John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams Photo by Christine Alicino Courtesy Nonesuch Records Just three days after completing the score for El Niño, a 110-minute “Christmas oratorio” for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, John Adams invites NewMusicBox editor Frank J. Oteri to his home in Berkeley CA to talk about his newest work and how it fits in with his… Read more »

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

John Adams
Photo by Christine Alicino
Courtesy Nonesuch Records

Just three days after completing the score for El Niño, a 110-minute “Christmas oratorio” for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, John Adams invites NewMusicBox editor Frank J. Oteri to his home in Berkeley CA to talk about his newest work and how it fits in with his compositional aesthetics, his views on religion, and his role as one of America’s most popular composers.

November 11, 2000

Transcribed by Lisa Kang and Michael Moon

Success as a Composer and Cultural Relevancy

FJO: Thank you for taking time out of an extremely busy, busy schedule to talk with me. I know you’re just finishing orchestrating . Is the orchestrating done?
JA: Yes it is. Now I have a manuscript, I just measured it this morning. It’s like a trout – it’s about 5 1/2 inches high. (laughs)
FJO: (laughs)
JA: Now I have to proof it.
FJO: When did you finish it?
JA: Probably about three days ago. My goal was to finish it before Election Day and I finished it on the 8th.
FJO: Well, considering it’s turned into Election Month, you had more time…
JA: (laughs)
FJO: I want to get things started by asking a rather loaded question but I figure it will spiral us out into lots of discussion. You’ve been referred to frequently as the most frequently performed living American composer. This mantle was once held by Aaron Copland during his lifetime, and I guess Gershwin during his… Your career in many ways is a role model for any composer in this country, and I think all of us as composers look to you, I know I do, as a model of what is success for an American composer, and not just as a composer but success as an American. And I think you’ve staked the claim to that. So, this is not so much a question, but a thought as to how you got there, and where you are today, and where you’re going, and how this could work as advice for any composer out there in the world today.

Frontpage of John Adams’s manuscript of the orchestral score
for El Niño (2000)
© 2000 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

JA: Well, first of all, as far as the most performed, I think it’s like a tracking poll. Maybe one month it’s someone else, then of course it’s a question of genre. But early on in my career, I think I looked at what was happening to classical composers, this hole that they’d dug for themselves, and I found it very dissatisfying. It wasn’t just that it had become a very specialist occupation, but also that it seemed to me that classical composers not only in American but in Europe as well, ceased to be major figures, major cultural forces, they way they were in the 19th century. When Verdi died, Italy closed down for his funeral, and Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven, they were all majorly influential in their culture. And to some extent, in the 20th century, certainly Stravinsky was. But it always bothered me that as the years went on the model was not Stravinsky, not Verdi, and not Brahms, but Schoenberg. And so part of my voyage as a composer has been to try to create a musical mode of expression that was new, and provocative, and at the same time has some sort of accessibility that could communicate with a larger audience.
FJO: Schoenberg has definitely been a ghost looming over a number of your pieces. Here’s something that speaks volumes to the perception of whether composers are a major social force… I’ve heard many times from different people, including people at The New York Times, that when somebody in classical music dies the staffers at the Times gamble on whether the obituary will make it “above the fold” or “below the fold”…
JA: (laughs)
FJO: And I believe the last time a composer made it above the fold was Leonard Bernstein. Messiaen was below the fold, but at least he made it to the front page. John Cage was also on the front page but below the fold. And that says something about the role of the composer in our society, the importance that that means. It’s interesting the pockets composers went into – the warring camps, there were uptown/downtown battles, east coast/west coast, avant-garde/neo-romantic, and in a way you’re on all sides of these battles! You are all of the above. You’re in the middle but you are all of them. I don’t know if you see it, or hear it that way. I find it r
eally interesting. Even this east coast/west coast thing because you’re clearly a west coast composer living in California but you grew up in New Hampshire, and you went to school at Harvard… In a way, you are the sum total of where we are today. I know that’s a loaded thing to say. (laughs)
JA: Well, I think I’m definitely below the fold, and probably will remain that. But you know I think one needs to be aware of what really is a lasting value in a culture. You know Herman Melville wasn’t even below the fold when he died. He probably wasn’t even mentioned in the New York Times. Emily Dickinson, maybe she made it below the fold in the Amherst local paper.
FJO: I doubt it.
JA: So you know, the ones who get to do the Absolut Vodka ads get the back the cover of The New Yorker. Those are very transient items. It’s very, very hard to predict what is going to be meaningful one, two, three generations on. You know the story of J.S. Bach. So the important thing really is to do one’s work. And I know I’m speaking somewhat discordantly. (I may appear to be contradicting what I said earlier about composer as a cultural force.) I think one can be a cultural force and not necessarily be a pop icon. In a way I admire French intellectual life because the French do identify the heavy thinkers in their culture. When Sartre died, the President of France attended his funeral. One couldn’t imagine an American president attending the funeral of, oh I don’t know, Elliott Carter, for example. Or, for that matter, Toni Morrison or Russell Banks… We live in a country where the influence of popular culture is so immense that those of us who don’t participate in popular culture must accept the fact that our audience is going to be, in numbers, small.
FJO: I almost think it goes beyond that, and I’ve been making rallying cries about this for years now, about how composers, painters and authors are on currency in foreign countries, on money. Sibelius is on money in Finland.
JA: Debussy in France.
FJO: Villa Lobos in Brazil, Nielsen in Denmark, and Clara Schumann in Germany!
JA: It would be more likely be Elvis Presley or maybe even Duke Ellington in this country, and that’s O.K.
FJO: It would be great to have Duke Ellington on money.
JA: Yeah, that’s O.K. It really does represent that we are a democracy. Look at this election that we just celebrated, I guess that is the word, or suffered through depending on what your point of view is. You know if one thing is proven by this incredible event, it is that America is a very complex country with very, very different opinions.



Our Current Cultural Landscape

FJO: Now getting back to different opinions and how it effects new music, you mentioned popular culture. In a weird way you are connected to popular culture. In a weird kind of way you have one foot in popular culture in terms of the music you grew up listening to, and even some of the works you written. I’m thinking of pieces like I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw the Sky which is in some ways, if you don’t mind me saying so, a proto-Rent. I was listening again just the other day to “Three Weeks” and I was thinking, “This is a hit song!” And at that same time you had just written a Violin Concerto that was definitely influenced by Schoenberg… You did both of those in the same year, so you’re walking that line all the time.
JA: Well, I think that’s just me. I don’t advise young composers that it’s necessary for them to be active in so many different genres. On the other hand, I think that at this point and time historically, and particularly in America, that there ought to be nothing to forbid a composer from working in different genres. I think Bernstein is the classic example of that. I have a lot of problems with the quality of what he did, but I think that the fact that he was technically able to work in symphonic music, pop music, show music, and that he did it, and did it with great imagination, and in some cases great genius, I think should be a model for all American composers. You know one of the other problems about music, and I don’t know if why this happened, is that it became so – boundaries became so rigid. And this is particularly the case in Europe where if a composer moves over into the pop realm it’s considered sort of an indecent, immoral act because we have serious art and we have entertainment, or we have “divertissement” as they say in France. But one of the great things about American culture is the bleed through. And the movies are a great example of that because a great movie may be something that was predicated upon popular appeal.
FJO: And a lot of the great movies of the past have scores by great composers like Bernard Herrmann or Miklos Rózsa, people who also wrote symphonic music…
JA: Yeah. But I’m thinking of movies like Elia Kazan‘s movies, or Woody Allens for that matter, which didn’t start out life meaning to be Pierrot Lunaire. They started out to have a large audience and to be popular entities, but in so doing became major works of cultural value.
FJO: Well clearly when you sit down and say, or if a group of people get together and as a collective process say “we’re going to create a masterpiece for all time now,” it’s doomed to fail.

The opening measures of John Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993)
© 1993 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s the opinion that classical music is in such a state of rigor mortis now. Some young composers are breaking through, but some countries such as France and several others that have produced great, great composers in the past seem to be just frozen and I think that’s largely because of the overly zealous and gallant with the attention and almost sacramental reverence that they accord the classics so that if you’re a young composer and you feel that you’re going to have to add yourself to the lineage that goes back to Josquin and goes up to Stravinsky and on to Boulez and Nono, it’s a terribly intimidating situation, and that’s one of the things that I had to break out of when I was a college student at Harvard. If you decided to be a composition major we were given this enormous burden of the past.
FJO: Well it’s interesting because in a way, it’s not really our tradition. I mean yeah, a lot of people in the United States have ancestry going back to Europe, but certainly not everybody, and we’ve established our own traditions which are geographically and chronologically displaced from the things that are going on in Europe
. I don’t really relate to 19th century European music. I like a lot of it, but to me it’s as alien to me as listening to ragas from North India or Indonesian gamelan music, both of which I love just as much as I love listening to Schubert, which I feel is foreign music also. I grew up listening to really bad 70s pop music. Then I eventually started listening to really good 70s music. Then I started listening to new music and Broadway stuff, and it expanded out from there. But certainly Mozart or Chopin were never the center of what music was for me growing up.
JA: Well I can’t say that. I grew up listening to classical music. My parents were both jazz musicians, so that was definitely there, but my “Desert Island Pieces” were largely made up the European classical music canon, and that’s part of what makes my identity as a composer. And to this day, despite being the composer of Nixon in China, Ceiling/Sky and whatever, I can easily say the music that gives me the deepest satisfaction, that has the most meaning to me is the classics. When I hear my son practicing the “Waldstein” Sonata, my daughter playing a Mozart Violin Sonata, to me that’s still the greatest music there is.
FJO: Now in terms of popular music, do you keep up to date with all the things that are going on?

An excerpt of the song “Three Weeks” from I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky (1995)
Music by John Adams, Words by June Jordan
© 1995 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: I do, but sort of on a passive level. I don’t listen to pop music with the zeal and the excitement that I did in the 60s and early 70s. I think I’m showing my age (laughs) by saying that after the early 70s I thought the ingenuity and imagination of pop music really declined dramatically, and what became more interesting about pop music is the more the theater of it or the political content of it, but the actual musical content really peaked in the late 60s. (laughs)
FJO: It’s interesting, for me I find interesting stuff all over the place and you know the stuff that’s thrown at the public is usually not the most interesting stuff.
JA: Yeah, that’s always the case.
FJO: Buried way underneath the radar of mainstream pop culture are bands like Sonic Youth or Portishead or My Bloody Valentine, and hosts of other fascinating music, like the new Radiohead album that’s on the Billboard charts now, that’s really sophisticated, and as sophisticated as a good deal of contemporary concert music. And I think it’s an interesting time, and I say this to people all the time, that the contemporary classical music audience needs to develop the alternative rock audience as a potential audience for this music. And certainly with a number of pieces of yours I can see people who listen to alternative rock, coming to listen to pieces like El Dorado, pieces like Common Tones in Simple Time, and in fact, the very first piece of yours I’ve ever heard, and this goes way back, is American Standard which was on a record produced by Brian Eno whom I was very excited about at the time, and still am.
JA: Well, I have very mixed feelings about serious composers aggressively trying to court an audience. You know when I first started producing concerts in San Francisco back in the late 70s and early 80s, we created a series of new music concerts and we took them out of the concert hall, and we had a couple in a nightclub space, and another in a fashion mart, and places where the ambiance was different, and that was fun, and a big effort was made to bri
ng the rock audience in, and to get a hipper audience, and the people came, and they were dressed in leather and in chains, and everybody thought “Oh, this is fantastically cool,” but the end result was the they were not the most discriminating or the most knowledgeable or musically literate audience. And after a while I thought, well the size of the audience, the hip-ness of the audience in the long run really does not matter. What really matters is the literacy and the sophistication of the audience. So I think as I grow older I’ve become less patient with composers who try to tailor their music. You know there really is the danger of dumbing down of one’s language and I’ve seen really gifted composers follow careers where they have to dumb down their work, and they have large audiences, and big record sales, but I think the payoff, over time, is that the work they produce becomes flatter and paler, and future generations will find their music rather bland.
FJO: I do want to counter that though with a rather loaded anecdote about the Copland Festival that the New York Philharmonic did last year. I went to the concert that you conducted, and there was this audience there, a number of people who were hearing the Copland Piano Concerto for the very first time, this piece is over 75 years old, and I thought this was a great concert. I thought you did a tremendous job with the orchestra. It was the best the orchestra sounded in my hearing them in the last several years, and it was very exciting, and there were people at intermission who were subscribers who clearly did not know who you were, and did not know the piece, and they were going on and on about “oh, that piece was just terrible.” They were talking about whether they thought the pianist was good or bad: “Well I couldn’t tell if that pianist was good or bad because there was nothing but noise, it was just banging, but that thin guy conducting, he was pretty good.” And I though “They’re talking about JA!”

The opening measures of “Soleades,” the Second Movement of John Adams’s El Dorado (1991)
© 1991 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher
RealAudio Sample

JA: The thin guy?
FJO: Yeah. (Both laugh)
FJO: And it really made me angry. I thought to myself, you know, this is a dumb audience too!
JA: There’s this wonderful passage in the Tom Wolfe book A Man In Full where a lawyer and his wife go to an Atlanta Symphony concert and they clearly don’t know anything about classical music, and also, it’s depressing because it appears in the description of the concert that neither does Tom Wolfe, but it’s amazing, it’s amusing, and it’s absolutely terrifying to read this because you realize how many people, and you look out at the audience at the large Avery Fisher Hall, 2500 – 3000, how many people there don’t have a clue about what’s going on, so one just has to realize that not everybody in the audience is hip to what’s happening.
FJO: Right, but I do think that among the jazz audience, among the alternative rock audience, certainly not the mainstream, commercial pop music audience, but among the alternative rock audience and the alternative audiences of all of these other genres, there’s a large community of people who really do listen to music with the same seriousness, if not more seriousness, than some of the subscription orchestra attendees.
JA: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. I think what I’m trying to say here is that as I’ve grown older and grayer as a composer I’ve been more willing to just tend my own garden and not worry about keeping up with the latest thing. You know when I was 20 years old I couldn’t believe how foggy and out of it my professors were, my parents were, you know, “What do you mean, you haven’t heard of Janis Joplin?” But now I think I understand that.





Youthful and Mature Composition

JA: You know what’s interesting about listening to an older composer is, for example the late works of Messiaen, or for that matter the late works of Beethoven, you see that as that composer matured and developed that the chaff sort of filtered away, blew away, and what was intensely meaningful during his or her life crystallized, the real nugget, which is often why a lot composers end up writing sacred music near the end of their lives because that’s what means the most for them. In the case of Beethoven, or Bach or Mozart, you know they became very interested in the mechanics of music, and you find a lot of counterpoint, and a lot of fugues, and a lot pure music. They’re less involved in scandalizing an audience, or posturing, and more involved in this extreme focus on the materials of the music.
FJO: Getting to this notion of scandalizing an audience, I remember the very first time I ever heard your music live, I was an undergrad at Columbia, and I went to the Horizons Festival to hear the premiere of Grand Pianola Music, and there were boos in the audience, and I was cheering. And it was great, I was thinking, “Here we are, Lincoln Center, this bastion of conservative European music, even though it doesn’t look like it is, you know it’s a very austere American modernist-looking place even though you rarely hear contemporary music or American music there, and here’s this piece that was really defiant, really brash, full of energy, really exciting, and there were people booing. “This is great,” I thought because I was this young revolutionary-wannabe going to these concerts. And you certainly had times in your life, and you even said as recently as ten years ago that there are always pieces of yours that are “trickster” pieces. One of my favorite pieces of all of them is Fearful Symmetries which is this relentless joke in a way. So at this point, I believe, in listening to the MIDI recording of El Niño (which is all I have to go on because it hasn’t been performed yet), there are elements of the trickster still in there. I almost hear a synthesis between the so-called trickster pieces and the so-called serious, it almost seems like a grand synthesis of the two. Is this the direction now?

The opening measures of John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (1988)
© 1989 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well, I think I really caused myself unnecessary grief by suggesting about 10 years ago that there was the trickster JA because I haven’t been able to get rid of it. It’s been like a piece of gum that you get stuck on your shoe for months. But let me say to respond to that that I do think that wit and humor and for that matter entertainment are things that a great artist ought to have the option to do, and certainly Shakespeare is always my first citation there. In King Lear there’s great humor, Hamlet has humor although it’s sort of a dark savage humor. And you can find it in Goethe, and all the really great creators. And one of the things that I was really bothered by about avant-garde music was its intense humorlessness. That seemed to come with the territory.
FJO: Although feeding a piano with hay is pretty funny.

An excerpt from the Third Movement of John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music (1981-82)
© 1982 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well yes, there’s Dada. If you want to be funny you have to go to extremes. And that’s really a very provocative issue about some of my music. You mentioned Grand Pianola Music. To this day I can’t quite explain what that piece is about but it’s definitely a funny piece. Although not all of it is, some of it is quite tranquil and very lyrical. But again, I think that’s part of the American experience, you know we live this life that is full of all sorts of mind-bending paradoxes, the typical “5 children murdered in their classroom, details at 11 — now sports” kind… so we have to live with those kinds of non-sequiturs in American life, and I think you find a lot of that in my music.
FJO: So getting back to this issue of responding to all these different currents, we talked about east coast/west coast, uptown/downtown, old/new, avant-garde/old-fashioned, popular/classical, even secular and sacred, trickster/serious… Clearly in your early career you were grouped with the four most prominent minimalist composers, Reich, Glass, Riley and La Monte Young, and now we’re discovering there were a whole host of others, and you’ve been identified as the person who took minimalism out of the rigors of high modernity and opened up the Pandora’s box of post-minimalism. Where do you see yourself in this trajectory, in the lineage? And who were your heroes when you were doing this?
JA: A lot of this depends on when you live. And I live at the period in musical history that, for lack of a better term, is sort of post-stylist. You know we talk about post-modernism, and modernism and this and that, and it seems like I was the first, and if not the first one of the first, post-stylistic composers. A composer for whom style wasn’t a fundamental preoccupation… And you know it’s interesting that when I talk to a person like Steve Reich, I feel the generation gap very strongly even though we’re only 10 years apart. His criticisms of my work tend to be on stylistic grounds. They’re less so on content, and hopefully not on value grounds although maybe he’s just being polite, but there are very strong criticisms on stylistic grounds and I think of that as being more of a mindset of the modernist era when style was extremely important. You know I grew up in a period when the LP record was the major document, the major databank for young composers. And this was something that even someone born in the 1930s didn’t have in the amount that I had, so every aspect of music was available to me when I was a kid. I could listen to Indian music, and I could listen to rock and roll, and jazz, and Beethoven and Stravinsky and later on avant-garde music came out on LPs, so naturally it would seem an automatic thing that a composer would develop a musical personality that would reflect that vast reservoir of influences. And when I read John Cage, whom I adore, you know I love John Cage and I was very influenced by him in many ways, but the most puzzling thing about John Cage was his total exclusivity. He wasn’t interested in jazz; he wasn’t interested in rock and roll. He wasn’t interested in Mozart. He was only interested in certain contemporary composers if they fit into his particular point of view which would be Satie, or Varèse, or who knows what. And I felt, that’s fine, but it’s also so exclusive, it’s like looking at life blinded.
FJO: And it’s almost hypocritical in a way. I mean you look back, I remember reading a statement of Cage denouncing Glenn Branca after how loud one of his concerts was.
JA: Oh I know that story.
FJO: Yeah.
JA: I can’t say it’s hypocritical, I think it’s very honest.
FJO: But it showed that he did have a viewpoint.
JA: Well yeah, but you asked me if I listened to techno and I said no. You know it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I have so many things that I can involve myself into.
FJO: …Although I would contend that with Hoodoo Zephyr you almost did make something that’s almost a techno album…
JA: My point being we’re talking where I am historically, and when I look around and see other composers, both in this country and Europe, I see that the direction that I took in the mid to late 70s was not the wrong direction. It was really actually the right direction even though it was very punishing and I took an enormous amount of ridicule.
FJO: From both sides.
JA: Yeah, from both sides, it’s true. I felt like a Centrist Democrat.
FJO: (laughs)
JA: You know you have Ralph Nader on one side…
FJO: …and Pat Buchanan on the other.


Differences in Europe and America

FJO: You were talking about European composers and the strangle hold of culture in places like France, Germany and Italy. It’s interesting to me because there’s a lot of really interesting music happening in England now, new music, younger composers in England, in Finland, and in a lot of the former Eastern block countries, and I think the reason why that’s happening is while they’re in Europe, there isn’t this ‘grand’ old tradition in these countries. You know there’s no great 19th century English composer, for example. Certainly, there’s Sibelius in Finland whom every composer there has to deal with, but he’s a turn of the century figure so he’s a very different phenomenon, and in the Eastern European countries this is even less true, places like Croatia, Estonia, etc. And in a way that’s how it is being an American composer. That, and the blend of cultures… There’s this Bill Murray movie I saw years ago, this really silly movie called Stripes, and he talked about how American’s are mutts – and that’s our great cultural legacy to the world that we’re mutts.
JA: Mongrels.
FJO: Yeah, and you even used the title “Mongrel Airs” for the first movement of your chamber symphony. So that’s clearly an American position. I don’t know if you could have developed the way you have developed as a composer had you lived in any other country. I don’t know what you think about that.

An excerpt from “Mongrel Airs”, the First Movement of John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992)
© 1995 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well it’s so hard to second-guess what elements converge to create an important period in culture. What is sort of depressing but true is that if you look at the history of culture you see that there are times, there are little tiny pockets in the timeline, for example Renaissance Florence, or Paris in the 20s, or for painting, the period in France in the last half of the 19th century, and you know it’s very hard to say what brought about a Sibelius, or what brought about a Bartók, or Shostakovich. You know sometimes you have a very powerful mind working in an environment that was actually geared against him.
FJO: Shostakovich is a perfect example.
JA: Yeah, or Edvard Munch in Norway where these people became temporarily exiles, which was certainly the case with Munch, or with Hemingway. So it’s just such a complex thing to try to figure out. I suspect that part of the reason why American culture had a good time in the 20th century is that there’s been a lot of money, and there’s been an issue of our finding our identity. And if you read about Gershwin, he had an enormous complex. He wanted to be thought of as a classical composer, and we’ve forgotten because we think of Gershwin as this great composer. We don’t care if it’s classical, or pop, or Broadway or what, we’re just so thankful that he lived and he did what he did. But I think that judging from what I know about him, he suffered deeply throughout his life that he wasn’t considered a classical composer.
FJO: There’s that old legend that Gershwin went to Ravel and Ravel said why be a second rate Ravel when you could be a first rate Gershwin.
JA: Whether that’s apocryphal who knows…


Success as an American Composer

FJO: (laughs) You said something that is interesting for composers out there, me among them, as a composer talking to you and talking about the career path and what it represents, about the money that’s out there in America that’s been able to create things, and in a way you’re in a very unusual position in that you are able to write big pieces, large, really significant works for orchestra, and now this piece for soloists, chorus and orchestra, operas, and certainly, even though these operas are some of the greatest operas written in our lifetimes, even these works are not getting a lot of performances, not getting the performances they deserve to get. I mean Nixon still hasn’t been done at the Met; it still hasn’t been done in Manhattan. It was done in Brooklyn. Even for somebody at your level, it’s still not getting what it should be getting in a way. There isn’t a lot of incentive for most composers nowadays to write the big works, to write for orchestra, to write opera, to write for chorus.
JA: Well, I’m not exactly sure that’s true now. It’s been my impression that in terms of commissions there’s never been a more bullish period in American history. There are all these operas being commissioned. San Francisco Opera has commissioned 4 or 5 operas, and the Met is on a big commissioning program, Chicago, those are all the big ones, and the smaller companies are commissioning like crazy, and orchestras are commissioning works, so it seems like actually this is a tremendously good time to be alive as a composer of large-scale works. As to their durability and as to what you mentioned second performances or gaining repertoire status, I’m more philosophical about that. I think that large works are very expensive to produce, and companies need to feel that audiences are going to come back 5-10 years later and still have the same interest that they did at a premiere. It takes a long time for a work to trickle in and become an integral part of the American culture. So I just think that that’s a matter of time. You know you can look at the Virgil Thomson operas which are now being given a serious re-evaluation, and what, those were written in the 30s.
FJO: There’ve been some fabulous performances of them recently.
JA: Yeah, and the Bernstein Candide which was laughed off the map, and now is being taken very seriously and is becoming a repertoire item. I remember when I was a young composer that Wozzeck was a specialty item, and I personally played clarinet in the American premiere of Moses und Aron which had never been in the United States. That was in 1967 and it was already 30 or 40 years old at that time. Nixon in China may not have been done in Manhattan and may still be awaiting new productions in the United States, but it’s got a very healthy history for a new opera, and the Death of Klinghoffer is getting two separate productions next year.
FJO: Terrific, who’s doing it?
JA: The Finnish National Opera, and then there’s a full scale feature film being made of it that’s got a $6-7 million budget by Channel 4 in England.
FJO: That’s exciting.
JA: So you know, it’s not a bad time for large-scale works.
FJO: Well in some ways having an opera on film really is a way, once that film exists, to potentially reach a great many more people. Certainly it doesn’t replace a live performance but it has greater outreach. And I want to steer this into the whole question about outreach. Performances are just one thing, but you are also in a great position vis-à-vis having a recording company like Nonesuch that is willing to A) have the funds to make the recording, and B) to actually release the recordings and promote them and do great work for them to get them out to the press, to the radio, to everybody who matters. …Even to issue a 10-CD box set! You’ve also have had multiple recordings of works released by other labels. And on the other side of this is a publisher like Boosey and Hawkes who is able to get the material out there, to get me an advance on an un-proofed piano score of El Niño so that I am able talk about it with you before the premiere. This is great. But getting back to all these orchestral works that are getting commissioned, there’s still a sense that contemporary music is in some ways an interloper on the standard repertoire and composers get commissioned to write short, maybe 10-minute works, and certainly your most-widely played pieces are the fanfares. Short Ride in a Fast Machine gets a lot of performances, it’s a great concert opener. But I’d love to go to a concert where the featured concerto is the JA violin concerto instead of the Brahms or Mendelssohn violin concertos. I love these pieces, but I’ve heard them a lot, and I’ve heard them a lot live.
JA: Well, you know it may happen. I can remember when I was in college that the Berg violin concerto was never played except in new music programs, and now it often takes the place of the Beethoven or the Brahms.
FJO: But even looking at this point and time, there’s a geographical, and chronological disconnect even with the Berg violin concerto. He died in 1935. That’s a long time ago.
JA: Yeah, but that’s it called classical music. I think people need time to absorb something. Often it isn’t that we need 30 years to listen to a piece over and over again to make a value judgment, it’s more that one looks back at a document from an earlier era, whether it’s a novel by Faulkner, or a poem by William Carlos Williams, or a painting, and we see, we feel the intensity of the experience that that creative voice had at that point and time, and that work of art is that artifact of that experience. That’s why Howl means so much to the Americans because it sort of embodies a particular period in American sensibility.
FJO: To extend on that, there certainly was a long period in the 20th century where there was body of works which you could listen to over and over again and eventually realize their greatness as a listener, following the score, hearing this music. But not a lot of people are willing to give a piece of music a second chance, and certainly a new piece of music, at the premiere maybe it gets 3 rehearsals maximum from an orchestra, and it’s not a ideal performance, and maybe it’s in a very complex style that’s not immediate to most listeners. There is no second chance.
JA: Well, if a work, if it’s got value, if it’s good, will find its way. And it may take time. That’s just one of the depressing features of being an artist. But very often something that is difficult takes many, many years, and it takes champions, and it takes a performer who will pick up a work and say, “You know this is a really great piece and I will devote my life to being a champion for it.”


Practical Musicianship

An excerpt from JA’ Phrygian Gates for solo piano (1977-78)
© 1983 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

FJO: Getting back to the 70s… Your formative years as a composer, coming out to San Francisco, conducting, working with the ensemble, working with the performers closely, that was really a time when a lot of composers, I’m thinking of Philip Glass having his own ensembles, Steve Reich and musicians, and lots of your contemporaries in California like Daniel Lentz and Paul Dresher. A lot of composers were establishing their own ensembles because the orchestra was a disconnect, it was far removed. People also weren’t writing string quartets, now everyone’s writing string quartets again. Everyone’s writing for standard ensembles again, and in standard forms. A lot of the avant-garde composers would never dream of writing an opera, and they certainly weren’t writing for orchestra. And then I guess there was a shift, in the ’80’s, as these composers became recognized through their ensembles, and this is true for your work as well, to a good extent.
JA: Well, I actually very, very much admire to the point of envy those composers who had a sound image and who created an ensemble to embody that sound image. You know, you mention Reich and Glass, and those are, you know, very important cases. Meredith Monk, Harry Partch… Um, for that matter, Conlon Nancarrow.
FJO: And, to stretch it, Duke Ellington, and all the other jazz composers.
JA: Yeah, O.K., of course. But I think that very much is in the American grain. And in that sense I am less of a progressive figure in that what I do is to take formats which had already pre-existed and I’ve sort of tweaked them, by adding samplers and synthesizers to the orchestras. I was a child of the orchestra, I started playing in an orchestra when I was in elementary school and it’s been my mode of expression, so it’s been a natural thing for me. And for what I know of these other American composers I’ve mentioned, they grew up either completely indifferent to the orchestra or naïve of it. And, I mean, thank heaven that they did because they created this wonderful new music. You could never have had the sound of Steve Reich or the sound of Harry Partch if you’d tried to do it within the context of a string quartet or a woodwind quintet or the symphony orchestra.
FJO: Well, as a playing musician, a working musician, as a clarinetist and then later on as a conductor, you definitely bring a sense of practicality to your music, especially in terms of the way it’s notated. I’ve been going through all these scores and it’s been really interesting. Even the early minimalist pieces, pieces like Common Tones in Simple Time or Phrygian Gates, there are no repeats, it’s all notated out, it’s very precise, it’s very user-friendly notation, and it’s designed in such a way that I think a lot of these other scores from that period were not.
JA: Well, you know, my formative years, my apprenticeship years were during that terrifying time of, you know, where musical notion became a sort of Godzilla, and composers started trying to trump one another with experimental notation and it sort of reached a point of complete absurdity…
FJO: Tom Johnson?
JA: No, I’m thinking of Treatise.
FJO: Oh, you mean Cornelius Cardew
JA: It looks like a sketchbook that an architect might do, or for that matter some of the Cage scores
FJO: They’re beautiful to look at, but…
JA: When I first came to San Francisco, for the first ten years I was here, I did concerts with the students at the San Francisco Conservatory and we specialized in performing those kind of scores and they were always fun for us to figure out how to play and the concerts we gave were fun for us, but they were often just completely opaque and meaningless experiences for the listeners. And I began to realize that musical notation, as it had developed through the years from Gregorian chant up through, you know, the 1950s and 60s, was a very precise and very usable form of getting the job done. Just the way that printed text read a novel. And that was a great discovery for me. Certainly, there was some procedures in avant-garde notation that we still use today, but a lot of my musical ideas could be expressed in sort of garden variety, standard notational terms. And, of course, this causes a lot of trouble with performers, because the first time they’re going to do a piece of mine they get the score and they look at it and they think “Oh!” you know “this couldn’t be too hard, looks pretty normal.” And then when they get into the performing of it, you know, this happens with orchestras that haven’t played a piece of mine before, or singers, they find that experience looks the same on the page, but that in reality it’s a totally different experience, unlike one they’ve ever had in terms of where they have to plug themselves into the rhythmic flow and they find that it’s quite a new experience.


Setting Texts

An excerpt from the piano reduction of JA’ The Wound-Dresser (1988-89), text by Walt Whitman
© 1989 Red Dawn Music, a division of Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

An excerpt from the aria, "News Has a Kind of Mystery" from the opera Nixon in China (1987)
Music by JA, words by Alice Goodman
© 1987 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher
RealAudio Sample

FJO: You’ve written a lot of vocal music, three evening-length music theater works, the two operas and Ceiling/Sky, Harmonium for chorus and orchestra, The Wound-Dresser, and now El Niño.
JA: And I don’t know how to sing. I can’t carry a tune. It’s true!
FJO: But, there’s definitely a clearness, a crystalline quality to the vocal lines that you write that really marry the text, it really is about conveying the words of the text without hindrances. I mean, there are these periods in this century’s music and certainly in the past where you’d have these really angular lines wandering all over the map and no one could know what the words are. When I was in high school, I remember hearing a hard-core total serial setting of some of Shakespeare‘s sonnets, and I thought it showed no understanding of that text whatsoever. You know, I find your vocal music really exciting in that it does convey the words of the text. And when you’re working on a setting, like the Emily Dickinson poems you used in Harmonium, or a libretto about Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro, and now all these poems by Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz and all of these Gnostic and medieval texts concerning the Nativity, what is your approach using a text? Is the text the starting point, where does it go from there?
JA: Well, you know, what I said about my not being able to sing is really true. And that may actually have some deep psychological underpinning to the way I actually approach text setting. I think, first of all, language is intensely important to me. I read a lot of poetry; I read an enormous amount of fiction. And I’m interested in language, I read German, I read French, and I read Spanish as well as English. So, the way a word is set, you know, the inflection of it and also the intelligibility of it is very important to me. I’m not a composer who uses a heck of a lot of melisma for example. I view text setting as a matter of embodying the text but also respecting it. I like to work with good texts. You know, I think that the two Alice Goodman libretti are among the best libretti ever made. You know, whether the music’s any good or not, I don’t know, but I think that…
FJO: It is!
JA: Nixon in China is one of the great librettos of all time. And, so, when I said I think I have an enormous respect for the words, and particularly with American English, I like to make the rhythm of the language flow so that one actually not only hears the words and enjoys the melody and the harmony but also appreciates the succulence of the actual rhythm of the language.
FJO: There’s a moment in Nixon that I absolutely love. It goes beyond conveying the rhythm of the text musically, it conveys the meanings of the words as well. Nixon’s big aria in the First Act about “News.” At one point, he suddenly sings “It’s prime time in the U.S.A.,” and there’s a sudden modulation on U.S.A. You’re in a new chordal area there, and it conveys the glee at what Nixon must have been thinking, you know, “Wow, we’re going to get some publicity out of this on prime time TV in America; what a great moment for me.”
JA: I think my inspiration has largely come from popular composers, particularly composers like Richard Rodgers as well as The Beatles. You know, English is not the ultimate ideal language to set. You know, Italian is by far more desirable to set. But the thing about English is that almost all of the great popular music has been in English. Whether it’s been Billie Holiday songs or Gershwin songs or Richard Rodgers.
FJO: Even rock bands in foreign countries sing in English!
JA: So, if they can do it, why can’t a classical composer do it well? And interestingly enough, most contemporary classical composers I think do a terrible job setting English. I can’t explain why they do it, but when you hear a contemporary opera that’s set in English it’s so discordant, it’s so tone deaf. And I think that one of the problems is that the composers are thinking classically, their thinking as if they were European composers approaching the libretto, when what one really has to do is to imagine one’s a pop composer setting these texts.
FJO: It’s great that you bring up Richard Rodgers because I remember I was in a music theater composer’s workshop years back and I was told that Oscar Hammerstein II had this dictum that the words must marry the music. And in your work clearly the words marry the music. And to step away from this, though, now you’re setting texts that are not in English as well as texts that are in English. Is the approach different for Spanish than it is for English?
JA: No, I don’t think so. I think, you know, Spanish is not my first language, nor even my second language. It’s been a real voyage of discovery. I made a couple of mistakes in setting El Niño that some native speakers have caught.
FJO: And now they’re fixed.
JA: Yeah, hopefully they’re fixed! (Both laugh) But, I think that part of working in another language is just simply it’s a wonderful voyage of discovery. These poems that we chose for El Niño – I say ‘we’ because Peter Sellars was so intensely involved in helping me create the libretto – they’re mostly by women, and they’re almost all by Hispanic poets, and they have a clarity, they have an intense emotional depth to them that gives to this nativity story a color and a resonance that I think is completely new and hopefully, if I’ve done it right, will really give a new slant on this age old story.
FJO: Working with singers who are trained to sing dead composers, you know Puccini or Wagner or even Alban Berg versus singers who are trained to do Broadway musicals… You know, I worked with a singer on a piece once who wouldn’t stop rolling his Rs and I wanted to jump out the window! What do you do to guarantee that the vernacular English sensibility that you brought to it as a composer stays that way in the performance?
JA: First of all, I have been very, very fortunate in my life as a composer that I’ve had almost universally really great singers, who never rolled their Rs and wouldn’t roll their Rs even in Handel. People like James Maddalena, Sanford Sylvan, now I’m working with Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson… So, if you start off with that caliber of singer you don’t have to worry about those things, and I’m happy that we record these pieces because we get what the composer wanted right from the start.
FJO: And then you have a blueprint for future performances.
JA: Well, hopefully.



An excerpt of dialogue from the Piano Reduction of Act 1, Scene 2 of the opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1990)
Music by JA, words by Alice Goodman
© 1991, 1994 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: I get an enormous amount of criticism from opera purists about the fact that I require light amplification. And even some of my singers have been insulted about that because I’ve made comments in the press that I don’t like large operatic voices because I think they’re a strange mutation in the species that started with Wagner. But, what I like is a singer that can be natural and not forced, and while there are a couple of opera singers who have strangely huge voices that don’t sound forced – Thomas Hampson and Bryn Terfel are two examples of this – most singers really have to go in overdrive to fill a three thousand seat hall. And I don’t like overdrive. I don’t like it Wagner, I don’t like it in Verdi, and I certainly don’t like it in my own music. So, I still view amplification technology as in its infancy. I think we are, when it comes to speakers and microphones, we’re at where the Wright brothers were in aeronautics.
FJO: In terms of getting the sound to really sound like the source…
JA: Yeah, I’m saying if I can set the standard now and say “O.K., things are not ideal now but this is what I want” and I’m willing to suffer through an occasional bad speaker or a mike that, you know, crackles or something like that and doesn’t have full frequency response, in a hundred years this will be normal, halls will be built already with sound systems in them and people won’t have to scream. And there is this whole generation of young singers – people like Audra McDonald and Dawn Upshaw for that matter – who are totally comfortable with miking. And it’s just the opera companies who feel that, you know, that the Huns are at the door with their body mikes and their speakers. You know, I was told by someone at a major American opera company that she would never do Nixon in China as long as I insisted on amplification. It simply would not be performed in there, in her house!
FJO: Well, you know, it’s interesting because this gets into the whole “does place make the space” question, to paraphrase Sun Ra. But, you know, halls determine largely the sound of the music you hear in them, and I’ve heard amplified music in Carnegie Hall and it sounded wretched. And I’ve heard unamplified music at Iridium and it also sounded wretched. Or at the Knitting Factory, I was at a concert of this great jazz pianist, Andrew Hill, and they amplified his drummer because the sound guys there are used to amplifying drummers for rock gigs. It was a disaster!
JA: Oh yeah. Well, look, you know, everything is based on situations. You know, I’ve done an amplified piece of mine at the Concertgebouw and, you know, it was a disaster with amplification and it would have been even more of a disaster without amplification. So, you know, no situation is ideal. But we, as composers, simply have to decide what it is that we want. For example, Steve Reich always uses amplification, and sometimes it sounds great, sometimes it sounds terrible, but that is the model.
FJO: Right. And, certainly when you use certain instruments, like in El Niño you’re using guitars in the orchestra, and people who write guitar concertos or people who play guitar concertos with an orchestra, have to be very careful how to do that in terms of how things are orchestrated around the guitar part or how the guitar is amplified or where the guitar is placed with the other musicians, otherwise it won’t work.
JA: It’s been an instrument I’ve become very excited about in the last four or five years. There’s a large guitar part in this huge orchestra piece I wrote last year, Naïve and Sentimental Music, and there’s a guitar in my Violin Concerto , there’s guitar in Ceiling/Sky and also in a piece called Scratchband.


An excerpt from JA’ Harmonium (1980-81), text by John Donne
© 1981 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

An excerpt from JA’ Shaker Loops (1978, revised 1982)
© 1978, 1983 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

FJO: Earlier in this discussion, you were talking about how some composers in their later, more mature works turn to sacred pieces. The earliest piece of yours that was on my radar and on most peoples’ radars because it got disseminated through recordings was American Standard which has as its second movement “Christian Zeal and Activity,” the voice of this preacher on a tape with the ensemble playing on top of it. And certainly Shaker Loops references the Shakers, an important American religious community, and you’ve set John Donne who wrote a lot of great sacred poetry. And I guess, on the opposite side of that, there’s the preacher character in Ceiling/Sky who’s a rapscallion in a way, you know, he’s a womanizer, in the end he turns out to be a pretty good guy, but he’s right down the middle and we’re never really quite sure whether or not this he’s a good guy or a bad guy, and certainly there are religious elements in Klinghoffer and the zealotry the main Palestinian protagonist comes from a religious position. Where do you see the role of religion in society, and, by extension, the role of sacred music and why are you turning to a sacred work? A work that’s overtly that way?
JA: Well, I hate to think of religion in terms of a role, so I’d rather not answer it from that angle. I think every person has a spiritual life. Now, whether that is a highly evolved spiritual life, a person belongs to a church or a temple, meditates every day or goes to church or prays or whether it’s a totally different kind of less organized activity, it’s really up to the individual. And I can’t actually describe to you what my inner religious life is. I grew up in a small town in New England, and went to several Christian churches with my mother. My mother was a person who had grown up in an Irish Catholic family, and she’d married a man who had come from a Swedish Lutheran family and who hated religion, he just didn’t want anything to do with it. So, my first memories of religion were going to the Episcopal church with my mother in this very small town in Woodstock, Vermont. I even remember being baptized, my parents had not gotten around to baptizing me until I was about four. So, I do remember that. And then later on my mother decided to join a Unitarian church in Concord, New Hampshire, and I can’t remember why. It was either because she had more friends in the church or it had a better choir or she was disgusted with the Episcopalian church for some reason. I can’t remember. But I was very aware and intensely serious about the Christian philosophy at that time. And then I sort of drifted away from it. When I was in college, I became very interested in Buddhism and in Indian religion, partly from being involved with the 60s and the drug culture. I can’t tell you where I stand on it now, officially. But I do know that the mythology, if you want to call it that, of the Christ story obviously had a profound effect on me, and particularly this very sweet and simple story of the Nativity. So, this was a piece that I always wanted to compose. I think for 20 years now I’ve wanted to do this piece.
FJO: What’s so interesting to me though is that many year ago I read the Gnostic gospels, you know, the gospels according to James, and all these other gospels, and they are these wonderful pieces of prose that are little known. And in a way, by setting those texts, by basing things around those texts, it’s not tackling a sacred piece from necess
arily a sacred position because these texts are not really worshipped by anybody.
JA: You mean it’s a Unitarian point of view.
FJO: (laughs)
JA: Well, I don’t want to imply that I have some secret agenda at all. I wanted to tell a story, but not the same story that Handel told. Nor did I want to be aggressively avant-garde about it. And the Gnostic gospels are wonderful because they are like little fairy tales. It’s the same setting, it’s the same fundamental narrative, but they’re different, they’re little events. There’s this wonderful little story where they are on their way to Egypt and they stop by a cave and dragons came out of the cave. Of course you can see why the founding fathers of Christianity didn’t want this particular story in the New Testament because dragons immediately cast doubt on the validity of the story. And there’s a lot of magic.
FJO: Yeah, I love the story of when Jesus is 5 years old and I guess his elementary school teacher is annoyed that he’s getting all the answers correct…
JA: The Al Gore of his time…
FJO: (laughs) And the teacher chastises him and of course says he’s wrong about something, and of course Jesus wasn’t wrong, the teacher tries to hit him and he’s frozen.
JA: Yeah.
FJO: I love that.
JA: I chose them partly for that reason, I like that there is this sort of whimsy and fairytale quality about them. But also, there’s wonderful character shaping. In the Gnostic Gospels there are confrontations between Joseph and Mary that are quite modern. It’s very clear that Joseph thinks when he first hears Mary is pregnant that he’s been cuckolded and this is never quite brought out in the official gospels like Book of Matthew. So those were wonderful elements to incorporate into this.
FJO: Now, you’re calling it El Niño, but it originally had the title How Could This Happen which I really like as a title because it is ambiguous, but El Niño also has a wonderful ambiguity to it because it also conjures up that terrible weather pattern that we had a few years ago. With a title like How Could This Happen or El Niño you get a sense that it isn’t all positive. And certainly the history that’s played itself out in the last 2000 years as a result of this event whether historical or mythological or how ever you want to look at it, not everything has been positive. Is that sort of part of the idea giving it these one or two different titles?
JA: I don’t think so. My first title which was How Could This Happen is actually a translation from Latin, it’s a line from the Christmas Antiphon that was sung in Medieval church on Christmas Eve. It was a word, or a phrase that came into my mind the very moment my daughter came into the world. In the delivery room there were 5 people in the delivery room, then there were 6, and I think I chose that title originally because it was an expression of this sense of one’s complete incomprehensibility that you simply cannot explain how a human being can come into the world. And the only reason I decided not to stay with that title is because it didn’t seem to have a poetic scansion to it, people didn’t glom onto it as they did to Nixon in China. And there was a possibility a certain arrogantly, ironic twist to it that I didn’t want it to have. I chose El Niño because in all the Spanish literature about the Nativity, the words El Niño are there all the time, and it’s in this Sor Juana de la Cruz poem where she speaks of El Niño, the baby child that comes into the world. As to the resonance with the storm, I think that one could make the point that Christ was referred to as the wind, this powerful being from heaven, which came in and completely upset the tables and the temple and threw humanity into chaos which is necessary for one’s spiritual growth. I suppose one could deconstruct the title on that level.
FJO: And certainly by setting a lot of Latino poets, you are referencing the community that was hit hardest by El Niño.

A Totalist Oratorio?

An excerpt of the Soprano Solo in "Hail Mary, Gracious" from the Piano Reduction of Act I of JA’ El Niño (2000)
{text from the Wakefield Mystery Play} showing Adams’ use of elaborate polyrhythms
© 2000 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

The opening measures of JA’ Harmonielehre (1985)
© 1985 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

FJO: You’ve referenced Handel‘s Messiah before, I also think of Berlioz‘s L’Enfance du Christ which I wish would be done more often because I think it’s a great piece. The oratorio tradition is something that we’ve really lost in our time, and to some extent, you referred to Klinghoffer as an opera-oratorio which it is to some extent. How can we create an oratorio tradition that is relevant for today? I mean El Niño is clearly trying to do that, and there are multi-media elements in that piece.
JA: Well, relevance is such a tired concept right now. I’m trying not to do things that are relevant. I’m just trying to do things that are very meaningful to me. I resisted the word oratorio for the longest time because it seemed the word was from the dust in the past and summer choral societies and the English Midland singing Elijah or Elgar pieces that went on forever. But there really isn’t a better term to describe what this is; it is an oratorio. It is fundamentally a setting of text, it’s not intended to be a work of music theater, although I shaped it so that it could be treated almost as an opera, and it will be at Châtelet. It’s very important that the great key I took from Handel is that I did not lock a certain person into a certain vocal role. So therefore I’m able to have Mary be both the light-lyric soprano of Dawn Upshaw, but also the heavier more intense mezzo of Lorraine.
FJO: From what I could glean from looking at an un-proofed piano score and listening to 2 CDs of a MIDI generated performance (it’s great that these exist and I do want to talk about how MIDI demos can be an asset in rehearsal and in composition to know what’s going on as you’re working on it), El Niño seems to be a culminating piece from everything I’ve heard, and I’ve been listening to your music for over 20 years. The directness and immediacy of the early work is there, but also the later complexity, works like the Chamber Symphony, the Violin Concerto, there’s stuff going on, there’s 5 against 6, there’s 7 against 5. If you turn the page and you don’t listen to it almost looks like a page of an Elliott Carter string quartet. But it doesn’t sound that way.
JA: No it doesn’t! (both laugh)
FJO: But there’s clearly this poly-metrical thing happening and some very sophisticated happening with meter and rhythm. It’s brought back to this earlier, immediate style which is very exciting to me. It’s almost has this quality of the stuff that’s being dubbed as totalist music. You know, the Bang On A Can stuff. Complex polyrhythms that are immediate, so it’s taking that complexity and bringing it back into the language.
JA: I haven’t thought of that.
FJO: I can’t wait to hear it.
JA: You know, as far as being a summary or a culmination it probably would feel like that only because it’s a big piece. It’s 110-minute of music that I worked on over a two-year period. So probably, no matter what I did, it would have some sort of summary quality to it. But in terms of my musical language, I feel that I’m at a period of integration now, my harmonic palette was very pure in the 80s, and there was the minimalist element that was far more easily perceptible, and then I almost aggressively turned my back on that during the early 90s with pieces like the Chamber Symphony which you mentioned before, and the Violin Concerto, and explored a darker, more complex musical language, and I’m very pleased that I did. I think good pieces resulted from that, and I think I broke away from what I think is becoming a cul-de-sac of musical language. And now I think that I’m sort of taking all those elements and rounding them into a language which is very satisfying to me and defies any stylistic description.
FJO: If I dare say so it’s music that needed the whole 20th century to happen in order for it to happen. There’s definitely the imprint of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ives, Copland, Carter, Reich, but it’s completely you. I mean from the minute I pressed play on the CD player and heard that first movement, I instantly recognized it as your music. That’s really exciting because you may say it’s post-stylistic music but you have a voice, you have an identity, you have a sound and I hear it in the Chamber Symphony, I hear it in Harmonielehre, and all of these pieces…

Beyond Experimentation

The opening measures of JA’ Common Tones in Simple Time (1979-80)
© 1982 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: I think that literature has been through this same song and dance as music, there was a period when the novel went through this great experimental phase, certainly with Joyce and Gertrude Stein. I used to read a lot of women’s experimental works that were written in the 60s. And now the great novels that are being written, the great novels of American life, Russell Banks‘ novels, and Toni Morrison‘s, They’re really not experimental.
FJO: Toni Morrison is…
JA: Well some of Toni Morrison is, but certainly much of the great literature being written in America is not being experimental in the sense that Finnegans Wake or Donald Barthelme was. What people are really interested in now is the experience of the characters and the way the novel represents the intense moments of people’s lives. I just finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver… There’s this incredible story of this missionary’s family in the Congo. And I feel my music is very similar to that. I’m not interested in stretching boundaries of technique in the way that Cage was or even Carter was for that matter. I’m more comfortable with absorbing all the language developments that have happened over the last hundred years, and what’s more important to me is the actual content of what the work is about.
FJO: Well one of most exciting recent novels that I’ve read in the past couple of years is Carol ShieldsThe Stone Diaries, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it…
JA: No, I’m not familiar with that.
FJO: It won the Pulitzer. It’s a straightforward narrative with a plot that moves you from beginning to end, but it’s also experimental on some other levels. It would go in and out of these diaries and these inner-thoughts but it kept gripping you with narrative, and it was a synthesis. And I hear, rather than see, what you’re doing is a synthesis, much like that’s a synthesis, much like so much of what’s happening now even in the visual arts, is a synthesis of all these influences. It’s a return to tradition but also a looking beyond the avant-garde, because now the avant-garde isn’t avant-garde anymore. It’s old fashioned to some extent. The avant-garde is what needed to be overthrown, so we are now in this post-avant-garde world. It’s kind of an exciting place to be in.
JA: Well I’m always amused to consider the fact that the most avant-garde piece after Beethoven of the 19th century was Tristan und Isolde, and if you look at Mahler, if you look at something like the 4th Symphony of Mahler, he still hasn’t caught up with Tristan and Isolde. It was only at the very, very end of Mahler’s career that he started challenging tonality and form in the way that Tristan does, even though from his childhood he knew of Tristan. So I think that tends to show us that there are periods of enormous advance, like the period of The Rite of Spring for example, and then there are periods when there’s not so much a retraction or retroactivity as there’s this kind of synthesis. Certainly Mahler was much more a synthesizer, and so was Brahms. Not to put myself in the same class as those composers, but I think that that period, we’re in that sort of synthesizing period now, and a lot of the bad music that I hear is by composers who still haven’t psyched that out yet, who still are not quite comfortable where they are and feel that they need to be avant-garde in one way or another and there’s this sort of aggressive unpleasant confrontational aspect about their work which expresses their fundamental indecisiveness as to where they are.

Technology, Chamber Music and the Symphony

The opening of Hammer and Chisel from John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994) for string quartet with foot-controlled sampler by John Adams
© 1994 Hendon Music, a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

The opening page of JA’ Road Movies (1995) for violin and piano
© 1998 Hendon Music Inc., a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

The opening measures of JA’ Naïve and Sentimental Music (1998)
© 1999 JA. Published by Hendon Music, a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

FJO: We talked a bit about technology and how technology can liberated us when we talked about the use of amplification, and disseminating music through recordings. The use of electronic technology for what is essentially non-electronic music. I mean you have used synthesizers in your music from Light Over Water, to Hoodoo Zephyr which is all synthesizers, but for the most part you are writing for acoustic instruments even if they are slightly altered through the use of amplification. I remember an article I read about around the time of the premiere of the Violin Concerto. I was so thrilled that you were faxing parts back and forth with the violinist, and I was thinking: “This is exciting. We have all these office tools and you can use them for music.” And now I guess you don’t even have to fax the pages, you can send a Zip file through the Internet. How do you feel about that as a composer working with all these tools?
JA: Well, I don’t think it’s any different than how it’s helped anyone in any other aspect of life. It defines our existence these days that we all use e-mail, and the Internet, and digital this and digital that. I mean you can look at any activity and see how it’s been profoundly affected. In my case certainly the most important change from an artistic point of view, you know, is what I do with synthesizers and samplers. When El Niño is done, it will be done with a complete what I call ‘sound design’ with the engineer, Mark Grey, whom I worked with for many years, where not just the voices are lightly processed, but the orchestra and the hall itself so it may be a great hall in which case we’ll have to do very little, but the piece inevitably will be done in really bad halls, and they can turn a bad hall, if not into a great hall, into a serviceable one. So that’s been the major contribution that technology has had to my work. I love synthesizers, I’ve always loved them. I composed an album called Hoodoo Zephyr for Nonesuch, and I was very disappointed that it was a flop, a serious flop in sales. People simply didn’t buy it, and the people who did buy it didn’t understand it or didn’t like it, and I was really disappointed by it because I loved making the album. I spent a lot of time on it.
FJO: I enjoyed it a lot.
JA: And I would have loved to make more of them, and if life were longer and there were more hours in the day, I’d try to work in film because I think the marriage of electronic, or synthesized music and film is a natural one, but there’s just so little time and so much to do that I’ve just had to make a decision.
FJO: In terms of things to do and projects that are looming, I love all of these large-scale works, I love the fact that they exist. Part of me, though, wishes that you’d have time in addition to writing these great pieces, to write also more chamber pieces because I love Road Movies, I love Shaker Loops, the seven-string version, and you haven’t had as much time to do these smaller pieces. Are there any of these smaller scale pieces that you want to write in the future?
JA: Well the very next piece I’m doing after these performances with El Niño are done is a solo piano piece for Garrick Ohlsson who’s a wonderful pianist whom I worked with on the Copland concerto and I think has got a very special way with the piano, so I’ll be writing a solo piece. I don’t think I’m very good at chamber music.
FJO: Oh I don’t agree, I love Road Movies.
JA: I don’t think that those pieces are that successful. I really like the recording of The Book of Alleged Dances, I love listening to it, but you know it really was never a big success when Kronos toured with it. Audiences were not particularly taken with it. And you know maybe it’s just a situation that it needs to be performed by different groups and have a history, but I just haven’t felt that I’ve been very successful, and I’m not being tendentiously modest here, it’s just didn’t appear to me to be my forte in the way that for example Carter is a really great chamber music composer, or Bartók, or Beethoven. But you can talk me out of it.
FJO: In terms of your place in the tradition and the standard works, and bringing back this world of oratorio, there are certainly works like Naïve and Sentimental Music which is in essence a symphony. And Harmonielehre is to some extent also a symphony. But you have not used the word symphony for any of these works. Will you ever?
JA: You know I thought about it, and every time I think about it I’m troubled or burdened by certain pre-conceived notions, so it’s easier to just not deal with that, and simply say I’m going to write a large scale work for orchestra, and a title comes to me. And whether it ends up being a symphony or not, as people say, “s’not me problem”.
FJO: Well certainly in terms of reaching younger audiences, a title like Naïve and Sentimental Music goes a lot further than “Symphony no. 5 in f# minor”; it’s a lot more exciting and a lot more evocative.


El Niño
Frontpage of JA’ manuscript of the orchestral score
for El Niño (2000)
© 2000 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.


Violin Concerto
The opening measures of JA’ Violin Concerto (1993)
© 1993 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample


I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky
An excerpt of the song “Three Weeks” from I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky (1995)
Music by JA, Words by June Jordan
© 1995 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample


El Dorado
The opening measures of “Soleades,” the Second Movement of JA’ El Dorado (1991)
© 1991 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher
RealAudio Sample


Fearful Symmetries
The opening measures of JA’ Fearful Symmetries (1988)
© 1989 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample


Grand Pianola Music
An excerpt from the Third Movement of JA’ Grand Pianola Music (1981-82)
© 1982 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample