Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A chat with John Adams

My interview with the fabulous John Adams is in today's Independent. Read it here.

I wouldn't want to say this or that person is my favourite composer of today - there are so many, so different, so fascinating, so inspiring. But hey...

Obviously if you have time to talk to a composer like Adams, you don't want to chat for just ten minutes if you can help it, so below are some "bonus tracks", Qs and As that are not in the Indy piece.

JD: I was reading something in which you said you felt the medium of the orchestra has run its course. But together with Glass you’ve done so much to put contemporary music back at the heart of full scale, mainstream concert programmes - maybe it’s not dead after all?

JA: It’s hard to say. I have good days and bad days and on bad days I wake up feeling that what we’re doing in classical music is so barely on people’s radar that I can get very depressed. But there are a lot of poets and composers and novelists like Melville and Charles Ives who did not get much attention at all in their lifetime. We do what we do because we love it and we have a small audience that adores what we do - and over time it persists, while the other stuff is revealed to be rather ephemeral.

JD: Do you still compose nine to five?

JA: I do, yes. I never work at night. (JD: Is it a question of routine?) Yes, it’s routine – I don’t travel a huge amount, but I do a reasonable amount of conducting during the year and I’m not someone who can actually compose in a hotel room, I absolutely have to be home in my studio. So when I am home I’m very disciplined. I try to work every day and have certain hours. I think most composers are that way – it’s an extremely labour-intensive activity and you have to make all the decisions yourself, so most composers I know are basically very disciplined, hardworking people. 

JD: There’s still a common misapprehension that people stroll through art exhibitions or mountain scenery and have sudden strokes of inspiration... 

JA: That's just nothing. We’re not like that at all. I just read Amsterdam which has a composer as its main character and I very much enjoyed the book but I thought his view of a composer was much too romantic. We’re much duller than that! 

JD: Is there anything in particular that does get the creative juices flowing for you?

JA: I wish I knew! If I had a magic pill or a certain place to take a walk, maybe starting pieces wouldn’t be such agony. Beginning a piece is always just hell – even if I think know what I’ve got to do. For some strange reason once a piece finally gets lift-off, if I work every day I usually – it’s like being an athlete, you’re in shape and the genetic material of the piece gives birth to tissues and organs and muscles and skeletons. Being a composer is like being a gardener – you water, prune, encourage and cut back. I take a walk every day with my two dogs. Lately I’ve been taking my iPod and listening to audio books or music and I think I should just stop the chatter and go back to what I did as a kid, when every time I took a walk I imagined a new piece of music in great detail. I’ve sort of got lazy about that. Now I’m leaving my technology behind when I leave the house.

JD: Not that long ago John Berry at English National Opera gave a press conference where he said that he hoped you’d write your next opera for ENO. Can we hope that this will happen? Have you any more operas on the go? 

JA: ENO have been absolutely among my strongest supporters and I’m deeply grateful to them. They’re creative and they make things happen... I just haven’t found a story that rang my bells the way Nixon or Klinghoffer or Dr Atomic did. I’m sure it’ll happen soon. (JD: Would you look for a similar real life event to base it on?) I think that’s sort of what I do best. I don’t think I’m a Pélléas et Mélisande type of composer - I don’t think a story that is intimate is what I’m strongest at – but I think it’s best to stay loose and not make any predictions. 

JD: Do you think The Death of Klinghoffer has finally been accepted? 

JA: The Met is doing it soon [Tom Morris's production, already seen at ENO], so I think it’s possible that there’ll be some controversy, but I don’t think it’s going to be at the level it was in '91. The issue was that the people who got so upset didn’t actually know the opera! That was almost always the case... As far as I’m concerned, it was very painful years ago, but I think over time people have realized that the opera isn’t at all about what the controversy was about. Really it’s a tragedy and it's something for everyone, it's not just about Palestinians and not just about Jews. It’s for everyone, because that’s what’s happening in the world. But it’ll be interesting at the Met because everything that does is sort of widescreen, with lots of attention and lots of people weighing in. I hope it’ll be experienced as a work of humanity, not perceived as some sort of agit-prop.