John Adams interview: 'I don’t think you can be a great composer unless you have a feeling for harmony'

Philip Clark
Monday, February 13, 2017

John Adams has managed both to provoke and to console a nation with his trailblazing works. Philip Clark meets the American composer

Could it be possible for a contemporary composer to be any more successful than John Adams? Not since the salad days of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein has American ‘long hair’ music produced such a dependable and bankable star. Adams attracts commissions like other people get mice: every leading orchestra, opera house and star soloist seemingly wants to be touched by his magical, intangible elixir.

Look back to October 2004, the last time Adams was featured in Gramophone, and you’ll find him preparing for the CD release of his On the Transmigration of Souls. The truism that this work, commissioned to commemorate the September 11 terrorist attacks, propelled Adams towards becoming America’s unofficial composer laureate has become a journalistic cliché but it’s a categorisation that makes him smart. Getting that call was, however, a tipping-point that confirmed Adams as the public face of new music in the United States.

Success is, of course, a relative rather than an absolute concept – one man’s success is another man’s compromise – and there has always been a sizeable consistency within the contemporary music police who would like to see Adams detained for crimes against modernist purity. There have been times when he’s deliberately set out to taunt. The fusion of Beethoven-derived anthems and Liberace arpeggios in his 1982 Grand Pianola Music royally ticked off a substantial proportion of the audience who attended the work’s 1982 premiere. More controversy as Adams gave voice to Richard Nixon in his 1986 opera Nixon in China, and the feeding frenzy around his next opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict, was one of those rare occasions when new music broke through into mainstream discussion.

It would be fair comment to say that Adams has sometimes aimed and missed. Given the wealth of cultural reference points – Rachmaninov to Jelly Roll Morton – in his 1996 piano concerto Century Rolls, the resulting piece is needlessly tepid, while other works have occasionally diverted into a generic lyricism. But the harmonic trajectory of Harmonielehre, the jump-cutting cartoon violence of the Chamber Symphony or the oddball juxtapositions of Guide to Strange Places are highly eloquent statements that document Adams working through the quandary of a jazz-loving kid born of the rock‘n’roll generation who also has a profound appreciation of Sibelius and a tortured relationship with Schoenberg. And for the naysayers that’s the problem: dismissing a composer who treats the craft and aesthetic direction of his music so responsibly is not easy. Adams doesn’t write ‘pretend’ music like some of the more populist composers. He carves away at the rock face between ‘high’ art and the vernacular, and has clearly worked the arguments through to the tiniest degree.

Talk to Adams about the public-private divide in his work and you get the impression he takes it in his stride. And we are talking, getting along fine, but how does Adams really feel when he’s asked to discuss his music? ‘It’s OK,’ he quickly responds, but needs to qualify. ‘OK, that is, until someone asks about a piece I haven’t finished. Until something is done, it’s much better to stay in a pre-verbal mode and trust your gut intuitions, otherwise you can become very self-conscious. In the case of an opera, I’m in a state of following my gut for perhaps two years: if I suddenly have to say "my piece is about this or it’s about that", it can be very upsetting.’

Does Adams buy the point that he’s now in a position of power, and those in power ought to be required to explain themselves? ‘I know it’s not comparing like with like,’ he rebuts, ‘but there are some writers, like JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, who’ve made a cult from being inaccessible. The public goes nuts because they don’t say anything! But the public-private thing you describe is different in music. An institution that I’m involved with – an orchestra, opera company – spends a lot of money to commission a piece, and quite reasonably wants the composer to be available to talk. I could say, hell no, I’m not doing interviews, but that would be unethical.’

But talking can lead to misunderstanding and the perceived wisdom, got about through Chinese whispers, that Adams is unequivocally ‘against’ Schoenberg and later disciples, like the pathologically serial American composer Milton Babbitt, is an over-simplification of his multi-layered relationship with this music. Adams has upheld the sort of creatively dialectical relationship with Schoenberg’s music that Schoenberg himself had with music of his direct past. Harmonielehre finds Adams re-examining the harmonic procedures of Schoenberg just as the shift from tonality towards atonality was on the horizon, and even Babbitt isn’t entirely off Adams’s radar.

‘Certainly my feelings about Schoenberg are hugely complex,’ Adams confesses. ‘I’m writing a book which is a meditation on the musical life I’ve experienced and I talk about my confrontations with all kinds of styles and personalities, including some who intimidated me as a young man and others I struggled to come to terms with. Schoenberg is certainly there, while Babbitt has come to symbolise that later strain of high serial American music because he’s the most intensely contained package of ideology. If you want to sum up a certain attitude towards contemporary music, he ticks all the boxes.’ Then Adams leans over, as if divulging a state secret. ‘By the way, he’s a completely charming man, really one of the loveliest I’ve met, very funny and warm.’ And does Adams recognise that, from out of the ideology and the fierce reputation, Babbitt’s music is often witty and elegant? ‘Yes, I’d agree with that.’

Then Adams turns questionmaster: ‘Do you know who Jacques Barzun is?’ he asks. ‘I guess you’d call him a "literary ombudsman". He’s 100 years old and was born to a liberal intellectual family in Paris and his parents knew all those big names from the ’20s, like Picasso, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. He was responsible more than anyone for resurrecting Berlioz, and is a very refined thinker about music. I read a quote from him that was so interesting coming from a man of such high sensitivity I took time to memorise it. He said "the greatest artists were never men of taste", by which I take to mean that by not sophisticating their instincts, great artists never lose touch with life’s essential simplicities, which they relish for the skill it gives them in competing with popular culture. It’s a very complicated thought but one that, I think, explains the crisis of contemporary music. It certainly spoke to my feelings about myself as an artist.’

But surely the composer who wrote Grand Pianola Music and made the Nixons jitterbug across the operatic stage is not too worried about taste? ‘I’m speaking about the idea that "taste" is quite possibly a deleterious quality to have as a creative artist. Taste means being exclusive and judgemental, but the creative impulse must never be blocked. All the academic composers I studied with were blocked to a man, with the honourable exception of David Del Tredici. Everyone else was producing one piece every two or three years, and it was agony for them. That’s what I think Barzun meant about men of taste.’

What about Aaron Copland – a totem figure to whom Adams is invariably compared? Now there’s a figure who embodies both sides of Adams’s equation, a composer who caught the public mood in his youth but became blocked in a tortuously difficult late period. ‘Some artists have said it all by the time they reach mid-life,’ Adams describes. ‘Copland’s gift was this extraordinary amalgam of 1920s jazz, American folk music and Stravinskian rhythm. But by the 1950s, he was going back and forth between increasingly atonal pieces and throwbacks to his populist style, like The Tender Land. I get the feeling that his heart wasn’t in it any more. Why is a piece like Connotations not beloved and unlikely ever to be so? It follows a lineage of Copland works like the Symphonic Ode and the Piano Variations that are built on crunchy dissonance. Then you reach Connotations and it’s kind of joyless: the dissonance is so unrelieved that it becomes tiresome.’

Copland wrote Connotations in 1962, at the age of 62, Adams’s own time of life. Is this really a ‘difficult age’ for a composer? ‘Do you mean ‘am I having trouble?’’ Adams raises his eyes. ‘No I’m not. I occasionally repeat myself and if I reach a point in a piece and realise there’s a gesture or harmonic thing I’ve done before, either I’ll stop or go with it, but I try to make it different.’

If the proof is in the listening then Adams’s latest opera, A Flowering Tree, remains abundant in ideas. After the newsreel vividness of his early operas and the apocalyptic intensity of Dr Atomic – his previous opera set around the testing of the first atomic bomb – A Flowering Tree is mythic and fantastical. Its sound world partly evolves out from the ecstatic harmonic language of El Niño, the so-called opera-oratorio set around the birth of Christ that Adams completed at the turn of the millennium, while also defining fresh territory specific to this piece. Adams has cited Mozart as a model: how did the Classical master impact on his music?

‘There are no musical parallels: it’s more a model on the level of kindred spirit,’ Adams explains. ‘The story comes from South India but could take place in any magical kingdom. It’s about a very poor mother and her two daughters and what happens when those in power abuse the trust of people who are helpless. Somebody could do an updated staging, but I like that it could be a folk tale from thousands of years ago.’

On a technical level, what compositional demands did writing this picturesque piece make after the post-Dr Strangelove vision of Dr Atomic? ‘It’s less threatening and right from the beginning I set up what sounds like a magical world, with oscillating chords that are played very quietly by the string section at the start and meandering, mysterious themes that wind down to the lower sections of the orchestra. There is music of pain and psychological duress in the second half but it’s not the doom-and-gloom of Dr Atomic. The opening line is ‘Children, I want to tell you a story’. When friends read this in the libretto they thought it was bad idea. But I really mean it – I want to appeal to that part of the audience that were once children, like in Mahler symphonies and in Ravel.’

‘I often start a piece with very vague images that are not even specific pitches, more an imagined atmosphere, and I had a lot of trouble starting this piece,’ Adams continues. ‘What’s different from other projects is that I wrote the libretto myself and had this other creative event before I started the composing. I struggled because I had an image of how it should start, but it just wouldn’t. Then I got the oscillating strings and it was fine.’ And that idea came from where? ‘Oddly enough from a four-bar moment in Sibelius’s Sixth that I’ve had an obsessive fondness for since I was a kid. They’re half-diminished chords that oscillate back and forth every quaver. Once you’ve got the essence of an opening, new ideas always present themselves and that’s what being a creative person is about – having that special heightened sensitivity, so that if an idea comes your antennae are up and ready for it.’

Adams has never allowed his antennae to be blunted by doggedly following technical obsessions without keeping his mind open to wider relevances. If he’d had more ‘taste’, there’d have been no rock singing in I was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky or raunchy big-band riffs in Fearful Symmetries, creative risks that proved themselves worth taking. Adams has put it together as he’s heard it, and his open-minded approach to harmony has allowed him to probe in all directions.

‘Tonality for me has always been the essential tool for building form,’ Adams concludes, as I suggest the vividness of a piece like Klinghoffer derives from the ‘ordinariness’ of his harmony. ‘It’s how you establish feelings and emotions and I tell young composers that I don’t think you can be a great composer unless you have a feeling for harmony.’

Hmmm…but what about Schoenberg? He had a profound harmonic sensibility, but there are people who argue that he’s not a great composer. ‘His music is tough and an acquired taste. It’s not pretty and I don’t find it attractive in the way that I find Wagner or Messiaen attractive. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not attracted to it. There is something about his music that has an integrity and a unique…’ Adams finds it impossible to finish his sentence, shrugs his shoulders and laughs.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit:

John Adams

  • 1947

    John Coolidge Adams born on February 15 in Worcester, Massachusetts.

  • 1965

    Goes to Harvard University and studies with Leon Kirchner, Earl Kim, Roger Sessions, Harold Shapero and David Del Tredici.

  • 1971

    Graduates and moves to San Francisco. Sets up series and festivals of “New and Unusual Music” for the San Francisco Symphony and Conservatory, where he teaches (1972-82).

  • 1977-78

    Composes his first important instrumental works, Phrygian Gates and China Gates for piano, and Shaker Loops.

  • 1981-85

    Harmonium, Harmonielehre and Grand Pianola Music put Adams firmly on the map in the USA. Harmonielehre becomes his first recording for Nonesuch.

  • 1987

    Adams’s first opera, Nixon in China, is premiered at Houston Grand Opera.

  • 1991

    The Death of Klinghoffer (below) receives its controversial premiere in Brussels. It inflames feelings with its even-handed treatment of its protagonists.

  • 1992

    Composes the Chamber Symphony, which leavens Schoenbergian techniques with overheard snatches of cartoon music.

  • 1994

    Violin Concerto premiered by Jorja Fleezanis and the Minnesota Orchestra; the work goes on to win the Grawemeyer Award.

  • 1995

    The “earthquake/ romance” I was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky is premiered in Berkeley, California.

  • 1996

    Century Rolls is premiered by Emanuel Ax with the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi. Gnarly Buttons is premiered by Michael Collins with the London Sinfonietta.

  • 1998

    Adams becomes the subject of a 90-minute documentary by Tony Palmer, Hail Bop!.

  • 1999

    Naïve and Sentimental Music is premiered at Los Angeles and a 10-CD overview of Adams’s music, “The John Adams Earbox”, is released.

  • 2000

    The Nativity oratorio El Niño is premiered in Paris.

  • 2002

    Adams is the subject of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Barbican “Composer Weekend”. His response to 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls, is premiered by the New York Philharmonic and goes on to win the Pulitzer Prize and three Grammy Awards.

  • 2003

    Lincoln Center presents an extensive festival, “John Adams: An American Master”. The Death of Klinghoffer is made into a film for Channel 4.

  • 2005

    Doctor Atomic is premiered by San Francisco Opera.

  • 2006

    A Flowering Tree is premiered in Vienna. Dharma at Big Sur and My Father Knew Charles Ives are issued on CD.

  • 2007

    Son of Chamber Symphony (“for concert and for dance”) is premiered in Stanford.

  • 2009

    World premiere of City Noir on October 8, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

  • 2012

    World premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary: May 31, Disney Hall, Los Angeles with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale.

  • 2015

    World premiere of Scheherazade.2 on March 26, with Leila Josefowicz and the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert.

  • 2016

    Adams is named Artist-in-Residence of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2016/17 season.

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