Does Your Music Grow?
Adams compares composing to gardening
and conductor John Adams stepped smartly to the podium on the stage
in Finney Chapel, acknowledging the audience's polite applause with
a slight nod.
placed his script squarely before him and surveyed the audience
as he might the musicians of a symphony orchestra. The audience
responded with baited breath and eyes forward, waiting for the maestro
to cue them in.
two, three, four ...
supposed to share some thoughts with you about composing music,
so I thought I'd like to share myself," said Adams, opening
his Convocation Series lecture, "Composing in Time and Place:
Some Thoughts on Music in Our Time." His Oberlin appearance
coincided with a Cleveland Orchestra performance of his Naive
and Sentimental Music.
creative output spans a wide range of media: works for orchestra,
opera, video, film, and dance, as well as electronic and instrumental
music. Harmonium, Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, and The
Chairman Dances are among the best known and frequently performed
works of contemporary American music.
Porter of The New Yorker has called Adams the creator of
a "flexible new language capable of producing large-scale works
that are both attractive and strongly fashioned," and Le
Monde says his music "gives the impression of a rediscovered
liberty, of an open door which lets in the fresh air in great gusts."
creative process – making art, preparing a life of art – is self-education,"
said Adams, a tall, mild-mannered man with a silvery beard that
frames a face that smiles easily. "I'm probably the least able
to explain when a moment arises. Music is stubborn, flawed words,
comes first, music or text?" he asked rhetorically, raising
his arms and gesturing in the air as if to tweak the notes that
were the words of his lecture. "Idea, harmony, rhythm, image?
I can't tell you. Each time it's a different musical motive. The
form is personalized. It depends on how a piece feels to me."
took time to arrive at his compositional style. After earning both
the B.A. and the M.A. degrees at Harvard University during the late
1960s, he moved to San Francisco in 1971 and became involved in
the city's active and varied new music life, teaching for ten years
at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
most of my 20s I was casting around for a language. I bumped against
it a few times in the dark, but it wasn't until I became involved
in minimalism that I began to develop a truly personal language.
I didn't write my first mature piece, Phrygian Gates, until
I was 30," Adams said in an interview posted on his official
his Oberlin lecture, Adams compared the process of composing to
composer must do good gardening of his harmonies, motives, and rhythms,
planting them in his composition, watering and weeding his pieces
as they grow," he said.
you do it (compose) every day, things come without a hassle, going
forward until you suddenly hit a wall. The hard part is the starting
and the stopping, the psychological issues of identifying good music
and dealing with the ego. You have to ask yourself: Is that the
best I can do?"
called himself a "minimalist," relating to the Greek "to
music is very emotional music. It has the capability to mime human
behavior. Music more than any other art form has this capacity,"
I end my remarks for the evening," he said, cueing the audience
for the big finish, "I'd just like to quote Janis Joplin."
gathered his notes and placed them precisely on top of each other,
preparing to dash if the audience should be unappreciative.
take a little piece of my heart!" he said, smiling a quirky