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John Adams

Crossing Borders By Paul Tingen
Published February 1997

This American classical composer writes rock songs as well as concertos and has a home studio complete with contemporary synths and a computer‑based sequencer. Paul Tingen talks to him about the best of both worlds.

There was a time when classical music and rock music were continents separated by a virtually uncrossable ocean of prejudice, sectarianism, incomprehension, and musical languages so different that even attempts at communication between the two were doomed to fail. Many such attempts have been made over the years, from Deep Purple's ill‑fated Concerto for Group and Orchestra, and ELP and ELO's flirtations with classical themes and instruments, to more recent efforts, such as Elvis Costello's collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, and the Kronos Quartet covers of Jimi Hendrix tunes.

Although more recent crossovers between classical and popular musics are far superior to the awkward efforts of the '60s and '70s, the two genres are never completely comfortable bedfellows. To most rock musicians, the stylistic, technical and aesthetic demands of classical music are a closed book, and any efforts to incorporate them tend to sound pretentious or pompous. And few classical composers have succeeded in incorporating rock influences, despite classical music's long history of taking popular music as its inspiration — look at Vaughan‑Williams' use of English folk music, the jazz‑influenced experiments of Ravel and Stravinsky, and Bartok's beloved Balkan folk music. What the 20th century has produced in the main is classical composers who employ some of the tools of rock music, using synthesizers to play classical music, like Wendy Carlos and Tomita, experimenting with electronics, like Stockhausen, and utilising the tape loop and sampler, like Steve Reich.

During the late '80s and '90s, however, a new wave of classical composers has emerged: these composers write genuinely in the tradition of classical music, yet are informed by rock aesthetics, and use popular music instruments and rhythms in a way that's more organic and integrated than ever before. In Britain these are composers like Steve Martland and Jonathan Harvey. A South Bank concert last Autumn showcased American composers Javier Alvarez (wildly and effectively experimenting with latin and jazz rhythms and harmonies), and Frank Zappa (exploring orchestral composition through abstract, atonal pieces with a rock edge).


And then there was, and is, John Adams. Though virtually unknown outside the classical music sphere, he is nevertheless regarded as one of the world's leading composers and is America's most frequently‑programmed. The South Bank concert mentioned above also saw the world premiere of his piece Gnarly Buttons, for solo clarinet and ensemble, and the London premiere of six instrumental pieces from I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky (1995), a collection of 25 rock songs. Both works were played by the London Sinfonietta, and included samplers and synthesizers, plus additional electric guitar, bass and drums (for I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky). Both works also revealed a classical composer reaching striking new levels in dealing with the heritage of rock 'n' roll. Gnarly Buttons falls very much into the tradition of other instrumental John Adams pieces, such as his violin concerto (1993) and his awesome El Dorado (1995), in that Adams has managed to blend the textures of synth sounds and samples with the timbres of the orchestra in a completely organic and natural way. Indeed, it's often hard to tell the samples and synth sounds from the orchestral sounds.

I think that the main problem with sequencers is that they're largely used by people with very little musical ability, to create music that may appear to be accomplished and polished, but is in fact very superficial.

Not so with I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky, a theatric song‑cycle piece based on the lyrics of the African‑American poet June Jordan. This is a radical departure from Adams' normal work, in which he attempts to write genuine rock songs, based around mainly black music styles like R&B, gospel, soul, blues, doo‑wop, and so on — a bold endeavour for a classical composer. Thus it was that the Queen Elizabeth Hall was treated to the unusual sight of a classical ensemble having to play heavy‑duty R&B brass parts and tight percussion, and accommodate a screaming electric guitar and midriff‑punching bass.

Before the concert, Adams, a greying figure with horn‑rimmed glasses and gentle eyes, who looks 10 years younger than his 50 years, held a public talk in the foyer of the QEH. He remarked, with a wide grin: "I'm often asked how I liked writing pop songs, and I answer that I found it the hardest thing I ever did. When you're an opera composer, and especially a minimalist opera composer, you'll take a long time to get off the runway, maybe 20 or 30 minutes. People will indulge you because they pay an enormous amount of money [public laughter] and they figure they're going to be there for four hours anyway. If they don't understand it, that's OK, because it's opera! [More laughter.] But with rock 'n' roll and pop songs it's completely different. People expect the message right up front. They want the very best idea in the third bar of the piece, and if they don't get it, the song is a complete bore‑out, not good. You have to state your point immediately, and it also has to be intelligible. It was a very hard thing to do, and sweating out 25 songs was a long march."

Asked how this experience sat with his 'regular' music, Adams commented that "we're in a very interesting historical period. I think we're post‑style. We're in a period during which we can't really place a stylistic label on the most interesting composers any more. All these pioneering, avant‑garde inventions that happened earlier this century — like 12‑tone music, aleatoric, minimalist music — but also popular music styles like jazz and blues and rock, have all spent themselves in their pure form. There's a vast synthesis happening at the moment. All genres are beginning to collapse, and the best testimony for that is to go into a large music store and see displays of CDs by Hildegard von Bingen right next to Arvo Part, Steve Reich and music from Bali. And when you ask for a CD you can witness the frantic hysteria of the shop assistant: 'Is that New Age Crossover Hillbilly or something?' There's so much information coming at us that we can't process it."

American Sounds

John Adams himself must shoulder some of the blame for the confusing state of contemporary music, for he has long been one of the more innovative and genre‑crossing composers on the classical music scene. He grew up on the American East coast, where he learnt to play the clarinet, and studied music and composition at Harvard University. After moving to San Francisco in 1971, he was active as a music teacher and conductor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and became the San Francisco Symphony orchestra's first composer‑in‑residence. It was during the '80s that Adams sprang to international prominence, with minimalist‑inspired instrumental works like Harmonium (1981) and Harmonielehre (1985), and especially his two operas, Nixon In China (1987), which won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Composition, and The Death Of Klinghoffer, which was premiered in 1991.

Adams has always been categorised as a minimalist composer, something he called "a label that stuck to me like one of these monsters from Alien" during his pre‑concert talk in London. A few weeks later, via a lengthy transatlantic phone conversation from his Berkeley home, he explains: "I never considered myself a minimalist. My early pieces were evidently influenced by minimalism, and people therefore grouped me in their minds with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and they still do today. But I've always considered minimalism only as one of the many styles that I'm using. I moved away from it very strongly in the early '90s, with the opera The Death Of Klinghoffer and my violin concerto, in which my music became more chromatic and more harmonically complex. I've always been looking to extend my music expressively, using melody and lyricism, and taking a great deal of inspiration from jazz, rock and ethnic music. No open‑minded composer can neglect the folk music of his or her time."

I love working with electronics so much that I wanted to create an album that had nothing but synthesizers and samplers.

Even though Adams quotes a number of European composers who have incorporated popular music into their styles, he goes on to say that he feels that the more obvious appropriation of popular music in classical styles is "a key element in American art music, like Charles Ives using ragtime music, or George Gershwin using black music." Another "key element" of American music in general, according to Adams, is "the unwillingness to accept the heritage of European music wholesale, especially in terms of sound. We have concluded that music is not just about the way the composer puts pitches on the five lines on paper, but as much about the choices of the sounds themselves. We are the country of the real mavericks, like Harry Partch, who invented his own instruments and tunings, and we were the country in which most amplified and electronic instruments were invented, and their usage pioneered."

Sequencing Is Wonderful

And with that Adams leads us straight into a subject that is SOS home territory. For it turns out that he doesn't only conform to the profile of the archetypal 20th century American classical composer by taking his inspiration from both art and popular music sources, he also has a keen and long‑standing interest in electronic instruments. This interest runs so deep that he even taught himself electronics: "My first encounter was in 1969 when the music department of Harvard University bought a Buchla synthesizer, which was the creation of an engineer called Donald Buchla. It was an analogue synth similar to the Moog, but creatively more imaginative. I immediately began composing pieces on the Buchla. After I moved to California in the '70s, I became very interested in what might be called low‑tech electronics. Many American composers had built their own electronic instruments and created pieces with these, and that was my goal as well. So I built my own synthesizer, using analogue circuitry such as integrated filters and circuits."

Adams admits that his self‑built synth has since been "cannibalised for parts", but adds that "this was a very critical period for me creatively, not only because of the use of synthesizers, but also because I became intensely aware of how sound can be manipulated by gates and filters and oscillators. This had a profound effect on the way I viewed compositional structure and form. It showed me that there were other ways of creating musical pieces besides the conventional approach of harmony and melody, or using 12‑tone rows, or whatever. I became very interested in making the form of my instrumental pieces imitate what went on in electronic circuits. Some of these pieces have titles that suggest electronic activities, like the string orchestra piece Shaker Loops or the piano piece Phrygian Gates — the loops being a reference to tape loops, and the gates to voltage‑controlled amplifiers. With the exception of Harmonielehre, they're the only two pieces that don't have any electronic instruments. But the music behaves like electronics. Shaker Loops is built around the idea of loops, or sequences, of oscillating melodic cells, whereas the music of the piano piece behaves as if it were coming out of a synth circuit."

I'm often asked how I liked writing pop songs, and I answer that I found it the hardest thing I ever did.

Adams agrees that the technique of composing with tape loops, as Steve Reich did in his influential voice piece It's Gonna Rain (1965), or with sequencers, is attractive for anyone working in the field of minimalist music. "But I use the technique in a very different way. I never made tape‑loop pieces like that. I was more interested in mimicking the behaviour of electronic instruments in my instrumental pieces. And the arrival of the sequencer has opened up all sorts of possibilities that one could do with just pen, paper and a piano, but would be very difficult to try out. The whole concept of cutting and pasting and multiple transpositions and timescale changes is what makes sequencing wonderful. I'll give you a case in point. In my violin concerto, there's a bass line in the second movement that's very similar to the Pachelbel canon bass line. But it expands and shrinks all the time and is transposed into very unusual harmonies. I wrote that using the time scale and transposition devices from [Mark of the Unicorn's] Performer."

Individual Language

In addition to integrating samplers and synthesizers into his instrumental classical music (see 'Key Facts: John Adams' Gear' box), Adams has also written, played and recorded two works that feature only electronic instruments: Light Over Water (1983, New Albion) and Hoodoo Zephyr (1993, Nonesuch). He calls Light Over Water "not as satisfying as Hoodoo Zephyr, because the technology was far more primitive at the time." Hoodoo Zephyr is a fascinating work, ranging from pulsating, multi‑layered intensity, to slow, spacious, atmospheric sound effects, with much emphasis on sound processing. The harmonies are very simple, and melodies almost entirely absent. It's also a work that's clearly composed using a sequencer, with extremely tight musical performances and many repetitive patterns and structures. Adams: "Hoodoo Zephyr was done in my studio here, on the instruments I already mentioned to you. The only additional thing I hired was a big professional mixing desk. I love working with electronics so much that I wanted to create an album that had nothing but synthesizers and samplers."

Hoodoo Zephyr is nevertheless a rarity in Adam's oeuvre, because "I'm very interested in live performance, and in working with classically‑trained players. So I suspect that most of my future work will continue to be in that format. I acknowledge that orchestras are not the easiest medium to work with, because of all the economics and the tradition that one has to deal with there. But I like working with them and with musicians, whether in the concert hall or in the recording studio. I often conduct my own music, again both in the concert hall and in the recording studio, and when I'm not conducting in the recording studio you can be sure that I'll be sitting there, choosing takes and doing the mix, and generally hovering over everything that the producer and engineer do. First recordings of one's own work are critical. It's very important that the tempi and balance and mix are completely right, because through it you should get the composer's ideal image of what he wants."

Adams was off soon after the interview for a first recording of his song cycle/opera/musical — he still isn't sure what to call it — I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky in Finland, with a collection of Finnish musicians "who were wonderful during the Helsinki performance of the piece in 1995" and American singers. I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky (a drama centred around the 1994 Northridge earthquake — the title is a quote from an earthquake survivor) is expected to be released in the second half of 1997. Adams has also recently written a piece called John's Book Of Alleged Dances for string quartet and sampler, which will soon be recorded by the Kronos Quartet.

Despite all this activity, and despite his daring experiments, critical reaction to Adams's recent works has not been positive in his home country. His violin concerto was criticised as sounding "too European" (they have Euro‑sceptics over there too, apparently), and I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky was positively panned. Adams: "It was generally well received in Europe, but in the States there were people who felt that I was a classical composer dabbling in pop music, and there were politically correct protests from people who felt that I had no business venturing into black music styles. That was funny, because no black people criticised my piece, and June Jordan is an African‑American herself, and she loved what I did. I pointed out that George Gershwin was a Jew from Brooklyn, who wrote Porgy and Bess, which was covered by every black musician from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis. So I felt that these criticisms were unfair.

"What worries me more is that I was recently criticised for no longer being interested in innovation. No composer wants to read that about himself. It's considered the kiss of death. But I think that innovation takes different guises. There have been composers who were innovative and were talking about that all the time, like Wagner, Beethoven, Stravinsky or Schonberg, and there are composers who weren't necessarily innovative in that same sense, of creating new styles of music, but who created great works of art nevertheless. Bach was seen as old‑fashioned towards the end of his life, for example, even though he was deeply innovative. I think it's also a matter of the era we live in. I said that we're in a post‑style period: there's no brand‑new, single style that everyone is talking about and that you can become a true believer in, or opponent to. All styles and genres are blending, so all composers can do nowadays is create their own, uniquely individual language."

Key Facts: John Adams' Gear

Adams does his composing at his home studio in Berkeley, which consists of several Yamaha keyboards, including an SY77, SY99 and Electone, Korg Wavestation, Emu Proteus 1 module and Emax II, Kurzweil K2000, Lexicon LXP15 reverb, Macintosh computer with software such as Performer and Blank Software's Alchemy, and a small 16‑channel desk ("I can't remember the name. I only use this studio for writing, and I write as much with the sequencer as with pen, paper and piano").

The sequencer has been blamed in rock circles for much sterile, laboured music, and Adams agrees that they need to be treated with care: "You have to watch out that you don't make your decisions to coincide with the technology. It's better to make sure that the technology responds to you than the other way round. That takes hard work sometimes. I think that the main problem with sequencers is that they're largely used by amateurs and people with very little musical ability, to create music that may, on the surface, appear to be accomplished and polished, but is in fact very superficial. But in the hands of a really well‑trained, skilled musician, a sequencer can be a very valuable tool."

At first hearing, this sounds a little like the arrogance of the classical music elite, but Adams' point appears to come out of a genuine concern that sequencers are often used to cover up musical ineptitude — which, of course, they are. And eating the proof that is in Adams's pudding, it must be said that his recent large compositions, such as the violin concerto and El Dorado, show the power of technology in the hands of such a skilled musician. Both are masterpieces that jump out at you from the speakers, especially El Dorado, with its first movement full of spooky synth sounds, tuned percussion, frantic hi‑hat and snare rhythms, and haunting, chromatically‑rising strings. Adams: "There's a Kurzweil K2000 and Yamaha SY99 in the recordings of both pieces. My usage of synth and sample sounds in these pieces is very subtle. I integrate them with the orchestral sounds, so you really have to listen for them. There are a couple of synth solos, but most of the time I use synths and samplers as a colouring mechanism. I suppose you could call it a background sound. I use it like a painter who puts a colour wash on the canvas before he puts the actual paint on it. So it creates a kind of perspective against which the other instruments play. I also use samples to flesh out certain instrumental sections. For example, if I have strings playing pizzicato, I'll double that with pizzicato samples. This mixture of a sampled, processed version of the sound, and the real sound creates an interesting effect, which I like very much, and which I think is very much my identity. I spend quite a lot of time programming synthesizer sounds, for my pieces, and take samples from sample CDs, or record them myself. I will treat and process all samples here, using Alchemy.

"The problem I'm having at the moment is that when you write for a specific model of synthesizer, such as the Yamaha SY series, they eventually go out of production. This causes terrible problems if an orchestra somewhere in the world wants to play a piece of mine and can't find a Yamaha SY synth. I discovered that it's much easier when I have all the synth sounds in sampler format as well. They can take my sounds as a sample, and play it from that. So I'm in the process of transferring all my orchestral synthesizer parts, which were originally done for the Yamaha SY77 and SY99, to my sampler, the Kurzweil K2000. I like the Kurzweil very much, and it's compatible with the Akai S‑series sampler range, so people can also play the sounds from that. But I realise that I'll eventually have to make my sounds available on all major samplers, like Emu and Roland. The whole transferral process already takes up an enormous amount of time. I've even had to hire an engineer to help me with it, because it's so labour‑intensive. It also hugely frustrates my publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, because they're only used to dealing with printed music and they now have to get used to the concept of updating — so common in the world of software and computers."