Interview with John Adams, part 4 – Cynthia Closkey

Continuing with part four of my interview with John Adams, the PSO's Conductor of the Year. See also the first part, second part, and third 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 describes the feeling of releasing a book in the current market, how he came to write the book Hallelujah Junction, and why he wrote a book like this.

John Adams (continuing his answer from part three): But it's very hard to be a serious composer, as it is hard to be a serious novelist. There's so much noise out there. I walked into Barnes & Noble, the big one at Broadway and Sixty-fifth, a few days after my book came out. And, you know, every author wants to do this, to see his or her book in the bookstore.

And I eventually found it, but it's kind of daunting and a little depressing to just see how every rock singer has got a memoir out, and every former cabinet official has got a memoir out, and there are books on sex and cooking and politics and terrorism, and it's this absolute tsunami of material that you're trying to fight.

And as you mentioned, now that anybody can sit with a laptop, almost anyone is an author.

Q: This is National Novel Writing Month [November 2008]. I don't know if you know about this, but that's that many more novels being produced in the thirty days of November.

JA: Yeah. And I had to stop going to my optometrist, because every time I'd go to get an eye test, the guy would make me sit and listen to his compositions.

Q: Oh no!

JA: He'd learned how to operate the software, and he'd composed these pieces. And I'd have to sit there for a half hour after I'd had my eyes examined, listening to these dreadful pieces that he'd written with his computer. (laughs)

Q: How did you come to write your book?

JA: I had been introduced to Jonathan Galassi about eight or nine years ago by a mutual friend, and my friend knew that I could write. So we talked, and Jonathan was very interested in my writing a book. At that time, I think the assumption was that I'd write some kind of book about general American music or essays or something like that. And I just basically forgot about it.

And then sometime around 2003 or 2004 a professor in California, who had previously collaborated with the Grateful Dead to write several books, told me he wanted to write a biographical study. So I spent a lot of time doing research with him in interviews. And then it turned out he couldn't write the book. And by that point I had spent so much time thinking about my past, and also being very inspired by the Gabriel Garcia Marquez autobiography, which is such a beautiful and humble and funny and revealing book, I thought, well, I'll give it a crack myself.

So I sat down and wrote a couple of chapters, drafted them and sent them to Jonathan Galassi, and he said, "I like it. Go for it." And over the next year and a half I finished the book.

Q: I lived in Cambridge for college and then I lived in San Francisco, so reading your book, at least at far as I've read, has been a time trip for me. What was it like for you, thinking back to those times? Do you feel nostalgic? Are you glad to be through them?

JA: I don't know if other people who write their autobiographies have the same experience that I did. But I found that the farther back I went, the more I enjoyed writing it. And the closer I got to the present, the more I found myself writing about a person that I liked less and less. (laughs) Because it was that person that, you know, I hear in my inner ear all the time now.

I basically wrote this book for young musicians. I wrote it for a wider audience of course, and there are other reasons for writing a book. But the thing that I care most about, and the thing that gives me the greatest pleasure, is when somebody tells me, "My son or my daughter wants to be a composer, she's eighteen, and I bought this book for her." That really hits it for me, because I never could find a book like this when I was a kid.

I mean, the books that had the most influence on me were John Cage's books. But those books are sort of radical treatises and they weren't personal in the way that this is. What I wanted to do was to sort of describe the kind of twists and turns that a creative life takes, and how you go through terrible periods of blockage, how you really are affected by criticism. I mean, everybody wants to say, "Oh, I don't read the reviews. Criticism bounces off my back." But of course that's not true.

And the other thing of course is for my major works I wanted to have some kind of personal statement, so that when I'm no longer around, if somebody's staging Nixon in China or Doctor Atomic or The Death of Klinghoffer, they can at least read a little bit, thirty or forty pages of what the author said. And there are very few composers who've left that kind of record.

This interview continues tomorrow.

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Jan 13