John Adams (the living composer, not the dead president) uses the word "Yankee" as if it explained everything elusive about his personality. High above the clamor of Rockefeller Center, Adams is dressed in the Yankee style familiar from L.L. Bean catalogues: smart and casual, yet earthy, like a well-scrubbed psychiatrist on holiday. He chooses the Yankee label to explain why his extraordinary popular success has never prompted him to collect European sports cars or Savile Row suits.
"Well, of course, I'm a Yankee," he says. A Yankee who has lived in Berkeley, Calif., for 27 years. A Yankee who plies the suspect trade of contemporary music. A Yankee who writes, talks and composes with cosmopolitan grace.
Adams is in New York to oversee the completion of "The John Adams Earbox," a 10-disc compilation of his most important recordings released on the Nonesuch label. There is an important symbolism to the boxed set, which arrived in stores last month: Among living composers, a major retrospective like the "Earbox" is very rare. The Hungarian modernist Gyorgy Ligeti has one. The venerable German composer Hans Werner Henze has one. Steve Reich, one of the pioneers of High Minimalism, has one. But these are exceptions to the rule: that the music of our time doesn't sell well, and it really doesn't sell well if packaged into high-priced multi-disc sets. Yet "The John Adams Earbox" does not target only serious collectors; it is being marketed to Adams's many mainstream fans as well.
The Yankee who has just received yet one more symbolic honor is not distracted by the accomplishment. He easily dismisses a snippy Village Voice article that suggested he might not be hoary enough to offer the world an "Earbox" quite yet.
"It was sort of nasty about this," he says. "If I were a poet or novelist, or a painter, I'd certainly have an anthology printed in mid-career. It just shows what everyone expects from composers. We don't treat living American composers very well, in the way that museums treat living American artists."
Adams speaks of other American composers protectively, whether it's his fellow New Englander Charles Ives (1874-1954) or young composers still struggling to get established. He also acknowledges that he's been extraordinarily successful--maybe not as successful as Philip Glass or John Williams--but enough to live very comfortably without having to teach or take work that doesn't interest him.
"It's a very good time to be a composer," says Adams, in a striking remark given the gloom about the music industry in the early part of this decade. "I would say first of all that new music has benefited along with a lot of other genera from the flush economy. There is a lot of money for commissioning of orchestral music, and it's possible now for more composers to eke out a living. Ten years ago I was one of only three or four composers who made a living solely by composing. Now there are 15 or 20."
Adams's success has given him a luxury that few American composers enjoy: a real career like those that 18th- and 19th-century composers used to have, a trajectory as a composer that has a shape and logic to it. Adams has created a body of work that doesn't evaporate as fast as new pieces are added. His commissions are usually big. Their premieres make the newspapers. It's been something that audiences can follow, work by work, event by event--which increases comprehension and understanding.
'Nixon's' the One
In 1985, prompted by a brilliant suggestion from stage director Peter Sellars, Adams undertook composition of his first and best-known opera, "Nixon in China." Even during its composition it attracted press--Adams notes that Tom Brokaw "sardonically dismissed" the whole thing when news of the first rehearsal broke--and its Houston premiere in 1987 was one of the most anticipated and reviewed opera openings since the days of Leonard Bernstein.
The opera is excerpted on the "Earbox," including the opening scenes in which Nixon's plane arrives in China. Sellars's staging of the arrival was magnificent; audiences gasped at the scene's realism, as if they had penetrated the hard glass of the television screen, and were seeing the pure, idealized truth of the event. But Adams's music, with its restless rising figures that magnify the expectation of the moment, is equally important to the effect. In a single moment, it proved that America could produce a kind of ironic grand opera, on specifically American themes. Adams wasn't writing bombast like Wagner, but he offered a spine-tingling alternative to the thin gruel of family, sex and shame that is still the major preoccupation of American composers and librettists.
"Nixon in China" raised high expectations for Adams's "Death of Klinghoffer," which premiered five years later. By then "Nixon" was settling in as a solid candidate for the greatest American opera of the late 20th century. "Klinghoffer," inspired by the murder by Palestinian terrorists of an elderly Jewish man aboard the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, was at first a baffling work. Its evenhanded treatment of Palestinians and Israelis--in choruses of serpentine fluidity--earned the composer and his librettist, Alice Goodman, the charge of antisemitism. A media circus dogged the work for years.
"I was horrified," Adams says. "People would say I should have expected it, and I did expect some discord, but I had no idea how hurtful and uninformed the criticism would be. It is truly something terrible to read the New York Times and discover that you've written an antisemitic work. That kind of thing sticks to you for years and years, no matter how unfair it is."
And yet the criticism didn't stick, and within two years, Adams was touring with the Israel Philharmonic, and "Klinghoffer" was being "respectfully" reviewed in Europe. Adams weathered the crisis and, as sometimes happens with truly serious work (which selections in the "Earbox" prove), the opera emerged from its first trouncing.
It wasn't the first time that an Adams work rebounded. In the 1980s he was regularly accused of defiling minimalism with complex chords and extended melodies. He also released music that was wildly unpredictable, leading to a string of "he's finally gone round the bend" reviews. Yet each of those works--his delightfully nose-thumbing "Grand Pianola Music," for instance, or the difficult, dissonant Violin Concerto--has taken its place in his canon.
Indeed, even to speak of a canon for a contemporary composer demonstrates how much Adams is leading a traditional composer's life. He admits that there are far more performances of his work than he could ever possibly attend, which means that his music has a life of its own independent of Adams's increasingly hectic career (he also conducts, and has just returned from a European tour that included Ives's Symphony No. 4). He is leading a composer's life in the grand sense: as the creator of a large and well-known oeuvre, a rarity since the days of, say, Igor Stravinsky.
At the Door
"I'm hoping not to be the grand old man," says the composer, age 52.
If there is anything distinctively Yankee about Adams's public personality, it is the easy modesty, the self-deprecating but never self-lacerating humor. (The composer, who owns a Northern California farm once tilled by cannabis growers, says, "The only dope up there now is me.") And although he's not the sort of man who would dispense such advice, it seems he's living the kind of steady, productive life that makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
His career has definitely not taken him home to the weirdly idyllic New Hampshire childhood he touches on in the notes to the "Earbox." His first "big work," a suite for string orchestra, was premiered by the amateur orchestra of the New Hampshire State Mental Hospital (though not an inmate, he sat in and played clarinet). He spent his draftable years at Harvard, studying with Leon Kirchner. But since then he has been thoroughly West Coast, with a hippie phase when hippie was hip, a studio in Haight-Ashbury and an appointment to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which he made ground zero for his personal musical explorations. He did the John Cage thing, the electric music thing, the found-objects-that-squawk thing, and then he discovered minimalism.
That discovery, when he was still in his twenties, was a turning point, a focusing moment in his career of experimentation. By the time Adams discovered minimalism, the pioneers were old enough to be considered "first-generation." Adams came to it as a member of the next generation, and related to the form--which uses slow-moving harmonic structures, hypnotic rhythms and lots of repetition--very differently from his older predecessors, composers such as Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Although they may not have liked the word (coined by the English music critic and composer Michael Nyman), they clearly saw minimalism as an "ism"--as a response to serialism or atonalism or any of the other modernist schools of composition.
Minimalism was the last ism of the century, and perhaps the last ism to hold creative sway in classical music. The thing that has slowly supplanted it, and a kind of music that Adams pioneered, isn't an ism at all, despite the name: postmodernism. Adams found minimalism refreshing and aesthetically inspiring, but he didn't buy into the purist philosophy of the form. For him, the style wasn't an ethical crusade against the inscrutability of early forms of modernism; he liked the music, but didn't buy into the manifesto. He borrowed freely, then subverted what he borrowed. He wrote things that sound superficially like Glass and Reich, but then threw in something from Hollywood, or an old Christian hymn, or something reminiscent of his father's days as a big-band sax player.
The Adams "Earbox" traces all this, but adds up to no particular chronological thread. There is early Adams and recent Adams, serious Adams and riotous Adams, meditative Adams and ecstatic Adams, but the connection between them is, paradoxically, a strikingly consistent inconsistency of approach, style and rhetoric. As the French critic Renaud Machart observes, Adams doesn't really have "periods."
What he has, instead, is a remarkable fecundity of ideas, a very literate approach to music, a sense of humor, and more than any of his minimalist predecessors, a thoroughgoing grasp of how to use an orchestra.
Adams has a healthy sense of his place in history. He cites as a major accomplishment his success in forging new paths with minimalist rhetoric. He is the very embodiment of postmodernism in music, and he speaks of our time as "post-stylistic."
"If I can take any credit, it is to have given permission to the younger generation to not feel so intimidated by style, the rigors of a certain way of doing something. If the 'Earbox' says anything, it is that this is a composer who thinks the joy of being alive right now is working in many many different media, and finding many different voices to express myself."
American composers suffer from the syndrome of having no past--there were few great American composers before the 20th century. And in the last 50 years, American composers have suffered from a musical climate that makes it difficult to build on old work and consolidate a personal artistic catalogue. After a world premiere and perhaps a few dutifully arranged follow-up performances, their work sinks into obscurity. Only in a handful of cases, such as Adams's, do listeners have the chance to know a composer's past and hear his evolution, and the full spectrum of the challenges confronted over the years. Adams's "Earbox" offers that chance. It's also beautiful music.
Performers on "The John Adams Earbox" (Nonesuch 79453-2) include the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco Symphony, Gidon Kremer, Dawn Upshaw and the Orchestra of the Opera de Lyon, among others. The list price of the Adams set is. $99.95, but is available for less from some sellers.