One of the most insightful and eclectic thinkers on music I know is UCLA musicologist Robert Fink, who has written a book on minimalism — Repeating Ourselves — and both teaches music history and run the school’s music-business program.
On the occasion of John Adams’ 70th birthday, and a series of related events in Los Angeles, I corresponded with Fink about the composer’s life and work. Bob put together an event on campus last weekend which included a panel about the composer’s work and performances of some of the chamber music.
I’ll mostly let Bob roll here and stay out of his way.
On the contradiction of the composer laureate of California — a mostly warn and sunny state heavily populated by people of Latino Catholic origins — being a WASP from cloudy New England:
“He is indeed a typical northern New Englander, whose background has some of the hard-scrabble rural poverty and frustrated dreams that provides background for, say, Stephen King’s best gothic stories.
“The move to California puts him in the backwash of the Sixties, right at the moment that Hunter S. Thompson describes in “Fear and Loathing,” when the energy started rolling back.
“So (and I resonate with this personally) he struggled for a while with the end of Cage-style experimentalism in the Bay Area (the musical version of “the Sixties”).”
What part of the California experience inspired the young Adams and his work?
“1. Eco-consciousness. (Lots of imagery of water, light, trees, ocean, etc. Strong connection to the Sierras and the coast.) 2. Alternative spirituality and self-actualization (Jung, Buddhism, etc.). There is a scholar working on Adams and things like Esalen. Many of his pieces in the 1970s and 1980s are overt stories of inner struggle and then transcendence. 3. Berkeley-style political liberalism. (The operas, working with Sellars, etc.)”
Adams’ relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic comes after decades in which a lot of us thought of him as a Bay Area artist. Does he seem like a California figure, or a Northern Cal one?
“You’d have to ask whether his connection with the LA Phil in recent years, and his increasing interest in Latin and South Asian culture (El Niño, A Flowering Tree) mean he is moving beyond the very admirable but pretty white confines of Berkeley-style liberalism. I think so, and it’s one of the more interesting things about his recent work. That becomes 4. Multiculturalism.”
Tell us a little about the UCLA/ Schoenberg event, Bob.
“First we heard about Adams’s working methods from Alice Miller Cotter. She showed some of his sketches for major works like Nixon and Klinghoffer. He comes across as a deeply intuitive composer whose work ethic is fierce. He seems to go at even the biggest pieces, like an opera, one bar at a time, feeling his way forward. It’s a very high-risk kind of composing.
“The lesson of the overview is that minimalism was a stepping stone for Adams. It was a way to escape from the double bind of either being a tight-ass serialist or a loopy experimentalist, but in either case not feeling ‘allowed’ to write the kind of music (Beethoven, Sibelius, Hendrix, Coltrane) he liked to listen to.
“But it’s clear that Adams, a real musical prodigy, effortlessly mastered minimalism in one or two tries, and then got bored. (Unlike Reich and Glass, who remain endlessly fascinated by the implications of their own 60s breakthroughs.) We heard Phrygian Gates from 1977-78, and I thought that if I had written that, I would have spent the next 20 years doing over and over again. But Adams only got about five years from the minimalist breakthrough, and then had a complete midlife crisis.
“He then wrote Harmonielehre, with its overt pastiching of late Romanticism; at that point he began to find a more complex harmonic language that worked for him (Cotter again) and that lasted him for about ten years.
“By the 1990s he’s bored again…and so it goes.”
What was the panel — which included you, Nonesuch jefe Robert Hurwitz, and music critic Kyle Gann — like?
“We stayed on the topic of the composer and his ‘work’ (all aspects). I asked him about working process, and we got into some interesting discussion of *how* he works — he begins with pencil in hand at the piano, even though he does not play. He sketches linearly. He uses MIDI and computers to work out arrangements and orchestration (using film scoring software), and then copies out the final ms again by hand. (Very old fashioned.)
“His background as a performer/conductor came up, since we were doing a program largely based in chamber music, which he is not known primarily for. He was a clarinet virtuoso as a child up to college, and conducted a lot at Harvard, so he feels he really understands how instrumentalists feel when they look at a part, whether it respects them and their time/abilities or not. (The tension between this and his need, in the minimal days, to work with masses of sound, was palpable in the concert: you could see performers like Gloria Cheng and the string sextet that played Shaker Loops *working* to produce the masses of sound that Adams wanted. (I talked about this in my preconcert talk.)”
“We talked about commissions and how a composer ‘gets lucky.’ Adams is a hard worker, but he also is aware that he was, sometimes, just in the right place at the right time, and that there have been some key advocates for his music (Edo de Waart, Bob Hurwitz, etc.) without whom all his work might not have mattered. Connection there to his work with LA Phil Green Umbrella – he tries to do this for next gen.”