How to Compose: John Adams in conversation

“You’d be amazed at how awful my first sketches are”

Not words you’d expect to hear from one of our most successful living composers, but perhaps reassuringly, even John Adams finds the creative process challenging.
In October 2015, the Royal Academy of Music hosted John Adams in conversation with journalist Paul Morley.

I edited the 2 hour public event into a podcast for Sinfini Music.

John adams podcast screen grab

Q: How do you make contemporary classical music popular – really popular?

A: Ask John Adams, a composer whose formative years were a cultural clash, the unyielding modernism of Boulez brushing up against the totemic folk rock of Bob Dylan. From this, he has distilled a harmonically rich minimalism combining aesthetic rigour, unflinching social commentary and showmanship. It’s a hugely successful formula.

In October, the Royal Academy of Music invited Paul Morley to interview John Adams as part of a day celebrating his music. The pair discussed everything from the difficulty of starting a new piece to the question ‘what is minimalism?’ The podcast above is an edited version of that discussion.

For Adams, who was born in 1947 in Massachusetts, the compositional process generally begins with a notion of the harmonies he wants to create. ‘What I’m looking for is kind of the DNA, the code for what this piece is going to be,’ he says. ‘For me, that’s usually harmony. It’s usually a harmonic field that the piece is going to live in.’

However, inspiration doesn’t always come without a struggle. Adams might be one of today’s most successful living composers, having written widely performed works for orchestra, opera, video, film and dance as well as electronic and instrumental music, but he still describes starting a new piece as ‘hell’.

You’d be amazed at how awful my first sketches are

‘You’d be amazed at how awful my first sketches are,’ he says. ‘I may think that I have a great idea, in the abstract it sounds like a wonderful idea, but the day that I sit down to do the first sketch, it’s always a terrible confrontation.’

Often, it’s a confrontation in more than one sense of the word: Adams grew up in a house where both Mozart and Benny Goodman were regular fixtures on the record player, and went on to study in San Francisco at a time when music by Steve Reich and Philip Glass shared the shelves with records by the Beatles and Bob Dylan. This clash of cultures is often reflected in his music.

‘I was in college during [a time of] extraordinary cultural schizophrenia,’ he says. ‘In my music classes we were studying the most dour, serious, cerebral music: late Webern, Boulez, The Art of Fugue. Music classes were really very serious experiences and nobody laughed. And then I’d leave and go back to my dorm and my roommates would be in some altered state and they’d be listening to Ringo Starr or Janice Joplin or Bob Dylan.’

Adams is most often described as a post-minimalist composer: he takes minimalism as a starting point, then shakes it up and puts it through the wringer to see what comes out the other side. His music typically differs from traditional minimalism in that it has greater depth, fluidity and dynamic contrasts.

I wanted to have a music that was capable of suddenly exploding

‘For me what was missing [from minimalism] was a sense of unpredictability and drama,’ he says. ‘I wanted to have a music that was capable of suddenly exploding, of much, much wider expressive bandwidth, and I felt that minimalism was stuck in its own rigour.’

Adams has carried that sense of drama through into much of his symphonic music, and his operas in particular. In them, he’s tackled some of the biggest political questions of the past century: Nixon in China deals with the former US president’s controversial visit to China in 1972; The Death of Klinghoffer is about the murder of Leon Klinghoffer on board the Achille Lauro in 1985, while Doctor Atomic deals with the birth of the atomic bomb.

We all read the news and we all have deep, complicated, probably unresolved feelings

Why does he feel the need to tackle such big subjects in his operas? ‘I’m very often asked that question and I find it just puzzling because, if I were a novelist or a film maker, people would figure that’s just normal,’ he says. ‘Somehow if you’re a composer and you’re drawn to subjects like terrorism or the atomic bomb, or politics or history, it’s considered to be unusual. We all read the news and we all have deep, complicated, probably unresolved feelings about terrorism and many of the subjects that I deal with in my music. I think it’s an absolutely natural thing to do.’

Adams also values history in relation to his own personal experiences, and in this interview he reveals how having a treasure trove of past experiences has helped him in moments of doubt. ‘The one nice thing about getting older is that if you’re having a really, really bad time, you can remember that you’ve had this before and you got out of it somehow. You don’t know how you did, but you know you got out of it.’

Listen to the Best of John Adams playlist in Spotify

This podcast is an edited version of a public interview held at the Royal Academy of Music on 26 October 2015. Many thanks to John Adams, Paul Morley and the Royal Academy for their collaboration.

This content was first published on Sinfini Music, reproduced with permission, Universal Music © 2015