John Adams:  His music is contemporary, classical and rooted in America

Audio Transcript

John Adams: 

My very first orchestra piece, a piece called “Common Tones in Simple Time” which I composed in I guess it was 1979,  I paid for the parts and the production with a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts so I can say that they were instrumental in getting me going. That was remarkable time.

 I remember very clearly that the NEA was giving out small grants to a lot of composers. So I’ve been living in the San Francisco Bay area for 40 years or so and I remember that month, not only was it prestigious to those of us who were emerging, to use a kind word; many of us were completely unknown and of course just the money was very helpful in my case, producing an orchestra piece and getting the parts copied and all the materials duplicated. I forget what the grant was for, it was maybe $2500 or something, but that was big news in those days.

There are people who feel that if an artist’s work doesn’t pay for itself there’s something wrong with it, and anyone who’s got even the remotest knowledge about cultural history knows that many of the greatest works of art whether they’re Beethoven symphonies or Michelangelo sculptures or poetry or whatever was the result of enlightened patronage and art very often doesn’t pay for itself. So we as artists are always looking for support; we’re looking for some form of patronage because what we do it can’t compete in the marketplace with material that is made strictly for profit.

The arts unfortunately are frequently the first political football that you get whenever there’s an argument about budget, but if you look at the economy particularly in a city like San Francisco where I live the arts really are-- they are a real generator of revenue and civic activity, and the activity around a concert hall, for example Davies Hall in San Francisco, it’s buzzing. And the fact that people come into the city and go to these concerts and have dinner in the neighborhood frequently it’s the arts that are responsible for enormous upswings in neighborhoods.

The bottom line is that music is fundamentally about feeling. Obviously, we get great intellectual and sensory pleasure from music. But the most important aspect, the most powerful issue or thing about music, is that it is feeling. It's raw feeling, which one person communicates to another. Either, by composing it or singing it or performing it. There's something about just being in the presence of that raw emotion that you get when you hear an opera or a Mahler symphony or a Beethoven piano concerto that has intense meaning for people.

Art is as varied and as different in experiences as individual people are. What's wonderful about art is that it can be as different as all the people on the planet. Go to a place where there are tens of thousands of people, like a big airport, or maybe go to a baseball stadium, and you look around and you see 10,000 or 20 or 30,000 people, and each one of those people has a different story to tell, a different DNA, a different inclination. So there's going to be a different kind of art for each one of these people.

When I was in the third grade it was the-- it was 1956 and it was the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, and we had a very, very sophisticated teacher in this little school where I went and she read to the class a child’s biography of Mozart, and I do very clearly remember being completely jazzed by that idea of a little boy who could write symphonies and concertos. And so I went home and tried to do that and of course realized immediately that I didn’t have the technical equipment, but my parents were very sensitive and very perceptive and they found me a teacher. There was actually somebody within a half-hour drive of where we lived who could teach me to write melodies and eventually harmony and counterpoint.

I consider myself essentially a composer who conducts, and I've never, at any point in my life, ever had a confusion about that. Mostly I learned conducting just by watching other conductors and that’s frequently the case. You can learn the basics of how to beat six and four and five but most everything else has to do with your as we say on-the-job training. You have to get out there in front of the orchestra and make your mistakes and just do it over and over again and always listen. I will say though that my experience of playing in an orchestra when I was younger-- I substituted with the Boston Symphony while I was still an undergraduate at Harvard-- it gave me a very special insight into what it’s like on the other side of the podium, what it’s like to be in an orchestra where your part only gives you a fraction of information as to what’s going on, and I’m unusually sensitive to the sort of collective psychology of eighty or a hundred musicians, and I think more than anything else musicians-- well, they want to be inspired but they also don’t want to have their time wasted. People understand when something’s necessary and then they also know when a conductor’s wasting their time. I look at a group of musicians and think okay, if Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything is true then if I’m standing in front of 50 musicians that’s 500,000 hours of collective time in a practice room. So when you think about that you have to be somewhat awed and full of respect for the people you’re working with.

We’re now in a period where the tonality in much of the country is antigovernment, keep the government out of our lives, etcetera, etcetera, but in fact I’ve been a strong believer that the government can be instrumental in people’s lives and that while support from the private sector is obviously the main root in a market economy like ours that having the imprimatur and the support of foundations that are government sponsored is a tremendously important thing and it affirms who we are as artists, that we’re not just ivory tower people who are disassociated with society but we’re a part of the society. And I remember going to Washington and serving on an NEA panel and looking at compositions that were coming in from everywhere, from Alaska and the Dakotas and Georgia as well as New York and San Francisco, and feeling that I really was a citizen and really part of a large entity, an organism. And I think that the people that I know who work at the NEA are just wonderful, wonderful people; they’re devoted to their jobs and to what the endowment does in the country.

The National Endowment for the Arts serves, for me as an artist, two functions. One is support, financial support, which is obviously critical for the arts. But the other, which in some ways is even more important, is the imprimatur, the knowledge that the people of the country who are being represented through this government foundation, that they are proud of their artists, and that the National Endowment exists because we have a great culture, and we always have, and it continues to be rich. And that by receiving support from the National Endowment for the Arts makes me, as an American Composer, feel that I'm a part of my society and what I do is profoundly valued.