Alex Ross on John Adams

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, the magazine’s music critic

Alex Ross has a profile of John Adams. That, in itself, is no great

surprise, and in fact the profile tells us little new about the composer.

The quality of the writing, though, is very high indeed, much higher

than most of Ross’s work for the magazine.

So in the fashion, perhaps, of Victorian commonplace books, I’m

going to copy out a couple of my favourite passages here.

It is a strange business, composing music in twenty-first-century

America. The job is difficult in itself: it is slow, solitary, and

intensely cerebral. You have to believe deeply in yourself to get

through the process. You have to be possibly a little mad. When you

are done, you have in your hands not a finished object Ò a painting

that can be put up on a wall or a novel that can be read at one sitting Ò but

a set of abstract notations that other musicians must learn and perform.

Then you step back into the culture at large, where few people embrace,

or even notice, what you do. In this country, classical music is widely

regarded as a dead or alien form Ò so much so that jazz aficionados

routinely say, “Jazz is America’s classical music.” To make the counterargument

that America’s classical music is America’s classical music is somehow

to admit that the battle is lost.

There’s some great stuff here. “Cerebral” Ò love that word. “You have

to be possibly a little mad.” And that lovely final sentence, which

isn’t actually the final sentence of the paragraph. Ross ends it with

the assertion that “In such a climate, composers easily become embittered.”

A little bit weird, that, considering that he goes on to detail how

minimalism “reversed the trend toward the marginalization of the American

composer,” how “America’s classical music, then, is alive and well,”

with “a huge new audience for contemporary music,” and how “Adams

is one of the very few American composers who receive a comfortable

income from commissions and royalties.” (Well, Mr Ross, you’re the

reporter, why don’t you tell us what a “comfortable income” is? Presumably

this has been fact-checked; I don’t like the way that there seems

to be a conspiracy between Ross and Adams to prevent us from gauging

for ourselves just how under- or over-valued the composer is, financially.)

But never mind the bricks and mortar, check out the colour:

Adams was something of a child prodigy. He wrote music,

played the clarinet, and, on accasion, conducted the local orchestra,

which was sponsored by the New Hampshire State Mental Hospital. He

had to cope with the fact that the hospital patients who played in

the group sometimes improvised freely during the performance. When

he was thirteen, the orchestra presented his Suite for String Orchestra,

and he became the talk of the village. At this time, he was listening

to little twentieth-century music, although he did fall under the

spell of Sibelius. “I was used to seeing snow and pine trees in New

Hampshire,” he explained. “When I went into the record store, I bought

albums with snow and pine trees on them. They were all Sibelius.”

Adams has takn on many other influences with the passing years, but

he remains loyal to this early one; echoes of Sibelius’s slowly evolving

musical landscapes can be heard in all his major orchestral works.

It’s a very ambitious paragraph, moving as it does from the child

prodigy to the precocious young composer, back to the almost unbelievably

naive child, and closing with a general musical observation. My favourite

bit is the way he jumps from Sibelius to a completely unrelated quote

about New Hampshire’s winter flora, and then manages to tie it up

very elegantly. A bit like John Adams’s own music, in a way. Again,

though, I could probably have done without the final sentence.

Still, there’s one more great paragraph yet to come, which has great

colour (John Adams as forklift operator!), fantastic locations (“the

Arboretum in Golden Gate Park”), and a lovely ending:

By 1972, Adams had had enough of East Coast musical politics,

and he drove to San Francisco in a Volkswagen Beetle. After working

for a year as a forklift operator on the Oakland waterfront, he took

a low-paying job at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as a

jack-of-all-trades instructor. He had been studying the writings of

John Cage and began organizing elaborately anarchic Cagean happenings.

For one piece, “lo-fi,” he and his students assumed various positions

around the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park and played 78-r.p.m. records

that had turned up in Goodwill stores. This activity proved no more

satisfying than the highbrow work that he had done at Harvard. In

an autobiographical essay, he wrote that “the social aspect of these

events was piquant, and the post-concert parties were always memorable,

but the musical payoff always seemed elite.’ I began to notice that

often after an avant-garde event I would drive home alone to my cottage

on the beach, lock the door, and, like a closet tippler, end the evening

deep in a Beethoven quartet.”

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1 Response to Alex Ross on John Adams

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