I can't begin to do. But when he composes he uses a pencil and manuscript paper. He has total control over what he wants to do. He doesn't have to worry about ''oh god, the machine doesn't do that, how do I make it work?"

Q: In addition to technology changing the way you write, it's also definitely changing the business and the economics of the music world. I'm thinking of small record stores. You're very lucky in Berkeley and San Francisco to have Amoeba Records and —

JA: And that's it. My record sales have plummeted, along with almost everyone else I know. It used to be, twenty years ago, even fifteen years ago, when I released a new album it was a big event. In a sense it was the big event of the year for me. And now, my company still is one of the very few companies that takes care and produces these beautiful objects of desire. The Nonesuch CDs, they have beautiful packaging and essays on the music, and pictures. But the major outlets where people could buy these are gone. Tower Records for example.

And so, it's very hard to know when I have a new album out. It's almost impossible to get the word out. So even some of my best friends will be shocked to know that such-and-such a piece of mine has been recorded. Because they just didn't know about it.

Q: That's terrible. So, have you thought about what you could do about that?

JA: Well, I have a homepage. But that's … at best over a year, a few thousand people might pass by there and notice that my recordings are out. I don't know. I think if I were a younger person and more committed to promoting myself, I'd probably find more inventive ways of getting the word out. Now, at my age, I'm just concerned with writing the next piece. I know over time that people will discover these pieces. 

This interview continues tomorrow.
Go back to part 2 of the interview.

2 Responses to “Interview with John Adams, part 3 – Cynthia Closkey”

  1. Doug Bauman says:

    Wow, I find this part 3 of the interview to be the most fascinating. Lots of information here that I’ve always wondered about. Thanks for that!

  2. Doug, I was particularly interested in this section too. I confess I didn’t know anything about the software composers use — it makes total sense to me that such a tool could be both a blessing and a curse.

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Jan 12