sat 20/07/2024

Interview with Composer John Adams | reviews, news & interviews

Interview with Composer John Adams

Interview with Composer John Adams

The American composer who's been accused of being anti-American

I once asked John Adams the best way to experience his music. "Imagine you're driving on one of those absolutely flat roads in the Midwest where you make out something which turns out to be a grain elevator, or then there's a range of mountains in the distance. The form of my music is as if moving over landscape."

It is certainly true that Adams's music is perfect for listening to on trains and planes, with its exhilarating pulse of forward projection and shifting horizons. He once said he would love it if someone saw a typical American scene, such as a gas station at dawn, and said, "That is so John Adams." And, referring to the second American president, he says: "With a name like mine, I goddam better be writing American music."

While European classical music is an essential part of his make-up - the first record he owned was Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting Sibelius - you can also hear in his music the influence of Sixties Motown pop or the jazz bands such as Duke Ellington's that he used to hear at his grandfather's dance hall in his native New Hampshire. There are even traces of Latino or Asian culture picked up from the modern melting pot of California where he has lived for 30 years.

The argument against the opera was that, by giving voice to characters who are Palestinian terrorists, it validated terrorism itself

The first pieces that brought him renown, such as Shaker Loops, were in the minimalist school of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Now he's harder to categorise. When I tell him his music reflects his own dual background of New England puritan austerity and Californian warmth he pauses and drawls, "Yeah, I buy that."

But while over the last few years he has become the most performed American composer, he has found himself in recent months accused of being anti-American, even of being a terrorist sympathiser.

Adams was always likely to run into controversy because of his belief that "if opera is going to have any future at all as a living art form, it has to take hold of the psychological themes and undercurrents of our present lives". His first opera, Nixon in China, directed by Peter Sellars and with a brilliant libretto by Alice Goodman, was a triumph and made his name internationally.

The follow up, The Death of Klinghoffer, depicts the 1985 hijacking of cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, which ended with the killing of the Jewish American tourist Leon Klinghoffer. It will be performed as part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Adams retrospective this weekend.

It was contentious enough when it was first performed around the time of the Gulf war. In the wake of September 11, it has become even more controversial and set off a rumpus in the States after the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled a performance of excerpts, saying it was "erring on the side of sensitivity". The emotional temperature was further raised when it emerged that the husband of a member of the chorus was on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre.


The argument against the opera was that, by giving voice to characters who are Palestinian terrorists, it validated terrorism itself. Richard Taruskin, a respected musicologist, called the opera anti-Semitic and anti-American in The New York Times.

Adams gave a long interview to, objecting to Taruskin's "inquisitorial posture, not unlike that of the McCarthy era". As for its being a "terrorist opera", he said, "Terrorism is evil and everyone who experiences it suffers immeasurably. But there are reasons why a terrorist behaves the way he or she does, and we would be foolish and self-deluding not to ask why."

When I emailed him this week about the controversy, he replied, "I think everyone regrets the whole thing happened. I wanted to make clear to the public that art should have a substantial role during such a crisis and it should do more than merely comfort and provide solace. It should help us examine our deepest selves."

The Death of Klinghoffer, which Channel 4 is filming next month on a real cruise ship, wasn't the only piece of Adams to be affected by September 11: his Short Ride in a Fast Machine was pulled from the Last Night of the Proms. (The piece had already been cancelled by the Proms in the days after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Adams now has a plan to break the jinx in London by doing it as an unannounced encore.)

That music was inspired by a "terrifying" ride in a friend's Maserati, but Adams's most famous car journey took place in the early Seventies, when he turned his back on the East Coast establishment, who Adams felt were in thrall to the "angry, incomprehensible and self-referential" music of the European avant-garde, and drove to the West Coast in a battered Volkswagen. It's a journey that has achieved a kind of mythic significance in the story of the rescue of tonal music.

Adams may be feeling a little bruised from the row over terrorism, but that hasn't stopped him working on a new opera about the making of the atom bomb. And he's been sustained by overwhelmingly positive critical reception to El Nino, his Nativity oratorio, "my Messiah", premiered in Paris last year.

Using a collage of different texts, Adams has created a wonderfully powerful modern re-imagining of the Nativity story, with a consistently high level of musical invention (by contrast, he says of The Death of Klinghoffer, "It includes both some of my best music and some of my worst"). El Nino, he says, was "a blessed piece" that, although initially difficult to write, showed that "I have matured enormously in terms of technical understanding - in the form and shape and the way I handled the voices".

Is he turning into a sacred-music composer? "Well, I'm not about to turn into John Tavener or take holy orders, but I did discover a different side of myself."

Meanwhile, he just carries on composing, aware that, at 54, he is "the age many composers were dead or washed up", with breaks for conducting and learning languages. His New England puritan work ethic serves him well. When he's at home, he tries not to be disturbed, gets up "semi-comatose" at 4.30am, and writes. "The important thing is to keep the machine well-oiled, and ideas tend to come. Even if a lot of what I write is awful and has to be discarded. I have a craftsman mentality - I'm not going to slash my wrists and I'm not going to save the world."

You can  hear in his music the influence of Sixties Motown pop or the jazz bands he used to hear at his grandfather's dance hall

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