Interview with John Adams

EM talked with John Adams.

John, we worked with you for so many years and we have the great pleasure that you wrote many of your compositions for the Ensemble Modern (EM). How would you describe your relationship with the EM up to today and in the future?
Well, the remarkable thing about the EM is that it is like a small city-state. Plato would have described this as a perfect democracy. It's like a small village with self-rule: there is no permanent no conductor who bosses the orchestra around. That's something very attractive that makes me, a New Englander, feel very comfortable. Charles Ives would have liked this ensemble because of its democratic way of making decisions. Another things that pleases me about the EM is the players' great openness to very diverse musical repertoire. I like this openness -it strikes me as a very American kind of attitude, as something you would no apt to find in Europe. The EM has no aesthetic orthodoxy, and that makes it a very pleasurable group to work with.

What does the founding of the Ensemble Modern Orchestra mean to you as an orchestral composer?
During today's rehearsal I said to the orchestra: We all - the whole orchestra and I the conductor - should realize that it is a very special honor to work under these circumstances. We have here a very large orchestra in which everybody's an exceptionally good player. There's nobody who's here simply because it's a job, and there aren't people who have been in the back of a section for 40 years and are just waiting for retirement and pension. In this orchestra the very last stand of the second violins is almost as good as the first stand. We have also been given more than adequate rehearsal time, something that most professional orchestras never have. This allows us to get to a level of depth and communal understanding of the music which normally is only achieved by string quartets or individual performers, but hardly ever by orchestras. We got beyond the ferocious difficulties of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony on the third day of rehearsal, allowing us to spend the remaining time forming a genuine interpretation of the music. That rarely if ever happens with new and unfamiliar orchestra repertoire. When I am working with them I experience an extraordinary sense of joy coming from the musicians. So at the moment I am feeling terribly spoiled by this opportunity. I don't know when I'll ever get to work under conditions as good as this again.

You like Charles Dickens very much. He developed a special expression for each of his characters for example the lawyer speaks a totaly different language as the servant. Is it easier to realize this in music with a big orchestra?
Well, that's an interesting thought. For me the orchestra is still a meanigful medium because, as you said, it has a very large cast of characters and, in addition to that, it has power, just the power of massed sonorities. It's a big army, and you bring your own kitchen and cook and cleanup crew... I have been attracted to the orchestral medium since I was boy, and I began playing in orchestras when I was ten years old. Thinking orchestrally has been almost as natural as breathing or walking for me. My musical thinking, both formally and sonically, favors large gestures and a sense of vast space. Some painters, like Vermeer or Paul Klee, were at their best working on small canvasses. Others felt constrained if they couldn't fill a larger space with their paint. I am certainly more like the big-picture painter. And, like a great novelist, a good orchestra composer can enjoy the enormous number of characters available in all their infinite possible combinations.

Is it different to write for ensemble?
Absolutely. My "Chamber Symphony" is a very athletic piece, almost Aerobic! That kind of nimble, manic, virtuoisic activity would not make such a strong impression were it to be played by a big, 100-piece orchestra. They are two very different beasts. There's a version that Schoenberg made of his "Chamber Symphony" for big orchestra, and it's ridiculous... The brilliant, flexible hyperactive world of the small ensemble is lost when it's performed by the big orchestra...it's like trying to make an elephant breakdance. An ideal ensemble for me would be one of about thirty five musicians, somewhere between a chamber ensemble and a full orchestra. The kind of the orchestra we had for the Yellow Shark performances, including the amplification, an orchestra of about 40 players, was a perfect grouyp for me. But an orchestra of this size is economically difficult to sustain. It can't play the "classics", so its "market potential" (to use a depressing American term) is limited. I think more people including me would write for small orchestra if there were more of them around, but for the moment, it's more of a dream than a reality.

Is it difficult to be a conductor-composer?
The transition is really difficult although I function very well in both roles. I enjoy conducting very much. Composing is a completely different life: very introvert, very private, very secluded. There's no question in my mind that composing takes precedence for me, but I could not imagine my life without both activites. The last three weeks before I came here for this tour I felt I noticed that I was experiencing the familiar internal dissonance because I knew that the difficult moment for the transition was at hand. I knew that I would have to leave off creative work, get on a plane, move into a hotel room, and the following morning stand in front of a sea of faces and have to act in a much more "public" manner. When I go home after this long tour I know that the transition back to creative work will be equally difficult. But I think that if I remained in just one of these realms alone the equilibrium of my musical personality would be destroyed. So the tough transitions are just something I have to learn to live with.

The "Fourth Symphony" of Charles Ives is a problemmatic work. What do you bring to this work as an American composer?
Ives's' music is a remarkable mixture of great philosophical vision, great spiritual depth and riotous comedy (the second movement of the Fourth Symphony is very funny, but most conductors don't understand Ives's peculiar sense of humor). But it's also musict that's full of maddeningly difficult problems, not all of them solvable. Much of this is the result of the fact that Ives never heard most of these pieces performed during his lifetime. As a result he often made assumptions about acoustical issues that are simply not possible to achieve in a concert hall setting. In the Fourth Symphony he imagines, for example, the sound of four trumpets playing fortissimo-but playing fortissimo from the distance of several thousand meters away, and of course this results in a pianissimo, but a pianissimo that's qualitatively very different than a flute right next to you playing very softly. It's actually the first instance I can think of a "theory of relativity" in orchestral dynamics, and it is interesting that Ives thought of this at almost exactly the same time Einstein was working on his famous theory. But achieving this in performance as well as the many other imagined sound relationships in the Fourth Symphony is only vaguely possible in the realities of the usual concert situation. Nevertheless, I think in our EMO performances we will be able to come closer to what Ives really wanted than in any previous performances of the piece. And we'll bring out that wonderful rowdy humor that Ives so loved. I've come to think of the Fourth Symphony as being to music what "Finnegan's Wake" by James Joyce is to literature. There are people who devote their whole lives to "Finnegan's Wake", to studying all the very obscure references in there. Indeed, to someone who comes to "Finnegan's Wake" the work is almost like some untranslatable document. The Fourth Symphony is very simular to this: it's huge and overly dense and full of references to musical artifacts that had special meaning to the composer. And it was left in a dreadfully ambiguous state...he never ever gave an indication of which of his many revisions was the "right" one. As we would say in New England, "He never stopped fiddling with it." I must say that there are some moments in it which don't work. You can understand by looking at the score what he was trying to do, but the overlapping of material creates an information overload that tends to destroy the hoped-for effect. Fortunately we have had ample time in rehearsal to take individual passages apart, and this has given us the priceless opportunity of learning what the nature of the inner workings of the piece are. The result is that the whole orchestra, all hundred-plus players, know the piece in the way that the four members of a string quartet might know a Bartok or Beethoven quartet. The piece is full not only of comedy, but of very moving references to his religious and philosophical life. I have an enormous emotional response to this music every time I conduct it. I am aware that, despite its many imperfections, it is one of the truly great humanistic statements by an American artist.

The new Michael Gordon piece is also very powerful. Can you explain the distinctions to Ives and yourself?
"Sunshine of Your Love" is really an extraordinary creationm, and it's been a privilege to be able to bring it into the world.When I first received the score from Michael I was not totally convinced about the piece. I was concerned that he was repeating himself, doing the same rhythmic and structural things that he'd done two years ago when he composed "Love Bead" for us. But what make the new piece so special is the sound of it, and this could only have been attained by his use of microtonal intonation. There are moments in the piece when the listener feels like he or she has been transported to some force field in outer space where the level of energy is stronger than anything one could possibly experience on earth. And I think that is precisely what Michael had in mind: he wanted to create a piece that had the otherworldy power that only love can provide. The major difference between Michael's work and mine (at least as I see it) is that Michael carries on the Modernist tradition of formal purity in a way that I've never been able to do. In that sense he is much more closely aligned to Minimalists like Reich and Glass than I ever have been. His pieces tend to be monolithic, concerned principally with one major theme or image. Variety exists as a matter of degree only within the context of that single idea. He's not unlike one of those great American Abstract Expressionist painters like Pollack or Rothko, one that uses a huge canvas to make a single, very commanding and powerfully felt gesture. I'm very much a universalist. My approach to creating a musical structure is more like starting on a journey into unknown territories. I often have absolutely no idea where the piece is going to take me, but I trust my intuitive sense to know which directions to follow and which to ignore. So my pieces often take the listener on long, winding voyages where he or she may encounter many different landscapes. I think the long, twenty-minute first movement of "Naïve and Sentimental Music" is a perfect example of what I am talking about. In that sense I am the polar opposite of Michael Gordon, but that makes life all the more interesting, doesn't it?

What constituts the difference between American and European music?
A lot of European 20th century strikes me as very pessimistic. The comment was made that the Ives' Symphony ends similarly to Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde - they both fade out into nothingness. But the difference is that Das Lied von der Erde fades out in a kind of Schopenhaurian resignation. The Ives, on the other hand, ends with the orchestra dissolving into the aether while the choir hums the tune to an old Protestant hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee." I suppose these are two different ways to dissolve the Ego in nothingness, but to me Ives's way is more life-affirming. This kind of optimism is still alive in America. It's in my music, even though I'm often ridiculed for it when I come to Europe. It may be that Americans, not having experienced firsthand the kind of moral catastrophes that two world wars and the Holocaust have provided, are simply too naïve and unsophisticated by European standards. But I think we represent as a culture something still young and fresh. Of course I acknowledge all the bad aspects of American culture-its terrible commericialism, its materialism and celebration of pop values. But what I consider vital and important about American culture is its great openness to influences from all different sources. The European avant-garde seems to me to be too self-absorbed in its own private, self-referential monologue. It's become a terribly snobbish clique full of artists who have an arrogant, condescending attitude toward their audience. That kind of snobbism is usually the last step before complete irrelevance. Most Americans simply refuse to be impressed with the whole "avant garde" myth. They tolerate Schoenberg but they don't love him. They are much less willing to be intimidated into "liking" something simply because they are told they ought to like it.

The title of your new piece is "Naive and Sentimental Music". What do you call "naive"?
I chose that title having read Schiller's essay about "naïve and sentimental" poetry. I thought that his way of viewing different kinds of poetry was very provocative, and it seemed to suggest polarities that exist in my own music. "Naïve" for Schiller meant an art that came into the world more or less effortlessly and without a lot of premeditation...spontaneous art, like Miles Davis or Mozart.

And "sentimental"?
By "sentimental" Schiller meant the opposite of spontaneous. He meant an art that was created by a very self-aware person, someone who was painfully aware of its place in the long hitorical continuum, and who was probably also extremely aware of the theoretical principles behind it. Of course no on today can really be "naïve" in the sense that Schiller used the term. But I think that the search for the naïve sensibility is a proper one for an artist. We may not be able to be naïve, but we can try to attain it by being absolutely honest in our search. I think Mahler and Ravel were two composers who did this in many of the compositions. And I've oscillated back and forth between these two poles in all of my music for the last twenty years.

The second movement, "Mother of the Man", refers to Busoni who said of his Berceuse that here he succeeded for the very first time to find his own sound and to dissolve form in sensation.
Oh really? Well, you took the words right out of my mouth. The reason why I compared my middle movement with the Busoni "Berceuse elegiaque" was because of the words he used to describe his piece: "Cradle song of a man at the grave of his mother" - Wiegenlied eines Mannes am Sarge seiner Mutter. This struck me as a perfect example of the duality between naive and sentimental. Here is Busoni, one of the most sophisticated and highly cultured artists of his generation, confronted with the death of his mother. And what is his response to this primordial trauma? To compose a piece that is a cradle song for himself so that he can be rocked to sleep in front of the coffin of his dead mother. That was exactly how I felt about the search for the naive: no matter how sophisticated the man or the woman might be, we all still have the need to be rocked in the cradle. That's really what my piece is about: that desire to attain a certain simplicity of existence which 20th century life and 20th century art has placed almost beyond our reach.

Is humor opposed to the sentimental?
Humor is a way of expressing one's awareness of the irony of life - I can't possibly not be sentimental in Schiller's terms, but hopefully I can also be naive; maybe it's an impossible goal, but trying to attain it is certainly better than giving up and yielding to pessimism or cynicism.

Thank you very much, John.