John Adams

American composer John Adams and I first met in the late 1970s, when I became one of his composition students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. My recollections from those days endure as near-cinematic images: John lugging his homemade synthesizer—he called it "the Studebaker"—down the hall prior to meeting me at his office; an early performance, at Mills College in Oakland, of Adams's Shaker Loops (footnote 1) for string septet; sitting with Adams during rehearsals for the 1981 premiere of his choral symphony Harmonium (footnote 2), with Edo De Waart and the San Francisco Symphony.

After 1985, when I moved to Los Angeles, I saw less of Adams, but we kept in touch. One afternoon, when he was in LA for performances, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of his gangbuster work Harmonielehre (footnote 3), I showed him around the 20th Century Fox lot and took him to a film-scoring session there. And I visited Adams after his marriage to photographer Deborah O'Grady. They had recently moved to Berkeley, and John was working on his first opera, Nixon in China (footnote 4).

John Adams's current catalog of published works numbers over 60. He tours as a guest conductor throughout the United States and across the world, records extensively, and participates in numerous festivals and residencies. He has won five Grammys, the Grawemeyer Award (in 1995, for his Violin Concerto, footnote 5), and the Pulitzer Prize (in 2003, for On the Transmigration of Souls, footnote 6, his response to the 2001 terrorist attacks).

On Valentine's Day 2019, when I arrived at the Adams home on the flank of the Berkeley Hills, the first beams of sunlight were shining through after an intense rainstorm. The power was out, so listening to recorded music was impossible. John managed to light the stove, and over a lunch of homemade mushroom soup, we got caught up . . .

Sasha Matson: You once said to me that being a composer was being the fringe of the fringe.

John Adams: Cynical, hard-ass comment, but true.

Matson: I like in your memoir, Hallelujah Junction (footnote 7), your recollections of your family's first record player, your first stereo, and what an impact that had on you.

Adams: It was a Magnavox. It was a console, and in those days, it had a record changer that someone would put a pile of LPs on. That was an absolute life-changing moment.


Matson: Do you remember a few favorite records?

Adams: Oh, I do! You never forget those things. I remember the Angel LPs, which came in a sort of brown straw-colored front with a little gold label. I had the Sibelius First Symphony, I had Fritz Reiner conducting an unknown chamber ensemble in the Brandenburg Concertos, and Benny Goodman playing the Mozart Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet with the Boston Symphony. And we had a lot of jazz records.

Matson: What do you think your discography count is up to now? Not recordings with other people's music, but albums of your own music . . .

Adams: With Nonesuch there have been over 30 albums. Then there are others that I don't keep track of.

Matson: What do you think now of your early recordings, Shaker Loops and Harmonium?

Adams: I'm very proud of them. The Shaker Loops one was made at the San Francisco Conservatory and was sort of self-produced, on a local label, 1750 Arch. Harmonium, for ECM, was a wonderful performance.

Matson: Was Harmonium done on tape or with digital? That was right at the start of digital recording.

Adams: That was a scandale. [ECM Records founder] Manfred Eicher had just had this monstrous success with Keith Jarrett. At the last minute, he decided he wasn't going to be at the sessions, and they were a big deal: 200 people on the stage. Eicher demanded of the engineer that he record only at 15ips, with no Dolby, which was unthinkable. They had a big argument about it. As an audio project, there were problems with it. The dynamic range was a problem, with the piece starting pianissimo, and then this huge music. They used compressors and limiters and so forth.

Matson: Studio recordings for orchestral and operatic music are almost vanishing—it's just too expensive. It generally goes down live?

Adams: Of course, but it's actually wonderful to do it live that way, because you get the excitement and intensity of a live performance. Then, presumably, you have some patch sessions.

Matson: I kind of miss, though, some of those big opera productions done at Abbey Road. Some of those are great recordings.

Adams: Doctor Atomic was recorded in the BBC Maida Vale Studio in London (footnote 8). That went down over a period of eight days, and at the very end we put up mikes to record a live performance. We thought we were going to capture the live performance, but the sessions were so good that I think most of the album is from the studio sessions.


Matson: The recording of Doctor Atomic took a while to get released, after the work was first performed.

Adams: It's very expensive, I had to raise some money for it. And I'm not in a rush to record operas right now—I like to live with them for a while. I'm glad that I waited that long with Doctor Atomic, because I made some changes.

Matson: You enjoy the recording process?

Adams: Sometimes it can be really freaky, because the clock is ticking, and most of my pieces are very expensive. I can give you a case in point. Michael Tilson Thomas recorded Harmonielehre (footnote 9), and then, later, Absolute Jest (footnote 10), which is a recording I am very proud of. The San Francisco Symphony's patch sessions come in packages of 15 minutes, of which you are only really getting about 10 minutes. It's so expensive, and you have a person from the [musicians'] union, and a person from the record company, and they're standing there like umpires at the Super Bowl. It costs thousands if it goes one minute over!

Matson: Sometimes, it's possible to work too fast.

Adams: I have a funny story I can make public now, because it happened so long ago. Back in the early days of my recordings with the San Francisco Symphony, those were actually studio recordings: They were made at Davies Hall, but not live. We had an album of mine that had a lot of pieces on it, including a very early, very minimalist piece, Common Tones in Simple Time. That was the last piece we recorded, and we had one minute left. There was one figure that was repeated over and over by one of the piano players. The pianist played a wrong note throughout. I was flipping out, and there wasn't time to do it again. So I just cut it from the recording. It didn't seem to matter—the only people that ever commented to me that those bars are missing are conductors! [laughs].

Footnote 1: Available in a recording by the Ridge Quartet and additional musicians (DC, New Albion NA014).

Footnote 2: Available in a recording by Edo De Waart and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus (CD, ECM 1277 821 465-2).

Footnote 3: Available in a recording by Edo De Waart and the San Francisco Symphony (CD, Nonesuch 9 79115-2).

Footnote 4: Available in a recording by Edo De Waart and the Symphony of St. Luke's (CD, Elektra Nonesuch 9 79177-2).

Footnote 5: Available in a recording by Gidon Kremer, Kent Nagano, and the London Symphony Orchestra (CD, Nonesuch 79360-2).

Footnote 6: Available in a recording by Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic (CD, Nonesuch 79816-2).

Footnote 7: Hallelujah Junction, Composing an American Life, 340pp., Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.

Footnote 8: Available in a recording by John Adams and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers (CD, Nonesuch 7559-79310-7).

Footnote 9: CD, SFS Media SFS 0063.

Footnote 10: CD, SFS Media SFS 0063. 11 Available in a recording by Leila Josefowicz, David Robertson, and the St. Louis Symphony CD, Nonesuch 557170-2.