Composed and Provocative

During a "Composers in Conversation" appearance last week before an attentive audience at Theatre Project, John Adams offered revealing glimpses into his life, his music and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program he will conduct this week. He also dropped a little verbal incendiary.

"There are a lot of composers today," Adams said, "just not a lot of original ones. You could count the number of great composers today on half a hand."



That declaration may have seemed a little surprising coming from the soft-spoken, gray-haired Adams, dressed in the earth-tone casual you'd expect from a man long and happily based in Berkeley, Calif. But if anyone has earned the right to evaluate the contemporary music scene, it's Adams. After all, many people would include him in that half-a-hand tally.


He's the composer of such exhilarating orchestral pieces as the Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Harmonielehre; such provocative operas as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. His multilayered response to the Sept. 11 horror, On the Transmigration of Souls, won a Pulitzer Prize.

Although linked with Steve Reich and Philip Glass as a triumvirate of minimalism, Adams moved years ago far beyond the basic chords, reiterative melodies and pulsating beat of that musical language. "I don't think you can put an 'ism' on my music," he says.

However he's defined, Adams, 60, enjoys extraordinary stature. His works are performed just about everywhere, by a who's-who of conductors, soloists and orchestras. His champions include BSO music director Marin Alsop, who introduced him at Theatre Project as "a composer I admire and revere."

The most eloquent testament to Adams' standing may have been penned by music critic Alex Ross in a 2001 New Yorker profile, who described his thoughts after interviewing the composer: "It seemed to me that I had just spent the morning with a man who was never going to die."

Sitting in a nondescript (one might say minimal) Baltimore hotel room, Adams expands on his evaluation of current composers. Does he really need fewer than five fingers to count the greats?

"I do," he says, without the slightest hint of arrogance. "But this is normal. Most living composers don't respond much to others. We have strong feelings about where music should be going. I [think] we need to go one more generation before there will be a blossoming of real talent."

Adams complains of composers "writing very, very tame works tailor-made to not offend" and fixating more on money-making than the musical art.

Among his own generation, Adams cites Reich as a major, innovative figure, as well as another American, Michael Gordon ("a visionary"), and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.


"Glass is a more complicated story," Adams says. "He's like Telemann [the prolific baroque composer], an artist doing 60 versions of the same idea."

Adams often surprises with his distinctive ways of thinking harmonically and rhythmically. He still is stuck, though, with the minimalist tag. "I don't think it applies to the stuff I wrote after 1990, but it's useful," he says. "You can say my music has roots in minimalism, was influenced by it as a method."

There are other roots at play in the composer's output, including the music he heard growing up in New Hampshire, where his father, a clarinetist, ran a dance hall. The high-energy, hypnotic Fearful Symmetries performed by the BSO last week is a good example of that influence.

So is the rich coloring and atmosphere conjured up by the 2003 work My Father Knew Charles Ives, "a Proustian evocation of my childhood" that Adams will conduct this week.

When he entered Harvard in 1965, Adams came ear to ear with the predominant academic aesthetic that favored, if not imposed, atonality and experimental music. "I experienced intense cognitive dissonance," he says.

Adams eventually rejected the "emotionally stingy and cerebral" styles. "It looked like a world without end of music that didn't speak to anyone but other composers," he says. "So I literally walked away. I did a Jack Kerouac."


In 1972, Adams made his way to San Francisco in a Volkswagen Beetle and began to carve out his own path, taking inspiration from the then-exploding genre of minimalism and from rock (he still notices the latter - he's been listening lately to eclectic electronic Irish musician Aphex Twin).

But Adams began to feel that the minimalism "was like cubism, limited in its potential. My needs are enormous. I need expressiveness, shock, surprise, high energy," he says.

By the early 1980s, his music was delivering plenty of expressive surprises, combining what Ross describes as a combination of "Reich-Glass repetition with the sprawling forms and grandiose orchestra of Wagner, Mahler and Sibelius."

Adams also revealed a knack for hitting emotional truths in his music. An example is on the BSO program this week: The Wound-Dresser, inspired by Walt Whitman's poetic remembrance of treating Civil War soldiers. The text "has particular meaning and poignancy right now," Adams says. "Only now it's young men and women being wounded."

In addition to his own works, Adams will conduct a symphony by Beethoven. "When I asked him which one he wanted to do," Alsop says, "he said the Seventh - it's the minimalist one."

That symphony's "repetition and harmonic tension and rhythmic drive elicit extremely strong responses in my musical self," Adams says.


After the BSO engagement, the composer will be completing a follow-up to his 1993 Chamber Symphony, which he is cheekily calling Son of Chamber Symphony, "much to my publisher's distress." He's also completing a book. "People laugh when they hear that I'm writing my memoirs at my age," he says.

The next chapter in Adams' creative life promises to be as energizing and mesmerizing as the others. He has more than fulfilled an early goal "to utilize basic language blocks of music and do it in a way that was fresh and new. Maybe I led the charge," he says.

He's leading it still.


Listen to excerpts from The Wound-Dresser and My Father Knew Charles Ives by John Adams at