Dreams of John Adams

Saturn rockets, Wagner in the Sierras, 9/11 voices -- the renowned composer discusses the visions and emotions behind his acclaimed and controversial music.

By Kevin Berger
Published October 29, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

In his just released autobiography, "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life," John Adams, 61, tells a great story about what inspired him to write "Harmonielehre," his bold and blissful work, and one of the few pieces by a living composer that metropolitan orchestras regularly offer on their nightly menu of the "Jupiter Symphony" and "The Rite of Spring." In 1985, Adams was frozen in a creative block, trying to carve out a new emotional language for his music.

"At what seemed like the absolute nadir," he writes, "I'd had a vivid dream in which I was crossing the San Francisco Bay Bridge. In that dream I looked up to see a huge oil tanker sitting in the water. As I watched, it slowly rose up like a Saturn rocket and blasted out of the bay and into the sky. I could see the rust-colored metal oxide of its hull as it took off. Shortly after, possibly the next day, I sat down in my studio to find, almost as if there were waiting for me, the powerful pounding E-minor chords that launch the piece."

What's great is not just that his signature piece was inspired by a dream but the kind of cartoon power of the vision and Adams' gleeful description of it. It's hard to imagine Mahler or Sibelius, the Fin de siècle heavies to whom Adams is sometimes compared, writing about themselves in the spry tones of "Hallelujah Junction." It's refreshing and in fact rare for a major composer to write his own story, and do so without blaring the French horns of his ego on every page.

Throughout his book, Adams offers fascinating insights into his acclaimed orchestral works and controversial operas, including "Nixon in China," "The Death of Klinghoffer" and "Doctor Atomic," recently revived in an electric production at the Metropolitan Opera. Not all critics are ready to mention Adams in the same sentence as his famous 19th century progenitors. But after reading "Hallelujah Junction," and learning how he consistently challenged himself to go deeper into and wider into music, and himself, it's easy to see how Adams has earned his spot on the A-List of living composers.

On a recent cool morning in New York, before he had to oversee a dress rehearsal of "Doctor Atomic," Adams talked enthusiastically about his artistic and personal influences. In conversation he can be professorial one moment and emotionally generous the next. We spoke in a pristine hotel near the Lincoln Center.

You have a remarkable body of music. And volumes have been written about you. What inspired you to write "Hallelujah Junction"?

I love to write. I've always written prose about my own music or other music -- program notes, essays, articles. When I began work on "Hallelujah Junction," I had been reading in Spanish the wonderful memoirs of Gabriel García Márquez. What I loved about the book "Living to Tell the Tale" was his amazing humility. It's the story of growing up as a small boy in a remote rural community in the mountains of Colombia, with all the strange characters that surround him. It's like "100 Years of Solitude" without people floating on carpet. It's just as remarkable and colorful. Over the course of the memoir, you begin to see this young man's draw to his literary models: Hemingway and Faulkner, Cervantes and Proust. You go deep into the growth and development of a creator. I felt, well, I have an interesting childhood. Also, a professor had been working on a biographical study of me, and I'd done a lot of interviews with him. I felt like I'd been on Freud's couch. But he had trouble writing and it was clear the book wasn't going to happen, so I said, well, I'll give it a try.

How does writing prose compare to writing music?

It's so much easier than writing music, although in some ways it's similar. I'll write a paragraph and read it over and actually listen to it. I found that my way of working with words was not dissimilar from my way of hearing my music. I work to give it symmetry and balance and meaning and have it come to a climax. One writer who had a big effect on me was Gibbon. Nobody ever reads Gibbon. They just think of him as this pedantic, pompous 18th century writer who wrote some dusty volume about Rome. But Gibbon is very funny. He could use the English language with a wonderfully wry sense. And very often his sentences are like listening to a Mozart phrase.

You write about living alone for years in a two-room beach house in San Francisco by the ocean. How did that period shape you?

If you're going to be a serious composer, you have to know solitude. It's harder and harder to obtain that now. We have invasion by electronic means, whether it's the Internet or e-mail or cellphones. That period, which stretched from 1975 to about 1980, when I lived in a very isolated spot in San Francisco, in the fog, next to Golden Gate Park, a block away from the beach, was critical for me because that's when I found my voice.

What pieces represent finding your voice?

I think of two pieces that I wrote at the cottage as my Opus 1 and 2. "Phrygian Gates," which is a long, sometimes dreamy, sometimes very aerobic work for piano, indicates my realization of the importance of minimalism, and "Shaker Loops" -- although the first embodiment of "Shaker Loops" as a string quartet crashed and burned. I didn't understand what I was doing. So I took it back and rewrote it, added a few more instruments, and it's a piece that very much expresses who I am. It's very energetic, it's much more varied formally than the standard minimalist piece, and there are slow passages and violent climaxes and moments of ecstatic fast running. It set the tone for a lot of my future pieces.

Perhaps your most significant breakthrough came while driving one evening in 1976 in the Sierras and listening to Wagner. Can you take us back to that time?

I had a funky convertible Karmann Ghia and a very small dog that was half whippet and half chihuahua, who'd sit on my lap. I kept a cassette deck with a little speaker on it on the other passenger seat. I was driving through the Sierras and I was listening to a cassette of "Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from "Gotterdammerung." This is sort of surprising because at that time I was deep into John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen and doing a lot of electronic music.

I'd always been interested in orchestra music, having grown up with it, and I was suddenly just seized by the emotional tone of the music, the emotional sincerity of the music. It suddenly illuminated me and made me realize how much of the avant-garde that I'd been involved in had become dead as far as feeling was concerned. The one thing Cage really forbade was expression of feelings. He was the world's most lovely, gentle person in his human interactions. But when it came to art, things were absolutely cold. And so much of avant-garde music was.

Here we have this great tradition of jazz and pop music in America, where feeling is everything. If you think of late Coltrane, like "A Love Supreme," it's just this 40-minute exhalation of raw feeling. I thought to myself, "Why is it that contemporary classical music has to be devoid of feeling?" By hearing Wagner and realizing what had been lost, I think I suddenly very vaguely saw my future.

Were you also making a break from the minimalists?

Minimalism was the most important stylistic breakthrough in the latter 20th century. Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. I don't count anyone else. People try to cite Morton Feldman or La Monte Young. But for me minimalism has to have that pulse, it has to have that body feel of pulsation and movement. It's a very American thing. You hear it in our jazz and pop music and our black music. It's got that pulse. It's what differentiates us from European music, particularly European art music.

Glass and Reich were modernists in their formal rigor but they made you feel. People were excited, and suddenly instead of concerts with 20 people in the audience, you couldn't get a ticket to see "Einstein on the Beach" or "Drumming." A lot of older contemporary composers just rolled their eyeballs and held their nose and said this is all commercial trash. They held fast to their belief of atonal music. But it's now 30 years later and there's no question of how important that music was.

But you also felt minimalism had its own limitations, right?

I felt right from the start that although minimalism was a tremendous breakthrough, it was very much like cubism. It was a radical way of reimagining music, but its rigors and limited stylistic tunnels and vision would make it hard to create and evolve into a more expressive statement. I'm a very dramatic person. My mother was a singing actress, and life growing up with her was a very dramatic event. I inherited that, which is why I love to write for the stage.

So from the start, I wanted to see if I could access that same kind of energy and that same wonderful harmonic world of the minimalists. But I wanted to make musical forms that were more protean, that changed, and at times changed radically. The calling card of the minimalist composition was that everything had to change slowly and gradually. You would find yourself in a new landscape or new tonality only after 10 minutes or 40 minutes or even three hours. But I wanted to have radical change, I wanted to make my music more like life, where suddenly your emotions radically modulate. Some people were not happy with what I did. They thought I had corrupted a decent language by adding such emotional contours to it, that I had cheapened it.

What pieces evolved out of your feelings about minimalism?

I think the two works I wrote for the San Francisco Symphony in the early '80s were exemplary in terms of what I was trying to do. If you listen to "Wild Nights," which is my setting of a radical poem by Emily Dickinson, and part of a big piece for chorus and orchestra called "Harmonium," you can see what I'm doing. It starts out and feels like this big monster gamelan clanging away, and you hear the chorus chanting "Wild Nights." But then there's this huge ramped-up crescendo and rondo and big climax, all of which were forbidden in the original orthodoxy of minimalism. The other piece is "Hamonielehre," my big orchestral symphony. Again, I used harmonic energy to create wildly morphing forms that are probably closer to Mahler and Sibelius than they are to minimalism.

Would you call "The Wound-Dresser" a breakthrough piece for you?

I don't think so. It's a very personal piece. I have a long-standing personal relationship with Whitman's poetry, as I suspect a lot of Americans do. I wrote it during probably the worst part of the AIDS crisis. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had a lot of friends who died. It is a poem about caregiving. At the same time, my mother was caring for my father, who was dying of Alzheimer's disease. There are lots of pieces about love and death and struggle in music. But I couldn't think of a single work, except possibly the last act of "Tristan and Isolde," that's about caregiving, about nursing someone either through a sickness or to the end of their lives. It's definitely influenced by the darker, more lyrical thread you find in late 19th century European music composers like Sibelius and Berg and Mahler, but also by some of the music of Charles Ives, and then the darker, more chromatic works of Duke Ellington.


Are you a politically passionate person?

I must be given how much time I've spent on the Internet reading about this campaign! I write in "Hallelujah Junction" about how I grew up outside of Concord, N.H., and those days, before the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire was the first event in every presidential campaign. My mother was as ardent Democratic Party member and volunteer, and so I remember when I was a little kid going to the Democratic offices in Concord and licking envelopes with her. Politics as a kind of spectrum, or even a metaphor, for the American experience, has always fascinated me.

Have your political passions been a driving force of your work?

No, I don't think so. People, much to my extreme annoyance, continue to refer to my operas as CNN operas. Even the positive New York Times review of my book said, "Mr. Adams is the composer of so-called CNN operas." But Sophocles and Shakespeare wrote political dramas. Oedipus is a political drama, and all the Shakespeare history plays are about kings and the human drama of pitting one vision of life against another. I don't think "Nixon in China" or "Doctor Atomic" or "The Death of Klinghoffer" are any more political than what Shakespeare or Verdi or Sophocles did.

"The Death of Klinghoffer," about the Palestinian hijacking of a passenger ship in 1985, was dismissed by some critics as "politically correct." I like your response in "Hallelujah Junction": "Fending off charges of political correctness is a futile task. Labels have a way of boring in like ticks. Once you're stuck with a tag, your only recourse is to wait it out." Do you think you've waited out the tag?

No, I don't. I'm going to conduct a concert performance of "The Death of Klinghoffer" with the Juilliard School in New York in January and I fully expect there'll be another news boomlet in the press, accusing me of political naiveté. This is an opera about a terrorist event and the murder of an American Jew, and there are still to this day a lot of journalists and critics who think that the work has a subversive anti-Semitic agenda.

What do you say to them?

I invite them to meditate on the libretto and the music. Because most people who've spent serious time with it, and not come with enormous prejudicial baggage, are moved by the human feeling in the work, and the feeling extends to both the Palestinians and the Jews. You can see why it's so hard to solve these problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because people are so completely locked into their positions.

What does "Doctor Atomic" say to us today?

I'm not sure what "Doctor Atomic" says. And maybe that's a good thing. Because in composing this opera about the creation of the atomic bomb, I lived with the historical material, reading dozens of books, and talking to experts, and to this day I don't know if it [dropping the bomb] was the correct thing to do. There are many people who think it was a profoundly morally wrong thing to drop that bomb. There are other people, including scientists who worked on the Los Alamos project, who say that we would have been facing the further death of a million people if we had to invade Japan. So these are imponderable things.

But people are lazy now. Particularly Americans are lazy. We want to receive all our information in sound bites and have somebody else do the thinking for us. When I was growing up, nuclear weapons were on our minds all the time. We were keenly aware of the possibility that the earth could simply blow up in a nuclear holocaust. And now it's like a joke, like George Bush looking under the desk for those nuclear weapons. When people have written to me or come up to me and told me how deeply affected they were by attending "Doctor Atomic," it's because it not only made them think but it made them feel. And that's what I was trying to do in "The Death of Klinghoffer" as well.

Music is above and beyond all else the art of feeling. A great composer can bring you to a level where you are emotionally exposed. If you have a great composer like Mozart or Wagner, and introduce deep subject matter, as Mozart does with "Don Giovanni" with rape and sexual assault, or class warfare in "The Marriage of Figaro," or spiritual transformation in "The Magic Flute," and unite great feeling to the music, then you can have an overwhelming and at times life-changing experience in opera.

What's your most personal work?

I love "Nixon in China," even though I wouldn't say it's my deepest work. But I love it. The moment I hear the opening, it just takes me back to when I was composing it. My family was very young and I was moderately well known. But this was a huge challenge and I had first met [director] Peter Sellars, who has been a dear and lifelong friend, and the libretto by Alice Goodman is such a work of genius. It's not a diatribe, it's not people screaming at each other like they do on MSNBC. It's a take on American life that's both funny and at times poignant, and symbolic of what it means to be an American.

You've said you want to create an American tradition for opera. That's quite a burden for one person.

You're not an opera composer without being a little bit insane. But I'm so excited because after years of being dismissed by the Metropolitan Opera, where no one was even beginning to consider doing my operas, Peter Gelb, this marvelously imaginative new general director, has committed himself to my work. Not only is he putting every imaginable resource he has behind making "Doctor Atomic" a success, he's committed to doing "Nixon in China" in the 2010-11 season, and he's commissioned Osvaldo Golijov to create an opera. He believes there's a case to be made for a native art form.

I was amazed by what you wrote about "On the Transmigration of Souls": "I find myself oscillating wildly between loathing it and loving it." And this is your Pulitzer Prize-winning piece.

Yeah, wouldn't you know it?

Why did you say you loathed it?

First of all, just having to write this work. And I say "having to write" it because it was a command performance. The New York Philharmonic called and said, "We want you to compose a piece to commemorate the first anniversary of Sept. 11." You don't say, "I'm sorry, I'm busy," and hang up. You make it happen. But I was appalled at writing a piece commemorating 2001. I thought it was impossible to do without it being vulgar or pulling false heartstrings. I had to find the right tone for it.

When I hear a bad performance of it, it seems to be a misfire, a noble effort, but basically not good. But then every once in a while I'll hear a truly inspired performance, like I heard with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, which has one of the world's greatest choruses, founded by Robert Shaw. And to hear that American chorus singing those very simple texts, which are quotes from family members of the victims, I was just overwhelmed by it. I thought, "OK, it's a good piece, I don't have to worry." I'm sure the next time I hear a bad performance, I'll think, "Eewww."

Where did you have to go psychically to write the piece?

Composing "Transmigration of Souls" was a trial. And I didn't mind it. I was living in Berkeley, Calif., very far away from New York. And most of my friends live in New York. I knew what they were going through and what they were suffering. And so I felt that I was empathizing with them. I spent the first month surfing the Internet, looking for personal testimony. And I found it in the strangest places. I found one memorial site, which was almost like going into a cemetery. You could go there and click on a name of one of the people who died at the World Trade Center or in Washington. People had entered that site and left a little memory. Maybe they knew that person, maybe they didn't. But they just said two or three lines. Some of these expressed emotions were so incredibly moving, and so simple in a way that Americans use language. We don't get all flowery and poetic. We use the simplest language. I remember one of them saying, "I miss you so. Remember we use to say, 'Love you to the moon and back.'" And I used that. I have the children's chorus sing that over and over again, "Love you to the moon and back."

Defending your 2006 opera, "A Flowering Tree," from those who criticized it as being "multicultural," you wrote, "For once I was not daunted in the least by such crank critiques." Why did you say that?

Maybe I was just talking to myself. But I'm just disgusted when I pick up a paper and hear somebody carping about multiculturalism or my attempts to bring in other cultures. Isn't that what life is about? When you walk down the streets of San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York or London, you see all different kinds of people. It's only appropriate that our art should draw people in. If you listen to pop music now, young composers are bringing all kinds of music into their art. On the very last page of my book, I talk about my son Sam's iTunes library, and how sophisticated it is, how globally aware it is, in a way that I could never have been when I 22, because the technology didn't allow it.

The principal influence in "A Flowering Tree," its guardian angel, is Mozart. It was clear at the end of his life that Mozart had gone global; well, global in those days meant you were aware of what was happening in Turkey. And he had this enormous spiritual revelation, part of which was due to his involvement in Masonic ritual, and part of which was just his maturing, the kind of maturing we see in "The Magic Flute" and the "Requiem" and the Clarinet Concerto.

I wanted to create a work, an opera, that was about young people and their growth, falling in and out of love, the intense pain of being in love, the intense pain that we inflict on each other when we haven't reached true maturity. And I found this beautiful story, this ancient folk tale from south of India, which involved transformations, involved this young peasant girl who had this exceptional magical ability to transform herself into a beautiful flowering tree.

Ultimately, what I love about the "The Magic Flute" is that after all the harmonic and dramatic complexities of "Don Giovanni," Mozart writes what's almost popular music. The songs in "The Magic Flute" are almost as if they are for a show, a musical. I wanted to have that kind of surface simplicity and yet at the same time have deep psychological complexity. That's something I've aimed for throughout my life. I've wanted to be able to say something directly and simply, which is really part of being an American musician.


Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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