American Composer Adams Delivers Convocation
by Raphael Martin
John Adams, arguably America’s most important living composer, visited Oberlin on Wednesday to deliver two talks, one an informal master class for Conservatory and other interested students, the other a public lecture in Finney Chapel. His public talk was part of Oberlin’s Convocation Series. Adams is in town to conduct his newest orchestral piece with the Cleveland Orchestra Naďve and Sentimental Music. The evening talk was entitled “Composing in Time and Place: Some Thoughts on Music in Our Time.”
For one of the titans of American contemporary classical music, Adams has a rather slight presence. Tall and skinny with gray hair parted down the middle, he sported stylish tortoise shell glasses. It was startling to consider that from this man’s pen sprung Nixon in China, probably the most famous American opera to premiere in the past 20 years, as well as another opera The Death of Klinghoffer, a violin concerto, a new oratorio, El Nińo, and many other works. His career has been so successful that Nonesuch records released a ten-disc retrospective of his work, in 1999 entitled The John Adams Earbox, a title that references an earlier work.
He began his master class by reminiscing about his undergraduate years at Harvard in the mid-1960s. “I remember when I was your age, we crossed the [Charles] River to see the composer Stockhausen give a lecture. We only knew the guy from the pictures we had seen of the time — that of a severe looking man with horn-rimmed glasses and a slide rule in his pocket. You wouldn’t believe how flabbergasted we were when we showed up and the guy had become a hippie! Stockhausen was sitting on the floor in a lotus position wearing all sorts of beads!”
Adams may not have gone through a Stockhausian transformation, but he certainly lit up the packed Conservatory lecture hall, chatting away about his early memories and frustrations of the composition world. “There’s nothing more painful than being in your 20s,” Adams mused to an empathizing audience. “By the time you’re 20, 25, you have a pretty good idea about what you want to do with your life. Yet you still don’t have the chops. For me, I was 30 before I hit my first keeper.”
Now living in San Francisco, Adams has been working on hitting that keeper since the mid-1950s, when he attended music lessons in Boston. Growing up in New
Hampshire, Adams would commute down to Boston to take clarinet lessons.
“I don’t know where I got the notion to become a composer. I became transfixed in the third grade with a child’s biography of Mozart. I’m 54 now and I think a great deal about how I experienced the world when younger.” On that same introspective note, Adams mused that, “as a composer I am trying to strip away assumptions and presumptions that have globbed onto me. I’ve tried to strip away all the influences that intimidated me: professors, other composers and critics — it is intensely important to live in the world of music making and is very important to be kept in touch with the performative.”
The evening address was surprisingly more technical than the afternoon talk, with Adams delving into the nitty gritty aspects of how his compositions work. All the while though, Adams was aware that he was playing to a general audience and kept his talk witty and informative though at times a bit rarefied.
“Music is a stubborn process,” Adams declared at the beginning of his lecture in front of a polite audience. “There’s so little accessible literature on the subject. What’s out there is focused on the personality and history of composers, rather than the music itself. I myself am really interested in the artistic process.”
Much of Adams’ talk was engaged with the question of form. “Form is a very personalized thing,” Adams divulged to the audience. “I like to think of form as how a piece feels. Form is a piece’s musical space: does it feel like a mountain range, or the skyline of a city? Is a piece spiky, or does it build to flat vistas? Is it like a can of rusty nails in the corner of your garage? Form is like travelling; there’s nothing I like more than driving up the California coast, which is itself a very formal experience.”
“Ultimately,” Adams determined, “form is the result of good gardening. Start out with good seeds-harmony, motive, rhythm-you plant those seeds and then, the most important part, as the gardener you are left to weed.”
Adams then wrestled with his own music. He played for the audience three examples of his own work that dealt with issues of structure and intent. The works were, “Shaker Loops” (1983), “Harmonium” (1981) and “Harmonialehre” (1985). Adams listened with an intense quietude to the gorgeously minimal sound. To see the composer listening so intently to his own work gave me a funny combined feeling of cowering fascination and voyeuristic indiscretion. For those few moments of listening, the role of composer and audience seemed to be switched; John Adams is above all, a listener, just as we are. The fact that the audience at Finney got to watch him quietly and intently listen to his own music was a rare treat. True harmonium.
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