A conversation with John Adams, composer and so much else

Watch the development of staff artist Patterson Clark's iPad sketch of composer John Adams at Teatro Goldoni.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010

As far as I know, my father never met Ezra Pound. It becomes necessary to point this out during a two-hour supper with composer John Adams because, well, Adams asked.

The Ezra Pound question will give you a good sense of how a conversation with Adams, one this country's most distinguished and most talented artists, flows. It is, to mix several metaphors, a free-verse fugue in multiple acts, a dance amid the clinking of forks, and unlike anything most journalists experience on regular duty.

"Apropos of nothing, but we were speaking of architects," he begins, segueing from a discussion of painters. "I was down in L.A. to hear my new piece, and I was sitting next to Frank Gehry. People from the Philharmonic kept coming up to Gehry, and Frank would say, 'How come that door's open up there?' 'Why aren't those lights on?' " Adams has a good-natured laugh, and he indulges it heartily at the thought of the world's most famous architect, sitting in the concert hall he designed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, still fussing and fretting over details of a building that opened more than seven years ago. Artists, if they're smart, learn to let go.

Gehry, I point out, is designing the new Eisenhower Memorial in Washington.

"Eisenhower?" asks Adams. He pauses for a moment. "He got us out of Korea. And he built $800 billion worth of highways. You know what that did to public transportation in this country? Permanently ruined it. That was a juggernaut of the auto industry, the tire industry and the oil industry, and it killed the railroads."

There ensues a brief exchange about the American romance with highways.

Without it, "we wouldn't have 'On the Road,' " agrees Adams, mentioning Jack Kerouac, whose novel "Big Sur" was the inspiration for an Adams piece called "The Dharma at Big Sur." I mention my father, a great lover of highways, who was born in Idaho, where the land is large and highways deeply a part of the rural culture.

"Really? Idaho?" asks Adams. He is delighted. Adams is often delighted by little things, details of place, odd connections between people.

"Did he know Ezra Pound?" Only after transcribing our conversation do I realize that Ezra Pound, who spent the dark years of World War II rhapsodizing for Mussolini in Italy, and the postwar years locked up in Washington's very own St. Elizabeths Hospital, was born in Idaho. Who knew? Adams, who says he spends his downtime reading literature, knew.

Adams was in town last month for an intense musical residency sponsored by the Kennedy Center. He conducted the National Symphony Orchestra -- including one of the best performances it has given in years -- and met with folks from the Washington National Opera and the Library of Congress. The library presented him with a letter he had written to Leonard Bernstein more than 40 years ago, chastising the older composer for not being sufficiently avant-garde.

"I hadn't seen the letter since 1966," Adams says. Bernstein wrote him back, but Adams had long since lost the response. But seeing his own letter again, decades later, prompted this reflection: "I was ragging on him with the exact same language that my son, who is 24 (and a very, very talented composer), is ragging on me. The same criticism. It was almost eerie."

Another hearty laugh. This centers the conversation, at the Italian restaurant Teatro Goldoni on K Street NW (mushroom risotto and two glasses each of Chalone Vineyard pinot noir), for a considerable span. Adams is deeply interested in the broader musical dimensions of culture, how pop music and classical music coexist and sometimes cross-fertilize, how composers need audience feedback, how musical generations succeed one another and how some artists will fight quixotic battles to their dying day, holding true to avant-garde orthodoxy no matter how isolating it is. The story of classical music in America is for Adams a grand narrative that is still unfolding.

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