Interview with John Adams, part 1 – Cynthia Closkey

In November, I had the chance to interview John Adams, the PSO's Conductor of the Year. John shared his thoughts on contemporary and classical music, audiences, writing his autobiography, Pittsburgh, the PSO and Heinz Hall, and more.

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

Cynthia Closkey and John Adams

Q: I'm a writer, rather than a musical person, and it seems like you're a musical person who also happens to like literature and writing.

JA: I do, yeah.

Q: In the world of writing, we sometimes talk about having an ideal reader, the person that you're kind of writing for. Maybe not a real person, although sometimes it is a real person. Do you find, for different pieces that you're writing, that you have an ideal listener?

JA: Do you mean different listeners for different pieces?

Q: Or maybe just in general.

JA: I don't think about it too much. But if somebody asked me, "For whom are you writing?" I'd say my friends. And that doesn't mean other musicians necessarily, but the kind of people I would want to go have dinner with, or share a book with or go see a movie with. Probably people who share my political outlook and have similar cultural concerns.

But I've written Hallelujah Junction, and not all my pieces but some of my pieces, for that kind of educated but not necessarily musically specialized people. And I think if you are going to have an impact on culture at large, you need to have somehow that ability to appeal to an audience beyond your specialty. That's why writers like Dickens and Tolstoy, or a filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman are so immensely important — because, while they had a great, great artistic vision, that vision could be appreciated by a large segment of the community.

I mean, obviously I'm not composing for the proverbial man on the street or the truck driver. I'm assuming that you know Stravinsky and Sibelius and Mahler and Bartok when you hear my music.

Q: You use lots of different kinds of music in your music. And sometimes classical music comes back into popular music, but it doesn't seem as often. So here's what I'm trying to say: Other than "A Fifth of Beethoven," the disco hit from the seventies, or "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," which takes a theme from a symphony, popular music doesn't seem to pull back from classical music.

JA: "Pull back" meaning…?

Q: Borrow back from.

JA: Oh, I see.

Q: Whereas if you think back to Carl Stalling doing Bugs Bunny cartoons, he really was pulling from and making references to…

JA: But you don't hear that any more.

Q: I don't. Do you have thoughts on that?

JA: You know, it would be just pure speculation. One thing is that the really powerful and commanding, original popular music now comes from what we would call minorities, and people who are almost defiantly identified with their culture, whether it's hip hop music or Latino music or rap music. And for a lot of these cultural groups, whether they're urban blacks in America, or immigrant populations, Hispanics, or whatever, they're music is a very, very emphatic expression of their cultural identity. And so, first of all, quite possibly they're absolutely unfamiliar with classical music. And secondly, even if they were, they probably would not want to corrupt their style or their utterance with references.

And you know, I find … I know that Frank Zappa is kind of a cultural god but when I hear little wink-wink references in Zappa's music to Stravinsky or … well, mostly it's Stravinsky that he likes to quote, sort of to show off how clever he is, I find it kind of silly.

But I would say, having said that, that I can hear influences for example of both Steve Reich and Philip Glass in some contemporary pop music, and that shows a certain sophistication.

Q: What are you listening to now?

JA: You know, I'm often asked that question — "what's on my iPod?" And, you know, when I'm deep into a piece, I usually don't … I'm not an active listener to other music, because when I'm lucky enough to be home working, I spend six to eight hours a day working on my piece. So I tend not to be listening to music at night. I'll read or watch a movie or something.

And then I do a fair amount of conducting, so I'm often learning a new piece. In the past year, I learned by heart the Beethoven Seventh, and the Sibelius Seventh, Strauss Don Juan, Debussy, Stravinsky…. Right now I'm learning for performances next year in London, works by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky…. So that absorbs… I wish I could give you a more hip answer.

Q: Do you miss it?

JA: Listening to pop music? No, not at all. Occasionally I'll ask my son what he's listening to, although he doesn't listen to much of it anymore either. But occasionally he'll send me some really interesting music. It seems that if you're a musically sophisticated person, you're drawn probably more to the more esoteric indie rock groups that are not famous. He recommended a group called The Books, which I've never heard of. I don't know if you've heard of them. I think they're an English group; they might be American. They're very creative.

But I also really do feel that popular music is absolutely tied to generational consciousness. I mean, it's a way that a generation identifies itself. So it's kind of appropriate in a way that people who are in their twenties identified each other through their popular music, and it's not surprising that somebody my age, 61, would not be tuned into that.

Continue to Part 2 of the Interview.

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