John Adams

For the past three decades, John Adams has been at the forefront of musical invention. His accomplished, ambitious scores have met with both critical and popular acclaim, and are performed with regularity by orchestras, ensembles, and opera companies around the globe.

From his earliest compositions, Adams has created music that pulses with energy as it leads listeners on an exploration of startling, majestic, and unexpected forms. While works such as Light Over Water and The Dharma at Big Sur evoke natural vistas at the same time as they invite us to engage the private apprehensions of immense solitude, other pieces, such as The Death of Klinghoffer, engage political realities with an intelligence that is both earnest and incisive. In what other composer's work can one encounter the words of Whitman (The Wound-Dresser) and the spirit of Kerouac (The Dharma at Big Sur), the realpolitik and mythmaking of both Mao and Richard Nixon (Nixon in China), the eerie moral quandaries of modern physics (Doctor Atomic) and the haunting human yearnings embodied in an Indian folktale (A Flowering Tree)? And it must be mentioned that, despite the seriousness of Adams's purpose, humor is not banished from his musical enterprise (how can you not be intrigued by the work of someone who names a movement of a formidable orchestral score "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie"?)

The failure of classical music to penetrate the cacophony of the culture at large is often bemoaned; Adams's uncommon success in doing so is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. This success is in part based upon the composer's readiness to embrace the wider culture in his musical creations. Ranging over themes as varied as the wonder of the Nativity (El Niño) and the horror of September 11th (On the Transmigration of Souls), he has boldly used his music to engage human experience in a manner that is not didactic or reductive, but rather vital, soulful, probing, and generous. He knows the way to beauty, too, and beauty, whether harsh or soothing, bears its own life-enhancing inspirations.

Adams's recently published autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, offers an intimate portrait of his creative growth (which readers can listen to on the companion two-CD set released on the Nonesuch label). This fall has also seen the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Doctor Atomic, Adams's opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the detonation of the first nuclear bomb; a DVD of the original production, staged by Peter Sellars, has also recently been issued, as has the first recording of Adams's latest opera, A Flowering Tree.

This summer, I spoke with Adams by telephone about his book as well as other subjects. I reached him in his studio high in the Sonoma forest, where he was working on a string quartet. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
-- James Mustich

James Mustich: You lead a very busy life as both a composer and a conductor. So my first question is: why have you taken the time to write an autobiography?

John Adams: Every project has its own reason for being. In this case, about five years ago, I had started doing interviews with an author who was planning to do a large-scale biographical study. Off and on, we spent nearly nine months doing interviews. Then he had some problems and was unable to finish it. By that point, I'd gotten so immersed in my sort of Proustian recall that I thought, "I'll just do it myself." So I wrote a chapter or two, and sent them to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Strauss, whom I had met several years earlier. He read them and he said, "Go for it."

It seemed like it might be a useful book, providing background for my pieces; I didn't know of another book written by a composer that really dealt with the creative process -- how you write a piece, what goes on in your interior space, so to speak, when you are composing. Some composers have written memoirs, like Stravinsky, but his was largely a promotional book; I think it was ghostwritten. Ned Rorem, of course, is a wonderful writer, but his diaries are different in kind. I think, in a certain sense, Hallelujah Junction is a singular book.

JM: It was striking to me, if I may borrow a phrase from music, how through-composed it is -- starting with your childhood and going right to the end, or rather right up to the present; at each stage, it's filled with rich descriptions of the memories and landscapes that have informed your music.

JA: Well, it's surprising how much writing turned out to be like composing for me. I took great pleasure in it. In fact, I think I took more pleasure in it because, when you compose, you're always worried about history and how your works are going to stack up with the masterpieces of the past. But I didn't quite feel that onerous burden when I was writing. So writing actually was terrifically enjoyable, and I miss it now that the book is done; it leaves me feeling very empty, because I don't have any more to write when I'm traveling. You can only write an autobiography once!

JM: Well, may you have a long life. It would be nice to have a second volume at some point.

JA: Yes.

JM: I'd like you to talk a little bit about a composer you mention early in the book, in a chapter that really struck my fancy. You write: "Bruce Craigmore is a composer not at all known to the wider public. A 'New Hampshire composer,' he wrote and conducted his own music and enjoyed an international career similar to Leonard Bernstein's. Among his major works were the ballet The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a tone poem based on the astral constellations in the manner of Gustav Holst's The Planets, twelve symphonies . . ., and numerous concertos." You go on about Craigmore for a paragraph or two that I found fascinating.

JA: As I say in the book, he was an alter-ego, an imagined personality. I think that's not uncommon with kids or adolescents. Maybe most won't admit it, and, of course, people have alter-egos for all different kinds of reasons. It's a very rich fantasy life but it's a very personal and private thing. Certainly, I never told anybody about this created alter-ego at the time. But as to why I had to give him his own name and a specific separate identity from myself, I really can't answer that question.

JM: What was evocative about it was the way it seemed to mirror exactly what less artistic adolescents might do, say, with a baseball player. You mention that you kept data sheets of his opus numbers and schedules of his performances with orchestras around the world, the way somebody at the same time might have been following Ted Williams.

JA: Fantasy baseball or something.

JM: Yes. What's astonishing is how closely the rest of your life has actually played out the fastidiously detailed fantasy life you had as a 13-year-old.

JA: Amazingly it seems to have done so.

JM: In the same way, it's remarkable how themes come back or circle around in the book, just as they come back and circle around in your work. It's part of what gives your autobiography the sense of wholeness I've referred to. To stay close to the beginning, there's a wonderful description of your grandfather's dance hall in New Hampshire, where your mother and father met. Your father was a clarinetist and passed that instrument on to you.

JA: That's right.

JM: There is a short passage, when you are writing about the heyday of the dance hall, that struck me as very poignant: "In these days before the advent of amplification, the sound of the clarinet carries over the clamor of a fully crowded dance floor. My father's instrument, it will also become mine, taught to me by him. By the time I am twenty-one the clarinet will have vanished from popular music." It's striking to think about popular music in that way, with its instrumentation having a kind of evolutionary life.

JA: Oh, of course! That's part of the engine that runs it. If you look at pop music, let's say, since 1980, or even as far back as 1970, what really distinguishes one generation from another is the sound; it's as much the sound as it is the notes and rhythms and harmonies. People are using the same chords, the lyrics from one generation to another are basically all the same -- "Oh, I've had such a bad day" or "My girlfriend ditched me." But what makes one band different from another is its unique sound. You had to invent the saxophone before you could invent hot jazz. Then, of course, the invention of the electric guitar absolutely, utterly transformed popular music. Both the saxophone and the electric guitar were technological transformations. Beethoven would never have written the music he did if he only had access to a harpsichord. The invention of the piano suggested a new kind of music -- percussive on the one hand and, on the other, long-lined and lyrical. That's the point that I make in a later chapter of my book, "The Machine and the Garden": people think that composers have a vision of exactly how there imagined music should sound, and then they go about finding ways to change the musical world to fit their vision -- but I think it's the other way round: more often than not composers are reactive, and they respond to new technologies, whether that technology is a piano or an electric guitar or a microphone or a laptop and this creative encounter is largely what prompts the new musical ideas.

JM: Again near the beginning of the book -- and you come back to this at the end-- you ask, essentially, and not without a hint of ruefulness, "Who knows what direction my music might have taken if I had been as good on the piano as I was on the clarinet?" At the same time, as you suggest, your mastery of the clarinet allowed you an opportunity to explore different kinds of music -- to hear some music in a different way -- than a pianistic approach might have encouraged.

JA: You know, it's utterly speculative. One never knows. It's like if your parents had moved to a different town, or if you'd gone to a different college . . . There's just no way of knowing. But the reason I mention it is simply because most musicians, and certainly most composers, have learned music via the piano, and I didn't. So I think that made me different. My point was that if I had become a really good pianist, I might not have become a composer. I might have found so much satisfaction in playing the great piano literature that I might not have had a creative drive.

JM: Much later in the book, you talk about your 2003 composition, for electric violin and orchestra, The Dharma at Big Sur. In your notes about the piece on your website (Editor's note:, you write: "Classical Western music, from Bach to the present, is dominated by the discrete 12 tones of the equal-tempered scale, those seven white keys and five black keys so iconically imprinted on our consciousness. From the time of Bach, the piano became the principal vehicle for musical conceptualizing, and since then Western art music has confined itself to these discrete pitches. . . . Whether it was Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a Chopin nocturne, or Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, emotive power in the European art music tradition was the product of only the twelve discrete tones." Did your clarinet training allow you to envision The Dharma at Big Sur, for instance, or to hear the playing of the violinist for whom you wrote it, Tracy Silverman, in a way that might not have been available to you if your musical imagination had been more pianocentric, so to speak?

JA: No, I don't think so. The clarinet is very much like the piano, at least as it's taught as a classical instrument. You're discouraged from sliding and wailing and bending -- except for the opening of Rhapsody in Blue. I know wonderful klezmer players and jazz players that do "bend" the instrument, bend the notes, but that's not part of a conventional classical training. So no, I don't think in this case that's really what attracted me. I heard that amazing instrument that Tracy Silverman plays, the six-string electric violin -- and I also had been listening to a lot of Indian music, and thinking how wonderful it was that it wasn't dependent completely on discrete pitches in the way that the piano demands.

JM: In the book you describe the effect of seeing the film West Side Story in 1962, when you were at a music camp in Maine. You write: ". . . it was the moment when I felt most aroused to the potential of becoming an artist who might forge a language, Whitman-like, out of the compost of American life." You also write eloquently throughout the book of the failure of classical music today to have a presence in the culture. But that culture has a presence in your music, not just in terms of the political and historical themes of your operas, but aurally: the pulse and energy -- and at times the humor -- of some of your pieces do indeed shape something new from the sonic "compost" of American life. Do you think that this presence of the wider culture in your musical world explains in part why your works have had a broader appeal than most contemporary classical music?

JA: It's impossible to know for sure. You know, there are so many different kinds of composers -- those who are intensely private, adamantly personal in their individual voice; and then there are those who, like me, are immersed in the vernacular of their surroundings. There have always been composers and novelists and other artists who are very much wedded to their ethnic identity -- people like Bartók , one of the great composers of the 20th century. Bartók wouldn't be Bartók if it weren't for his deeply personal connection to Hungarian and Romanian folk music. Stravinsky as a young man was very much affected by his exposure to Russian folk music. On the other hand, you have great composers who are not "ethnically" oriented at all; they strive for a voice that is much more "pure" or "cosmopolitan." They even labor to strip away any kind of signals in their work that might suggest roots in the "common" or "vernacular" experience.

Interestingly, that is the kind of composer that Stravinsky tried to become when he abandoned the "Russian" style of his early works like Firebird, Petrushka, and Le Sacre for the leaner, more "intellectual" style of Neoclassicism. It was a conscious attempt on his part to go from "native" to "cosmopolitan." But I would say maybe that if your average listener hears something a piece of music that feels familiar, chances are that this familiarity comes from the vernacular elements -- whether it be folk or jazz or popular or nowadays from what we call "world" music. Aaron Copland is an excellent example. He made a very clever and original style out of melding Stravinsky's rhythmic language with American jazz and folk music. His music is full of ethnic identities, and that's why we Americans respond to it almost automatically.

The problem with so much avant-garde music is that it doesn't have a connection to the vernacular, and as a result, there's so little for a listener to hang on to, and that tends to result in an exceptionally cool or even alien experience. I think that's one of the reasons why 12-tone music has always been of very limited appeal for most listeners. The listener can't relate what he or she is hearing except to associate it with the negative emotions. It lacks a connecting point to the "common" experience.

JM: You have a great line about Pierre Boulez in Hallelujah Junction. I forget which book of his it is you're talking about, but you say that it strikes you as "the work of a technocrat bristling with all the gleaming armaments of the specialized field." That's in the chapter devoted to your time at Harvard, when you are ensconced in the academy. You eventually decide to leave, to find, as you put it, "a less tortured way of being creative." Which is quite wonderful.

JA: Well, I feel pretty tortured this morning.

JM: I hope this interview isn't that painful!

JA: No, no. I'm at my place up in the woods in Sonoma, and I get up really early, because this week it's so unbearably hot here, and I work from about six until noon. And I'm feeling tortured right now because of the trouble I was having this morning figuring out how to end this piece I'm writing.

JM: Good. Then I'll keep going. After you left Harvard, you drove across the continent. Knowing, as a listener, the music that would come later in your career, it is quite stirring to read your description of that journey: "Something about the immensity of the land made me feel both serious and exhilarated." Because those two qualities -- seriousness and exhilaration -- seem to me to be both central and complementary aspects of your work. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your sense of space or landscape, and how it has influenced your compositional style; there is a great sense of this dimension in your work.

JA: First of all, ever since I was a kid, I was drawn to large-scale symphonic music. I loved Sibelius's symphonies, and I loved Bruckner -- anything that gave a sense of expanse, physical expanse. Then also, later on, long after I arrived in California, I was drawn to Minimalism for the same reason -- those pieces were long, and took their time evolving. That's a musical gesture that's very meaningful to me. It's a bit of a clich? to say that living in California and being influenced by the landscape has had an effect on my music, but I actually do think that is the case. It's one of the reasons that I quoted Ginsburg , because in Ginsburg's poetry, there is a tremendously emotional quality to his descriptions of moving about the American landscape, driving or taking the train across it, going from New York to California; that quality is a very American thing. It's like the work of Kerouac, the sense of always being on the road -- it's something that doesn't occur in any other culture. It's a very, very American thing. It has to do with travel and it has to do with the sort of unlimited feeling of being inside this generous landscape that we have.

JM: It's often said, rightly I think, that Copland's music evokes that landscape . . .

JA: Absolutely. It does -- but I prefer the grittiness of the Beats. It's more modern and in a way less idealistic, less quaint.

JM: . . . but it seems that what I hear in your music is something different than Copland. There's a phrase you use about your piece Light Over Water: "the sonic evocation of wide spaces," which is an apt description of what the listener senses in that piece. But at the same time, in works after that, such as Harmonielehre, the listener feels a palpable sense of the shaping of structural coherence across a large form. You're not only evoking spaces, you're also bringing them into being as we hear them. It's not just descriptive, it's creative as well.

JA: That's what we do as composers: we evoke form through sound. And you don't have to write a big long "space" piece to do that. Webern wrote miniatures; he sort of went the other way, into the atomic level, and created things that are jewels. They're like Joseph Cornell boxes, where everything is compressed. So you can go in either direction, but the impulse is the same; it's one of the reasons we're drawn to the creative act as composers.

JM: One of the things that people respond to in your music, I think, is the way that, through the evocation of space and form, you restore listening to its role as an imaginative rather than an intellectual activity. You immerse us in this form-shaping realm that is filled with a power of apprehension that isn't as accessible in, say, serial music -- perhaps because, as you suggested before, we don't have an entrée into it.

JA: One of the things that's missing in a lot of, for lack of a better term, "contemporary" music, is a sense of pulsation. When you don't have a sense of regular pulsation, you don't have that sense of movement. So music that lacks a sense of pulse more often than not results in a sense of chaos or formlessness. But with that said, I can think immediately of many pieces I know that don't have pulse but that can still be enchanting -- pieces by Morton Feldman, Toru Takemitsu and Arvo Pärt, for example. I don't want to make too many claims for my music, because I think that the worst thing a composer can do is to say that his or her music is better or qualitatively more advanced, more familiar, or more accessible than someone else's. What I've learned over the years about music is that it's like life: you can have very, very different experiences, and each of them has its own wonder. So I do a certain thing, but I don't claim that what I do is the only way.

JM: Let's talk for a minute about listening to recordings versus listening in the concert hall. You write that, as a young boy growing up in the 1960s, your first exposure to a lot of music was through a hi-fi set, and you compare yourself to the adolescent Copland, who, living at the time of the First World War, could only have heard a symphonic work by attending a live concert. What kind of influence has the prevalence of recordings in our listening lives had on our experience of classical music?

JA: I really don't know. I absolutely don't know. You'd think that it would have a radically powerful effect. The only thing I can point to is that around the middle of the last century, between let's say 1950 and 1980 or so, there was an enormous speeding-up of what I'd call stylistic evolution. Actually, it started even before 1950. I'd say between 1920 and 1980. If you look at the Middle Ages, music hardly changed from one generation to another. It was very, very slow in evolving. In the 20th century new styles of composing evolved so fast that by 1960 the most far-out ventures in musical language and notation had reached a point of implosion. They'd come to what Paul Klee, in his wonderful phrase, called "the farthest reaches of the fertile land."

Now I don't know whether this accelerating rate of stylistic evolution in music had to do with recordings or not. I suspect it played some role. But this adventurism was happening in the other arts as well -- painting and literature, for example. I just think it was a societal thing and doubtless heated up by new communication media -- the telephone, movies, radio, phonograph recordings and television.

The only thing I can say about recordings is that they've made music instantaneously accessible in a way that couldn't have been imagined before the 20th century. Let me give you an example. When I graduated from college, I carried the recording of my most recent composition around in a box of quarter-inch reel-to-reel tapes -- tape that traveled across the playback head at a rate of seven-and-a-half inches per second -- and I had only one copy of it. If I wanted people to hear it, I had to find a tape recorder and sit them down. Nowadays, my son, who is also a composer, was able to e-mail his entire senior recital to me as an MP3 file. He could have done a mass e-mailing if he wanted, distributing it to millions of people. So in the sense of ubiquity, or the capability of dispersing music, things have heated up rapidly. But I'm not exactly sure that that's going to cause an increase of the rate in the evolution of a musical style. Actually, it might be the opposite. It may be that we'll have an artistic or musical version of the Slow Food movement; instead of each generation being radically different from the previous one, maybe things will cool down a bit.

JM: A recording allows you to control the experience of listening to music, especially longer pieces, which is something that you blessedly give up in a concert hall, allowing the music to transport you at its own discretion, so to speak. Was the appeal of the first wave of Minimalism in part the way it encouraged a kind of surrender to -- an immersion in -- the weather of its repetitions?

JA: Yes, I think that's certainly the case with what you might call the Minimalist classics, the early pieces of Reich and Riley and Glass. But what I've noticed is that, although everybody said, "Oh gosh, it's a new way of listening," it seems to be a way of listening that is tied to that very specific kind of music and to those particular pieces -- pieces like Einstein on the Beach or Drumming or In C. In the intervening thirty years, that style and that way of listening has been incorporated into a larger aesthetic or viewpoint; so it wasn't the beginning, you know, of a whole new millennium. It was a new tributary, in the way that Impressionism was, or Neoclassicism, or something like that. Minimalism in music was a terrifically important development, but I don't think it was a watershed after which everything has changed irrevocably.

JM: Let's go back to you with that box of reel-to-reel tapes. At the same time I was reading Hallelujah Junction, I was reading another book, called Darwin Among the Machines by George Dyson. Are you familiar with it?

JA: I know about it, but I haven't read it.

JM: It's an intricate and wonderful book in which Dyson talks about machines and biological life forms moving toward some new dimension in which the differences between the two is erased, or at least blurred in a fundamental way; he suggests that intelligence is an evolutionary process that transcends our distinctions between nature and technology. From the outset of your career, you have incorporated machines into your music, combining mechanical outputs and processes with natural acoustical sounds in a vibrant and enlarging way, a theme you directly address in the chapter you alluded to before, "The Machine in Garden."

JA: The first thing I discuss is what we've already talked about, which is recordings. I think I make the statement that whether a sound comes from its natural source, i.e., from a person singing or playing an instrument acoustically, or whether it comes from the loudspeakers, is a huge divide, and that divide has in a sense defined my life as a musician, because I've tried to find a way to live comfortably in both worlds, and to integrate them. Later on in that chapter, I mention a New York Times reviewer who, every time he reviews an opera of mine, has to complain about the amplification, because he seems to feel it's an ethical issue. I'm not making fun of him at all; I'm saying his position is still indicative of a very, very critical issue in classical music. I mean, no one gives it a second thought in pop music. But it's still a big deal in classical music.

Then I talk about the way the machine influences the way people think creatively. Machines become mind models. For instance, you probably never would have had Steve Reich's music if it hadn't been for the tape recorder. The ideas that generated his pieces were suggested by playing around creatively with the technology. The mixing board is another mind model. More recently, we've had the ultimate in mind models: sophisticated software and super-fast computers. And I think I point out in that chapter, too, looking backward, that if it weren't for the invention of the fortepiano, we would never have had Beethoven's music. We would never have had this music that is so emphatic and so powerfully impulsive; that's because when you play the fortepiano, the harder you hit, the louder the sound, and of course you didn't have that in Bach's time. So I was using that as an analogy of how the technology, in a sense, precedes the creative act.

JM: I've been listening to your music since the first recordings became available, so it was especially interesting to read about your development as a composer through those years -- the early 1980s, more or less. You'd been working on some electronic works, had done Phrygian Gates for piano and Shaker Loops for string septet, I think, before you got the commission for Harmonium.

JA: Right.

JM: So you had been doing works for small sound forces, or, in the case of the electronic works, for controlled sound machines, and then you were allowed to marshal enormous musical forces in a commission for chorus and large orchestra. Was there a sense of exhilaration in having those resources at your command? Or terror?

JA: Oh, both. [LAUGHS] Yes, both. The challenge with orchestra is to do something that's new, that feels new. Of course, an orchestra is this strangely arbitrary constellation of instruments. There aren't 32 oboes and 2 violins; there are 32 violins and 2 oboes. It's always that way! Or maybe you might have 3 oboes, but never ever 32. You get my point. It's a very conventional arrangement. So the challenge, of course, is to make something that sounds appealing but doesn't sound like a retread.

JM: I remember what struck me at the time, when I first listened to Harmonium and Harmonielehre, which you wrote a few years later, was a kind of wildness one didn't expect to hear from an orchestra, an energy that described the logic -- or perhaps coherence is a better word -- of an organic, developing form. That energy has been a constant throughout your work, although the manifestation of it has been different from piece to piece.

JA: I think I mention at some point in the book that when I started work on Harmonium I really wanted the orchestra to behave like my synthesizer. It was sort of an unreasonable fantasy. Nevertheless, even though I wasn't able to bring it to 100% fruition, my image actually did result in the unique sound of my music -- if I do have a unique sound. Some of my ideas were really wrong-headed and stubborn, but others were very creative. [LAUGHS]

JM: There's a lot happening for you this fall. Hallelujah Junction is being published. The original production of Doctor Atomic, your opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the detonation of the first atomic bomb, is coming out on DVD, and your 2006 opera, A Flowering Tree, will be released on CD.

JA: That's right. I should mention, by the way, that Nonesuch is releasing a two-CD restrospective as a companion to the book. It's something for people who don't know my music well. They can buy this CD set and sort of take a tour through my music as they're working their way through the book.

JM: Last but not least, this October and November will also see the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Doctor Atomic, in a new production directed by Penny Woolcock, who made the film of your opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Why the switch from the original Peter Sellars production of Doctor Atomic ? Is there a story behind that?

JA: Basically, the Metropolitan Opera knew that the original production had played already in three cities -- in three long, exhaustive runs -- and they really wanted their own new production. Although it wasn't quite as simple as that: they actually had engaged Peter Sellars, but there were some creative differences, and in the end everybody sort of agreed that the best thing to do was to entertain a new idea, a new take on the piece. I was disappointed not to have Peter involved, because, of course, he wrote the libretto. But, on the other hand, I'm thrilled that a different and extremely thoughtful director is going to make a brand-new production of it.

JM: What is your role as the composer in the continuing life of your works?

JA: At some point, I have to stop babysitting my pieces. I learned that a long time ago. There's a performance -- or two or three, in some cases four -- of my work almost every day of the year, somewhere in the world. So I can't attend to all of these, and at some point have to let the pieces go -- just as if they were moving out and going on to college. But with a new piece, I am anxious, if possible, to be there, either as a conductor, or in the auditorium during the latter stages of rehearsals, to make sure that it's good! For example, if it's the Metropolitan Opera and it's New York, needless to say I want it to be right. So I will be there for the last couple of weeks of rehearsals. But I am not too worried, because it's a fabulous conductor, Alan Gilbert, whom I know well, and most of the cast is the same as in the original production.

JM: Would you tell us a little about A Flowering Tree, which I believe premiered in frighteningly close order after Doctor Atomic's debut?

JA: I wrote it for the Mozart Festival in Vienna. The reason that I wrote it in such a ridiculously short time was that I didn't have any wiggle room. It had to be done by the time of that festival, which was November 2006 -- to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. The piece was written under the very conscious influence of The Magic Flute -- not musically, but in terms of its psychological and, I suppose one could even say, its ethical or moral themes. It's an opera about young people, and it's also a fairy tale, or a folk tale, with transformations -- not only physical transformations, but spiritual transformations as well. In that sense, it's very much a piece in synch with Mozart as far as its themes and its inspiration are concerned. I would say that the musical language is very simple and direct, in the way that Magic Flute is. But beyond that the similarities end; there is no musical reference to Mozart's music in my score.

In retrospect, I think that I needed to write this opera, because after four years of being immersed in the story of the Bomb and World War II, and thinking about the dire consequences of nuclear weapons, I had to create something to establish an equilibrium in myself. I felt like I'd achieved a kind of inner balance when I finished Flowering Tree.

JM: It's the first of your major stage works that wasn't topical. Was that in itself a refreshing experience for you?

JA: Actually, that's not really the case. Because I think of El Niño, my Nativity oratorio, as very much in the same spirit. I think that I could not have written Flowering Tree if I had not written El Niño first, because that really established a certain tonality for me, and I hope to get back there in future works.

JM: Your book is filled with allusions to your wide reading, a habit it seems you acquired from your mother and father, of whom you write: "The fact that neither of my parents graduated from college may have fed the longing for knowledge and endless bibliophilia that characterized their adult lives." Would you tell us a little about your reading life, or share what you're reading now?

JA: Well, I'm very non-linear -- I would even call myself a disorganized reader. I tend to go back and forth from reading fiction to history. Right now, in the last month or so, I've been reading about World War II. The reason is that I went to Northwestern University and received an honorary degree, and one of the other honorees was a man who was a Holocaust scholar, Christopher Browning, and he told me about a book he'd written. So I ordered the book and read it, and it affected me profoundly. I'd read about the Holocaust, but I'd never actually read a deep study of it. So that got me to reading other books on that period, and that's what I've been reading lately.

At the same time, I have to say that I am in the mood to start thinking about another opera, so some of my reading is quite opportunistic right now, because I'm looking for a story.

JM: One book I've been thinking of as I prepared for this conversation is by Nicolas Slonimsky, a composer and musicologist whom you celebrate in one of your orchestral compositions, Slonimsky's Earbox. His book, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, is a gem.

JA: That's right. Every musician, or at least every composer, knows about that book, because it's a collection of famous bad reviews -- mostly bad reviews of pieces that went on to be considered great! So it's a deeply consoling book, not only for composers, but I suppose for performers as well. I am also very fond of his autobiography, which is called Perfect Pitch. First of all, he had an extraordinary life. He was born in Tsarist Russia, and he died at the age of 102 or 103, living in Santa Monica, where one of his patrons was Frank Zappa. That's quite a life span. He was also very fond of my music, which, of course, pleased me greatly.

JM: Before we close, I'd like to go back to something you said at the beginning: "When you compose, you're always worried about history and how your works are going to stack up with the masterpieces of the past." As you note in the book, today your music is often performed side by side with a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven symphony; that certainly must be a daunting prospect for even the most confident composer. You also quote Marvin Cohen, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who said something very interesting about Doctor Atomic: that hundreds of years from now, all that popular culture will know about Los Alamos and Oppenheimer could be from what happens on stage in Doctor Atomic.

JA: Yeah, well . . .

JM: Let me add you are rather skeptical of Cohen's assertion in the book.

JA: Well, I'm tremendously flattered by Marvin's pronouncement, and I think it gives an idea of how seriously he regards my opera as a reflection on what he as a scientist does. But I think the Los Alamos story -- or myth, which is what it's by now become -- would endure with or without Doctor Atomic.

JM: At the same time, the scale of your work, its intrepid acknowledgement that the ambitions that have nourished the greatest figures of musical history are living and still capable of generating surprise and wonder, are invigorating to your audience. You mentioned your Nativity oratorio, El Niño; that's a work that invokes Handel's Messiah while fashioning a world of sound and sense that is completely revelatory -- it opens a whole new perspective on something that you'd think would be a closed subject. It strikes me, as a listener, as really the best kind of work that can be done in the arts, to reopen, to rejuvenate those kinds of enduring themes. But I'm wondering: do you ever go through stages of doubt, of asking yourself, "What am I thinking?", when you are considering such large projects?

JA: You know, I have never felt that, in taking on these subjects, I am imprudent. I feel that, if anything, one of the problems with some 20th-century music is that the composers have downsized their dreams or their goals; in some senses the Modernist era became a period of diminished expectations. I have always been very inspired by the great 19th-century novelists and composers, because their ambitions were so large. Sometimes they misfired or became overloaded and bombastic, but we did get things like Faust, Wagner's operas, War and Peace, those incredible novels of Dickens and, after that, Proust. I think there's nothing wrong with aiming high.

JM: Quite the opposite. In the preparation for this, El Niño has been the real discovery for me, because I was unfamiliar with it.

JA: That's one of my favorite pieces.

JM: Now, I've only heard the recording. It was first produced by Peter Sellars as a kind of theatrical extravaganza, from what I've read. Are those of us who haven't seen a full production missing something?

JA: I write my pieces so that they are not dependent on Peter's staging, or anyone's staging to fill them out. Otherwise, it would be foolish -- I might as well be a film composer. In some cases, what he did, as in Nixon in China, was so wonderful that it's been a little difficult to imagine other interpretations, because he set such a high standard. But all of my pieces of note are meant to be stand-alone works of art, and invite other interpretations. Or, in the case of El Niño and The Death of Klinghoffer for sure, they are really very successful as just straight concert works as well.

JM: We've mentioned a flurry of activity this fall relating to work that's already completed. Can you tell us anything about new pieces you're working on?

JA: I thought that I would just downsize a bit and write a string quartet. [LAUGHS]

I spent a large part of last year making a symphony out of Dr. Atomic, which was a lot of work, much more work than I expected; the first version of it was much too long, but I'm happy with it now. After that, I thought I would stretch out by writing a string quartet, which has turned out to be one of the hardest things I've done. So I'm still working on that, and I hope to be done with it later today -- I'm saying that with some sarcasm.

Then I have to do an orchestra commission, which I am going to start, hopefully, very soon.


-October, 2008

April 24: "[The HST] lifted a curtain from our view of the universe, changing it so profoundly that no human can look at the stars in the same way..."

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
In the Light of What We Know

Zia Haider Rahman's mystery of a brilliant Bangladeshi mathematician's past barrels through the Ivy League, London high finance, and spy-haunted Afghanistan in a page-turning tale of exile, intrigue and the price of friendship. A Discover Great New Writers selection.

The People's Platform

Once touted as the foundation for tomorrow's digital democracy, the Internet is increasingly ruled by a few corporate giants, while millions of contributors till its fields for free. Astra Taylor looks at why the web has failed to deliver a communitarian cyberscape, and offers a compelling case for restoring its original vision.

A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.