Interview with John Adams, part 5 – Cynthia Closkey

The fifth part of my interview with John Adams, the PSO's Conductor of the Year. With these posts we're building up to two special concerts that he will be conducting with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on January 16 and 17.

In this segment, John talks about the creation and premiere of The Dharma at Big Sur, how he revises and improves certain works, and why not every piece is worth revising.

Q: I had seen a video on YouTube, a clip in which you talked about The Dharma at Big Sur first being rehearsed.

Q (continued): In the clip you said that until you explained to the orchestra what you were doing, it was just a series of notes and they couldn't figure it out. And I guess [your book] plays into that as well. I mean, even today you can't be everywhere.

JA: That's an interesting story. That premiere, which happened in 2003, was a very high profile premiere. It was the opening night of Disney Hall, which is a big Frank Gehry piece of architecture, and it was televised nationally. It's the sort of thing that anyone who aspires to be an important composer would have to deal with: a command performance, write a piece for this public event.

And instead of writing something safe that would not ruffle any feathers or cause any difficulties, I decided that if I was going to spend nine months writing a piece, I was going to write the piece I wanted to write. And at that time I was interested in two very tricky and dangerous things. One was alternate tuning, and the other was writing for this amplified, electric violin. And these are dangerous things to put into a setting of a classical concert.

And it was not a success, the premiere. There were many things that needed to be worked out. And I wanted to tell that story, to inspire younger composers, to say, "Don't ever let down your highest principles, even if you have to risk a disastrous performance." I didn't feel great the morning after that, but I went back and I fixed it, and the orchestra brought the piece back a year later, and we got it right.

Q: It seems that that is a recurring thing. In your book you describe a piece you worked on for Kronos Quartet —

JA: Yes. (laughs)

Q: — and you didn't get to hear it in rehearsal.

JA: But that was a bad piece.

Q: But then you fixed it later.

JA: I totally changed it. I realized what was wrong with the piece, I threw away what was really bad, and I kept what was good. I realized that the piece needed more strings, and I turned it into a string septet, and it became one of my most successful pieces, Shaker Loops.

Q: There must be a temptation to go back and change things later. This is a question that I'm sure everybody faces. At what point is it done?

JA: That's a really good question. I have some pieces that I think are dogs — no offense to dogs. But I have a few pieces that I never conduct myself, for example. And I look at them, and I see that there're some really good moments in them, but the thought of going back and just ripping a piece apart and trying to put it all back together….

I feel that it takes so long to write a piece now — six months if it's a chamber piece, a year if it's a big orchestra piece, two years if it's an opera — it's better to just soldier on and learn from your mistakes. This is what Shostakovich felt. Shostakovich never revised his earlier pieces. I mean, he figured, "Maybe they're not perfect, but I am who I am now, not the man I was when I was thirty."

Now, some composers, like Pierre Boulez for example, he views his compositions as like these living organisms that will evolve and change all during the course of his lifetime. It must be a nightmare for his publisher. But he's just constantly changing pieces after each performance. And I'm tremendously impressed by that, but it's just not something that interests me.

This interview continues tomorrow.

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Jan 14