Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 16, 1999
Head: The Music of John Adams
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As a young composer in the early 1970s, John Adams felt that the classical composer in America had become marginalized. He rebelled against his artistic training and started writing music that drew on classical music as well as minimalism, jazz, and pop. The results can be heard on his new 10-CD retrospective boxed set, which includes work from the late '70s to the late '90s.
Adams was born in 1947, grew up in New England, and studied at Harvard. In 1971, he moved to San Francisco, where he taught at the Conservatory of Music and produced new music concerts for the San Francisco Symphony.
He has composed orchestral and chamber works as well as the operas "Nixon in China," "The Death of Klinghoffer," and "I Was Looking at the Ceiling, and Then I Saw the Sky." His music has been performed around the world.
Let's start with this 1982 composition, "Grand Pianola Music," a witty and eclectic piece which was met with a substantial number of boos when it premiered.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "GRAND PIANOLA MUSIC," JOHN ADAMS)
GROSS: That's John Adams' 1982 composition "Grand Pianola Music," included on his new 10-CD boxed set.
John Adams, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JOHN ADAMS, COMPOSER: Thank you.
GROSS: Why has the piece we just heard been so controversial for you?
ADAMS: Well, the piece was written in 1982 at the tail end of a long period when contemporary music was a very serious, somber affair. I think it probably started as far back as 1910 with the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg. And audiences had come to expect music that was difficult, atonal, oftentimes aggressive, and very often incomprehensible.
And I presented this piece called "Grand Pianola Music," which is a witty piece. I believe that a composer ought to be able to entertain as well as elevate. And it was a bit of a -- I suppose, a poke of the elbow in the eye of the serious music establishment, and a lot of people thought I was making fun of them. And in fact, I was just having a good time.
GROSS: Well, the piece also seems to me to parody the very kind of romantic, almost kitchy big tunes of certain romantic classical music.
ADAMS: Well, I think that -- you know, I grew up in the world of classical music. I was always interested in that repertoire. But at the same time, I had a great love for marching band music. I played in the marching band with my dad in New England when I was a kid. And I loved big band music.
And I felt that an American composer ought to be able to draw in a huge embrace all of the music that one experiences in life. And I suppose in a sense I was the first child of the LP generation, where all of the world's music was available to me in recorded form.
GROSS: Now, was that a problem for you when you were in college studying music, you know, the fact that you wanted to include all the music that you'd heard in the music that you were writing? Was there music that your teachers didn't think ought to be included in there?
ADAMS: Well, I would have to describe my years as an undergraduate and graduate at Harvard University as a period of intense cognitive dissonance, because I don't know how many times I would -- and this, of course, is the late '60s I'm talking about.
And I don't know how many times I'd come out of the music department where we would have been studying Webern or Stravinsky or Schoenberg and counting tone rows. And I'd walk across Harvard Yard and I'd hear Jimi Hendrix blaring out of some undergraduate dorm window.
And at some point I must have said to myself, you know, What's wrong with this picture? There's just -- there's a -- there's something that's not right, that's not fitting into my desire as an American musician.
So I think it's at that point that I left school and I got in a Volkswagen Bug and drove across the continent and ended up in San Francisco.
GROSS: Tell us more about the music you were studying at Harvard and what was really popular in the academic world at that time? And this was, what, the mid- to late '60s?
ADAMS: I was in school between 1965 and '71. I actually had a wonderful time at Harvard. I conducted a production, a student production, of "The Marriage of Figaro," and the stage director was none other than John Lithgow. And one of my classmates was Al Gore. So it was, you know, an interesting group of people.
But if one wanted to become a composer, one was forced to -- what I felt was fundamentally make obeisance to the European avant-garde, which didn't interest me. You know, it was -- they were highly refined and skilled composers, people like Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio, Stockhausen, all followers of the tradition of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
But I had had this background in my family where Duke Ellington was given equal billing with Mozart. And I felt that my pedigree was one that involved popular music, rock, jazz, ethnic music from America and from around the world. And I just didn't feel that my musical education was harmonizing with my desires.
GROSS: One of the teachers you studied with, Leon Kirchner (ph), had been a student of Schoenberg's. And one of your pieces you describe as being a parody of Schoenberg. And I'm thinking of "Harmonielehre (ph)," am I pronouncing that right?
ADAMS: "Harmonielehre," it's a German word which I roughly translate meaning the "Book of Harmony."
GROSS: Tell us what modern music concepts you were trying to comment on in this piece.
ADAMS: Well, it's a big piece. I suppose it's probably the first shocking example of postmodernism in music, in the sense that it is a work about other music. And it's a work that I would describe as a loving parody. I mean, not all parodies have to be bitter or satiric.
And what I did in this work was to take the sensibility and the harmonic world of fin de siecle symphonic music, music of Mahler, of Sibelius, Debussy, and marry it to the techniques of American minimalism, that's techniques that involve repetition, of very strong, driving pulse, and a very clear, sustained sense of tonal harmony.
It was an experiment that could only be done once, although there are commentators on my music who feel that I've been doing it ever since 1985. But it was one in which actually the -- this kind of stylistic alchemy actually worked very well.
GROSS: Let's hear the opening of this piece, and this was composed between 1984 and '85. And we're going to hear Edo de Waart conducting the San Francisco Symphony. The composition is by my guest, John Adams.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "HARMONIELEHRE," JOHN ADAMS)
GROSS: An excerpt of "Harmonielehre" by John Adams, included on his 10-CD boxed set.
And my guest is John Adams.
Anything you want to say about what we just heard?
ADAMS: Well, I think that you can hear the essence of what the miminalist technique is in this work, in that there is a very strong sense of repetition, a clear sense of pulse, and also that the changes of harmony are quite strung out. It's not, for example, like a Bach chorale, where the harmony changes every note, it's just the opposite.
Probably what's unusual, or what was unusual in 1985, that it was a work with a minimalist palette, but one written for a large symphony orchestra. And up to that point, the main minimalist composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley had all composed for their own small ensembles.
So this was one of the very first instances of someone using that language for the large symphony orchestra.
GROSS: Composer John Adams is my guest. He has a new 10-CD boxed set.
Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is composer John Adams. He has a new 10-CD boxed set called "The John Adams Earbox."
I think it was 1971 that you decided to pack up your VW Bug and go to San Francisco, leaving your home in New England. Did you start to feel at that point kind of disenchanted with the academic music establishment of the time, that classical music was dead for you? Or did you think you were going to find a new classical home for yourself?
ADAMS: Well, I think that at that age -- I think I was about 23 or 24 -- I really didn't know. I had discovered John Cage a year or two before, and Cage had, in his writings more than in his music, given me a great sense of liberation, and allowed me to feel that I was doing the right thing by turning my back on the European classical music establishment.
When I got to San Francisco, the flower generation was still in its -- well, not in its full tilt, but it was beginning to decline. And there was a lot of experimental activity going on, happenings, performance art, big events, many of which did involve, if not John Cage himself, certainly John Cage's aesthetics.
And I was involved in that a long time during the early to mid-'70s. But I think that I felt that I wanted to say something that was deeper and more serious.
And I went through a very long period of searching for my own musical language. And whether I felt it was classical or something else, I don't think I even worried to put a label on it.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what that search was like. What are some of the phases you went through, some of the things you tried?
ADAMS: Well, I was very much involved in chance music, music that took Cage as its fundamental philosophy. I eventually turned my back on that because I felt that although it was playful and maybe said a lot of interesting things about life, that fundamentally it was deaf to what music really could say to one's spirit.
I experimented with...
GROSS: Can I stop you there for a second? I really have to agree with what you said. I'm fascinated by Cage as a philosopher, but I would agree that, you know, as a listener myself, I don't feel like I get what I want to from music from listening to chance processes.
ADAMS: Well, Cage was an extraordinary individual, probably one of the most important people in the arts in this century. And it's a great irony to also have to admit that from my point of view as a musician, there's very little in his music that satisfies me.
If when I read Cage or talked to him, I would always be alarmed by the fact that he actually was completely deaf to most of the music I liked. He had no interest in jazz, he had no interest in rock, he had no interest in Mozart, he had not even any interest in Indian music except from a sort of procedural point of view.
But what he was interested in was in liberating sound so that people could appreciate the world around themselves without any cultural connection. And I think that was a tremendously important discovery.
GROSS: So anyways, it gave you freedom to try all kinds of things.
ADAMS: That's right.
GROSS: So you tried chance processes, electronic music. How did you hit on minimal music?
ADAMS: Well, I heard several of the kind of early minimalist masterpieces over a period of four or five years. The first piece I heard was "In C," which was a very famous piece by Terry Riley, a kind of tribal performance piece that he composed in the late '60s. And shortly after that, I heard a famous piece by Steve Reich called "Drumming."
And these pieces very much excited me, because they pointed in a direction that I thought would take me out of the cul de sac of avant garde music. I felt that avant garde music had become terribly theoretical, whether it was 12-tone rows or whether it was John Cage tossing coins. It all seemed to amount in the same rather sterile experience for me that didn't have soul, it didn't, you know, make my body want to vibrate, it didn't want -- make we want to tap my foot.
And I thought that minimalism, by returning to the kind of biological or genetic roots of the musical experience -- and by that I mean pulsation and tonality -- was in a way -- I suppose one could say reinventing the wheel, showing us a way that we could use fundamentally universally shared musical impulses, but organize them in a completely new way.
GROSS: Now, you say that Duke Ellington was quite an influence on you, and that in fact your grandfather owned a dance hall in Central New Hampshire that was called Irwin's Winnespesaukee (ph) Gardens.
ADAMS: That's right.
GROSS: Would you -- were you alive when he had it? Were you able to go there?
ADAMS: Yes. He owned it from the mid-'30s up until the mid-1960s, when he tragically sold it and then became a miniature golf course.
ADAMS: But during the heyday of that particular era, the -- all the great big bands went and played there. And it's also where my mother met my father, because my father had come up playing clarinet and saxophone with a band, a B-band, that I think played that evening before Fats Waller.
But my biggest experience there was being taken several summer evenings back in the early 1960s and hearing the Duke Ellington band play in this dance hall.
GROSS: What was it like in the mid-'60s -- I mean, there weren't many big bands left then.
ADAMS: Well, actually big bands have hung on. They've changed their configuration over the years, and it's interesting to note that -- I mean, my daughter, my teenage daughter takes swing band dancing in high school. It's a new rage now, so it's come full circle.
The Ellington band, of course, did continue as long as Ellington lived, and I think it was one of the great instrumental formations of the 20th century, the big band. And I remember as a kid standing in front of the band. You could do this at my grandfather's dance hall, because they weren't up on the stage, they were just right down there on the floor.
And I was just astonished by the volume of sound that came from this band. I mean, there are only, like, about 18 players in it, and they weren't amplified. But these Ellington players, the four or five saxophones and the four trombones and five trumpets, just created a stupendous sound that was full spectrum, from the very lowest crackling sounds in the trombones to this screeching high trumpet of Cat Anderson.
I think my style of orchestra writing, and particularly my style of brass writing, has been -- had an indelible imprint made upon it from that experience.
GROSS: John Adams. He'll be back in the second half of the show. His new 10-CD retrospective is on Nonesuch Records.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, ORCHESTRAL PIECE, JOHN ADAMS)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with composer and conductor John Adams. He has a new 10-CD retrospective boxed set, collecting his music from the late '70s to the late '90s.
When we left off, we were talking about how he's been influenced by big bands, especially Duke Ellington's.
You say in the liner notes to the boxed set that your composition "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" owes as much to Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington as to the techniques of minimalism. So I thought we'd hear an excerpt of the opening of "Short Ride." We're going to hear Edo de Waart conducting the San Francisco Symphony.
Would you introduce this for us?
ADAMS: Well, this piece is a short, four-minute orchestra piece, which was originally a fanfare, or that's what the request was. And the image that I had while composing this piece was a ride that I once took in a sport car. A relative of mine had bought a Ferrari, and he asked me late one night to take a ride in it. And we went out onto the highway, and I wished I hadn't. (laughs)
It was absolutely terrifying experience to be in a car driven by somebody who was not really a skilled driver. And I think that I used this pulsating wood block, which governs this whole piece, is probably an analogy for my pounding pulse. And I make the orchestra, at incredibly fast speed, sort of pass through the gauntlet of this pulse.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is the opening of John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine."
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "SHORT RIDE IN A FAST MACHINE," JOHN ADAMS)
GROSS: That's the opening of John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," featured on his new boxed set, "John Adams Earbox."
Well, you were telling us about the dance hall that your grandfather owned, and the fact that your father played clarinet. I think clarinet was your first instrument when you were learning to play.
ADAMS: It was. I started probably -- I think in the second grade.
GROSS: It's a hard instrument, very demanding.
ADAMS: No, it's not, it's one of the easiest instruments. I think that's the shocking thing about it.
GROSS: Do you really think that's true?
ADAMS: I do. I think actually it's just a very logically designed instrument. And when you compare it to the bassoon or the oboe or, you know, the violin or cello, for that matter, clarinet's a very easy instrument. No offense to the world's great clarinet players, but it's a fact.
GROSS: What did you like and what didn't you like about the clarinet?
ADAMS: What I liked about the clarinet was that it was very much like the human voice, and of course my great inspiration was Benny Goodman, who was, you know, the original crossover musician. He was, of course, as famous in his time as John Lennon was in his time.
But Goodman also was a highly skilled clarinet player, and he used his fame and his fortune to commission some of the important clarinet works in the literature, by Bela Bartok, by Stravinsky, by Hindemith, and several other famous composers.
GROSS: Now, in your liner notes, you say that in spite of the fact that clarinet was your first instrument, and your father played clarinet, you didn't compose for that instrument till you were nearly 50. Why did it take you so long?
ADAMS: Well, it may have been a personal thing. I suppose there was -- there were very deep connections with the instrument, and, you know, it was an instrument I gave up. I just simply got bored with it and stopped playing it when I was about 25 years old. So maybe there was some certain sense of guilt about it, I'm not sure.
GROSS: Was your father still alive when you composed "Gnarly Buttons," which was that first piece for clarinet?
ADAMS: No, my father had died in 1988, I believe, and he died a very difficult death of Alzheimer's disease. And as he really began to seriously decline and lose his reason, the clarinet became the focus of his decaying consciousness.
And I remember my mother telling me that when she realized that she had to do something serious about my dad was the day that she opened up a hamper of laundry and found his clarinet taken apart into its various pieces and hidden in the bottom of the laundry hamper. My dad had had an obsession, and he believed somebody was going to break into this rural New Hampshire home and steal his clarinet.
So it was a funny, tragic emotion that was connected in my head with the clarinet, and I wrote a sort of funny, tragic piece called "Gnarly Buttons," which is a concerto for clarinet, and it's witty and it's humorous, but I think in the last movement, which is called "Put Your Loving Arms Around Me," it's also very touching.
GROSS: Well, before we hear an excerpt of that last movement, I'm wondering if your father remembered anything about how to play while he had the Alzheimer's, or if he could sing any of the music that he used to play.
ADAMS: I think that people who suffer from brain degenerative diseases tend to lose their recent memory first. And since my father had played the clarinet since he was, you know, a teenager, it was something that stayed with him to the very end. And I think it was probably his physical deterioration that prevented him from playing it, rather than his mental deterioration.
GROSS: Well, we're going to hear the opening of that final movement of "Gnarly Buttons," which is called "Put Your Loving Arms Around Me." We'll hear you conducting the Runson (ph) Symphonietta with Michael Collins on clarinet. Would you introduce this for us?
ADAMS: Well, this movement couldn't be more simple. It begins with a simple strumming triad and then a very, very diatonic, again, very simple tune which articulates the phrase, "Put your loving arms around me." I suppose it could be a song by Joni Mitchell. And in a way, I think it sums up what's -- what I've achieved in my life, because as I've grown older, I've learned to become simpler. And that's not always the easiest thing to do.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "PUT YOUR LOVING ARMS AROUND ME" FROM "GNARLY BUTTONS," JOHN ADAMS)
GROSS: Music by John Adams from his piece "Gnarly Buttons," which is included on his new 10-CD boxed set called "John Adams Earbox."
I think I'm not used to hearing music of yours that has a single melody line in it on top like that.
ADAMS: (laughs) That's maybe a great triumph of my middle age.
GROSS: (laughs) I like that very much.
Now, we heard you conducting. Do you think you conduct your work any differently than other conduct your work?
ADAMS: Well, I guess I get the tempo right.
GROSS: And if you don't, there's no one to blame but yourself.
ADAMS: That's right. Well, you know, there are some really, really great conductors out there, and I'm very fortunate that the really good ones do my music and do it very often. I mean, I've had very close working relationships with Simon Rattle, who's the new conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and Essepeke Salinen (ph), the great young Finnish conductor, Kent Magano (ph), Michael Tilson Thomas.
So when they do my music, it's always a thrill. I happen to be able to conduct pretty well myself. I don't -- you know, I don't do Mahler and Beethoven, but I do a lot of music that interests me. And it's not often that a composer can conduct well. In our own time we've had Boulez and Bernstein, but not many others.
And it's something that sort of completes the picture of my compositional personality. I sometimes say it's the Yin to the Yang of composing. It's the extroverted side of an otherwise very introverted life. And I think it creates a nice balance.
GROSS: Well, you actually have a very funny story about the very first time that one of your works was performed in front of an audience, and maybe this would be a good time to tell it.
ADAMS: Well, I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, actually Concord, New Hampshire, which, even though it's a small town is the state capital. And the New Hampshire State Hospital was located in Concord, and that's where indigent mental patients ended up, many of them incarcerated.
And I played in a community orchestra. I was the only kid in the orchestra. Everyone else were amateurs, adults, the local jeweler or music teacher or garage mechanic who wanted to blow his oboe or scrape on a cello once a week. And we gave our concerts for the patients.
So the very first piece that I ever wrote, which was a suite for string orchestra, was premiered. I think I was 13 years old at the time. And it was premiered in front of a gymnasium full of about 500 severely disabled mental patients. And they loved it. It was probably even to this day my best audience.
GROSS: In what sense was it your best audience?
ADAMS: Well, because their response was so genuine, and so for the heart. And I think -- I realized, even at that young age, that music had a transcendental power, that it seemed to bypass certain organs of the brain and go straight to the deepest part of the soul. And it was so evident to me, because here was this -- you know, miserable community orchestra that could barely play in tune, playing this kid's music.
And there were people who were just sobbing, or were ecstatically screaming because of the experience of hearing music. And I think -- I realized at that point the power -- you know, the essential, fundamental power that music had. And, you know, despite sophistication and having to go through college and all the things that happened to me later on that could have turned me into somebody very cynical and very arch, I think that experience remained like a deep imprint in the deepest part of myself.
And I find myself coming back to it from time to time, just remembering that, you know, that's really what it's all about.
GROSS: My guest is John Adams, and he has a new 10-CD boxed set called "John Adams Earbox."
Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more about your music.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is composer John Adams. He has a new 10-CD boxed set called "The John Adams Earbox."
You've written, I think, three operas, "Nixon in China," "Klinghoffer," and "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Saw the Sky." Did I get the title right?
ADAMS: "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky."
GROSS: "Then I Saw the Sky." Two of those are based on real things, you know, one on Nixon's first visit to China, and the other on the cruise ship passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, who was thrown overboard by terrorists.
Tell me why you wanted to write contemporary operas.
ADAMS: Well, I actually was never much of an opera fan. I didn't like the sound of the operatic voice, and I thought that the whole experience was somewhat ridiculous. And I'm not even sure I've changed my mind much about it since then. I'm -- you know, I never go. But I met the opera director Peter Sellers in 1985 when he was -- oh, gosh, I don't know, he was barely 25 years old at the time.
And we had an immediate chemical reaction that I suppose Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill must have had when they first collaborated on "The Threepenny Opera." And Peter mentioned this idea that he had, which was an opera about this event, Nixon's trip to China. And of course most people thought this was just an absolutely ridiculous idea for an opera.
But in fact, it was a brilliant idea, because it dealt with the issues that were so meaningful, and in a certain sense so terrifying to me as I was growing up, because Nixon and Mao and the clash of these two cultures really defined my childhood, the cold war, the fear of communism, the deep, dark unknown of the Soviet empire.
And I think also the collision of cultures, capitalism, where market values dictate every aspect of one's life, and communism, which I thought fundamentally was a deeply humane philosophy that just simply never could quite work right in practice.
GROSS: Why don't we hear an excerpt from "Nixon in China"? And I'm going to play the excerpt of -- from "News Has a Kind of Mystery." Explain to us who's singing and what they're singing about.
ADAMS: Well, shortly after the opening of the opera, the -- "Air Force One," the big 747, lands on the stage, which is really one of the great coup de theatres in the opera world. And the door opens, and Nixon and Mrs. Nixon come out, walk down onto the runway, where they're greeted by a huge phalanx of identically clad Communist Party officials.
And Nixon shakes the hand of each one, but he doesn't even look at them in the face. He looks straight into the camera. And he sings this kind of nervous, jittery, high-caffeine aria where he talks about being on television. It's prime time in the USA, it's yesterday night, the dog and Grandma are watching on TV. This is -- it's full of all this wonderful imagery and Alice Goodman's poem, in which he likens himself to an astronaut landing on the moon.
And we get this wonderful picture of, you know, the American mythology, the president as conquering hero, and yet at the same time is a kind of slightly ridiculous self-indulgent buffoon.
GROSS: OK, so this is President Nixon, sung by -- who's singing the president?
ADAMS: This is sung by James Maddalena (ph), who created the role and continues to sing it.
GROSS: From John Adams' opera "Nixon in China."
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "NEWS HAS A KIND OF MYSTERY" FROM "NIXON IN CHINA," JOHN ADAMS)
GROSS: An excerpt of John Adams' opera "Nixon in China."
We'll be back with John Adams after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is composer John Adams. He has a new 10-CD retrospective boxed set.
John Adams, you've managed to find quite a home in classical music after being very disenchanted with it as a college student, when you felt that the music that you loved didn't have a place in the academic world. Do you still feel that you're as eclectic a listener now as you were when you were younger, listening to rock and jazz and classical music, avant garde music?
ADAMS: I think it's impossible to live, you know, in 1999 in the USA and not be an eclectic listener. You'd have to walk around with earplugs. I would say that I'm somewhat more of a passive listener than I used to be. I don't go out and I don't go to the CD store and buy 10 CDs and take them home and listen. I prefer to experience music almost by chance.
I hear my son practicing a Schubert impromptu through the floor. Or I am driving in a car and somebody rolls up and there's a great new pop song blaring out of that person's radio. Or somebody offers me a ticket to a concert I didn't expect to go to.
That's the way I like to experience music now. I think I've done my homework, I've learned the literature, so to speak. But I find that I'm so involved in making my own music that by the end of the day, I'm not interested in further aggressive listening.
GROSS: So instead of composing music by chance processes, you're kind of listening by chance processes.
ADAMS: (laughs) Absolutely right, yes.
GROSS: You know, before we heard the excerpt of "Nixon in China," you said that you always found operatic voices kind of -- what was the word you used? Well, both of us will forget the word you used. But the impression I got was that it wasn't -- it was a more -- almost false voice to you, than, say, the more contemporary voices of rock and folk and jazz...
ADAMS: Yes, yes.
GROSS: ... which are more in the range of speaking than operatic voices...
ADAMS: That's right.
GROSS: ... tend to be, and they're smaller, more confidential voices than operatic voices tend to be.
I wonder if -- how you feel about the trained classical voices that you use. Do they seem to be somewheres in the middle between opera and...
ADAMS: And pop music.
GROSS: And pop music, yes.
ADAMS: Well, I -- you know, I think that the conventional archetypical operatic voice is actually not a natural thing. It started with Wagner, who wanted to have a huge orchestra in the pit, and he had to actually breed a whole new race of beings that could sing over that. So you get, you know, the stereotype of the 400-pound tenor or the 400-pound soprano, for that matter.
And that's the kind of singing that I don't like. I'm drawn more to a voice that is sort of closer to pop singing. And I actually ask my singers to be lightly amplified during a performance, which is a decision on my part that has actually taken my operas out of the running in some opera houses in the world that refuse to use amplification.
But, you know, we're in the technological age, and I think that that's really what the future is going to have.
GROSS: You want the voices amplified so that the singer doesn't have to push the voice and doesn't have to have that really large, overpowering opera voice?
ADAMS: That's exactly right. And in a work like "Ceiling-Sky," which I wrote for Broadway-style voices, we have very, very beautiful voices, a voice like Audra McDonald (ph), for example, who sings on this recording, who could easily fill a hall as well as any opera singer, but who, when she sings gently and at a more normal range with a microphone, has a much greater range of subtlety. And that's what I'm aiming for.
GROSS: John Adams, a pleasure to talk with you.
ADAMS: Oh, thank you very much.
GROSS: We'll close the show with Audra McDonald and Michael McElroy singing "Este Payes (ph)" from Adams' opera "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky." McDonald plays an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who's forced to leave the U.S. and is saying goodbye to her lover.
The music is featured on the new CD boxed set, "The John Adams Earbox," on Nonesuch Records.
I'm Terry Gross.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "ESTE PAYES" FROM "I WAS LOOKING AT THE CEILING AND THEN I SAW THE SKY," JOHN ADAMS)
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: John Adams
High: Composer and conductor John Adams discusses his decades-spanning career, including his operas "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer."
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; "The John Adams Earbox"
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Music of John Adams
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.