John Adams on Composing and Creative Freedom (Ep. 166)

Constructing cathedrals in musical space.

Is classical music dying? For John Adams the answer is an emphatic no. Considered by Tyler to be America’s greatest living composer, he may well be one of the people responsible for keeping it alive. John’s contemporary classical music is some of the most regularly performed and he is well-known for his historically themed operas such as Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic, and most recently Antony and Cleopatra. He is also a conductor and author of, in Tyler’s words, a “thoughtful and substantive” autobiography.

He joined Tyler to discuss why architects have it easier than opera composers, what drew him to the story of Antony and Cleopatra, why he prefers great popular music to the classical tradition, the “memory spaces” he uses to compose, the role of Christianity in his work, the anxiety of influence, the unusual life of Charles Ives, the relationship between the availability and appreciation of music, how contemporary music got a bad rap, his favorite Bob Dylan album, why he doesn’t think San Francisco was crucial to his success, why he doesn’t believe classical music is dead or even dying, his fascination with Oppenheimer, the problem with film composing, his letter to Leonard Bernstein, what he’s doing next, and more.

Watch the full conversation

Recorded September 14th, 2022

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Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. I’m very honored tonight to be chatting with John Coolidge Adams, arguably America’s greatest living composer. He recently has premiered a new opera, Antony and Cleopatra. I am also the proud owner of a new compact disc boxed set called Collected Works, which I believe is about 40 compact discs, and a Blu-ray of Nixon in China. John, welcome.


COWEN: Now, as you know, Antony and Cleopatra — it’s one of Shakespeare’s messiest plots, especially starting in act 2. You’ve got what, 40 characters and 42 scenes? How do you handle that operatically?

ADAMS: Well, the first thing to do with a behemoth like that is to, shall we say, wrestle it to the ground. With Shakespeare, the plays are long. I don’t think Antony and Cleopatra is as long as Hamlet, but it’s a big, big sprawling epic that is both political and personal. And it being an opera, we’re really mostly focused on the interpersonal relationships.

The reason I chose this opera was because on the one hand, it’s about world politics. It’s the rise of one civilization and the decline of another. But it’s also very intimate because it’s about people who are caught up in the maelstrom and have very, very powerful intimacy, as well as being political figures.

COWEN: There’s a lot of very rapid action and not many soliloquies. Does that make writing an opera based around the story harder or easier?

ADAMS: Oh, writing an opera is hard no matter what. I once said to the great architect Frank Gehry, “You’re lucky you can farm out the electrical and the plumbing and the concrete to someone else, but we composers, we have to do everything.”

In this case, I did the libretto, the vocal writing, the sketching, and the instrumentation, and I even did the computer setting of the full score. I was at this for pretty much four years.

COWEN: If I think about Verdi’s Shakespeare operas, it feels to me they require near-perfect performances. I love James Levine doing Otello, but a lot of other recordings don’t quite work for me, or I love von Karajan doing Falstaff, but everything has to be perfect. Are you worried that with your opera, the combination of Shakespeare, the complex musical, all the roles, that it will be nearly impossible for other people to do it as well as, in essence, you’re doing it now?

ADAMS: For lack of a better word, I write classical music. And the term classical music, of course, has an odor for younger people because they associate it with older music or older people. But it’s actually a very thrilling thing to do because, when you write a score, you are essentially making a recipe for something, and it changes with every performance.

It’s not like a recording by a pop group that’s always going to be the same. Hence, every different iteration of a work of mine is different. Different singers and different conductors and different violinists — they give a completely new point of view on something. The pieces are constantly being reborn.

COWEN: Was Elizabeth Taylor the perfect Cleopatra? So sensual, so luscious. Is she your mental Cleopatra?

ADAMS: I looked at some of the classical actresses. You can go on YouTube and see different performances. The greatest one is Janet Suzman, who’s actually a South African actress. I think she was active in the early 1960s or so.

But ultimately, I follow my own vision. And what drew me to these two characters, Antony and Cleopatra, was the fact that they were older people. One could say they’d been there, done that. Each of them had a background. Each of them actually had had children by other people. So, in a way, this is a story about older people.

I’m reminded of the great Edward Albee play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There’s just some really, really knock-down, drag-out fights between these two people, but in the end they love each other. I guess my model was just my own life, my parents, people that I’ve known, people who’ve had difficulties in their relationships and who’ve somehow managed to find love.

COWEN: How old are Antony and Cleopatra in your vision?

ADAMS: Well, this takes place roughly around 30 BC. If you were 40 years old, you were old back then. People didn’t have very long lifespans. We don’t know for sure, but it seems like Cleopatra was probably at that time in her early 30s, maybe mid-30s, and Antony was probably, we’re guessing, maybe 10 years older. But people lived fast and intense in those days. If you didn’t get along with your cousin, you hired an assassin. Life was very brutal, and to survive took great determination and ingenuity and craftiness.

COWEN: What does the opera draw from Debussy?

ADAMS: Most of my earlier operas had a lot of set pieces — choruses or big chunks of wonderful poetry by Alice Goodman, who wrote my first libretti for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. We have in those operas real soliloquies and arias and choruses. But in this case, in Antony and Cleopatra, I really wanted to make what I call a musical drama, and the interaction between the characters — it’s quicksilver. It’s really fast.

It’s like one of those Preston Sturges 1930s fast-moving, fast-evolving dramas, and I didn’t really have a model for that in the operatic repertoire. The closest I could think of was the way Claude Debussy treated the great play Pelléas et Mélisande, which is by a Belgian playwright, Maeterlinck. What made Debussy’s opera so radical and so revolutionary was that he treated this story and kept it whole and just musicalized the text.

COWEN: What have you drawn from Janáček?

ADAMS: I’ve been compared to Janáček, but I have to say, I actually don’t know his work very well, so I can’t answer that question very clearly.

COWEN: Is there any Benjamin Britten vocal music that you truly love?

ADAMS: I’m a fan of Benjamin Britten, but not particularly of his vocal music. I know, for listeners in England, that’s just an outrage to say that. But I find most setting of the English language in the classical tradition rather a little bit pretentious and a little bit stiff.

My inspirations have always been great popular music, whether it was Ella Fitzgerald or Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. Just the way a great pop artist treats the English language — that’s been my model, not Benjamin Britten. Not even Handel, even though I love Handel, but it’s just a form of musicalized speech that doesn’t interest me.

COWEN: Stephen Sondheim — how well does he set texts in English?

ADAMS: I grew up in a musical family. My father played the clarinet and the saxophone, and my mother was a very talented singer and actress. She didn’t have any formal training, but when I was a kid, I would go to performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter — those shows that the local theater groups would put on. In fact, I was even in one of them. I was the little Polynesian boy in South Pacific, and my mother sang “Bloody Mary.”

I absorbed that, as they say, with my mother’s milk. It was just such a part of my musical DNA. Even though I’m more of a “classical composer,” that really is the deepest part of my identity as a theatrical composer.

COWEN: I have some questions about your other works, my favorites. On the Transmigration of Souls — compositionally and orally, why does it sound so different from your other works? How would you explain that?

ADAMS: Well, I like to think that every single one of my pieces is different. I have often said the one thing I never want to do is brand myself, produce the same predictable piece. A lot of artists fall into that, especially if they’re successful. Every piece of mine is very different from its predecessor or the one that follows it.

In the case of the piece that you mentioned, On the Transmigration of Souls — this was a request from the New York Philharmonic to compose a memorial piece which was going to be performed exactly a year after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th. It was not an assignment that I was terribly happy about because I had other plans, and it seemed like it was going to be a very difficult subject matter to deal with, this terrible tragedy and all those people who were killed.

But I came up with the idea of what I called a memory space, where the various texts and words and phrases could float, so to speak, in musical space. The listener would enter into that space the way you might enter into, let’s say, a big cathedral in Europe and just be alone and experience your emotions and your thoughts as they unite with these musical objects.

The musical objects came from all different things. The texts that I put together came from little handmade signs that family members left around Ground Zero, hoping that they would find their loved ones. I went to a site online where people would sign in and leave a little memory card, remembering someone who had died, and just a long list of the names of the people that had passed away as a result of those attacks.

COWEN: When something is commissioned from you, do you feel that more creativity is pulled from you, that there’s a certain constraint imposed on you and you’ve got to come up with something?

ADAMS: I’m lucky enough in that I don’t have to follow some prescribed request, or if there is a prescribed request, I simply don’t accept it. If I want to do something, whether it’s a concerto or an opera or a string quartet — I even wrote a show once with two dozen pop songs — I do that, and then I look around for somebody to commission it.

COWEN: The violinist Leila Josefowicz — what makes her such a perfect performer of your works?

ADAMS: Leila is a very special person. She has immense energy, and that energy is combined with a wonderful sensitivity, a lyricism. I could say this — it sounds a little indecent, but she’s the perfect package for my kind of music. She can absolutely groove, get things going in a wonderful, powerful rhythm, but she also has a very deep emotional sensitivity.

She’s played four major works of mine, one of which I composed specifically for her. Not just the regular violin, but she plays a piece of mine, called The Dharma at Big Sur, which is for electric violin, an instrument with six strings that can sound like a regular violin but also can sound like Jimi Hendrix rocking out.

COWEN: In your mind, is there a perfect version of your violin concerto?

ADAMS: As I said earlier, every performer brings something special. If I said there was a perfect version of it, that would probably [laughs] discourage anyone from taking it up. Certainly, Leila’s performances and her recordings thrill me. But the other day, I received a video link of a performance by another violinist, Clara Kang, a Korean German violinist playing a piece of mine that no one except Leila has to this point dared play, and that was a revelation itself.

COWEN: Why would Jesus have been drawn to a withered hand?

ADAMS: Pardon?

COWEN: Why would Jesus have been drawn to a withered hand? You’ve asked that question. What’s the answer?

ADAMS: [laughs] You’re mentioning a very early piece of mine called Christian Zeal and Activity, which dates way back into the 1970s. That was a period of avant-garde, experimental music. I found an old hymn book. I think it was a Salvation Army hymn book, and I found it in a used bookstore. The hymns were all classified: Easter, “Christ Is Risen,” Advent, et cetera. Then there was a section called “Christian Zeal and Activity,” which I thought was a wonderful phrase.

I composed the piece, and basically what I did was to take the very popular old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and I slowed it up to almost unrecognizable slowness, just like an iceberg slowly melting. Then I made a recording of a Sunday morning revivalist preacher talking about Jesus and the man with the withered hand. There was something very musical about the way he kept repeating the term withered hand. It was a very American-sounding little clip — I guess you could call it a found object — and I mixed that in with the slowed-down hymn.

COWEN: You’ve also done an oratorio, El Niño. What do you see as the overall role of Christianity in your body of work?

ADAMS: I grew up going to church. My mother went to church, I think mostly because she loved to sing in the choir. She was brought up as a Catholic, and then we started going to the Episcopal Church and ended up in the Unitarian Church, which is a very New England thing, which is where I grew up, in New England. I’m not a practicing Christian. I don’t go to church, but I’m very drawn to some of these biblical stories because they’re archetypal. They reflect, in myth and symbolism, the deepest of our human experience.

In the case of El Niño, an oratorio that I wrote for the millennium — it’s about birth. On the surface, it’s a story of the nativity, of Mary conceiving and giving birth to Jesus, and the flight into Egypt, but it’s also a larger story. It’s about birth, and particularly about the women’s experience of it.

For that, my collaborator, Peter Sellars, and I found a lot of texts by women, particularly by Hispanic women from Mexico and Chile, that told first-hand the experience of birth. And I like doing that because Handel’s Messiah, which of course treats the same material, just comes from the Bible. And that’s all guys talking about it, and really, what do they know about labor and the pain of parturition and motherhood? I think that makes my oratorio quite different.

COWEN: Why can’t other people conduct Shaker Loops well?

ADAMS: Did I say that?

COWEN: You said that once, yes. I think it’s in your autobiography. Or have they learned how to conduct it since then?

ADAMS: Oh, yes. Shaker Loops is a piece for strings. And the very first version of that, I wrote in an experimental way, where the conductor would indicate, as we went along, the changes just by holding up fingers. I could do it, and I was able to do a satisfying performance of it, but when another conductor did it, the shape was strangely out of focus. It’s not that the other conductor was incompetent. It was just that I had a very specific way of wanting to do it.

So in the later version of it, I froze everything into more traditional notation. That flexibility is no longer there, but on the other hand, the form of the piece is very satisfying.

COWEN: What do you think of how your music is sometimes used in video games, like Sid Meier’s Civilization?

ADAMS: I don’t do video games. I know that my music is used in some of them because I get requests for licensing, but I’m not a video-game guy. I did authorize the use of a piece of mine, Harmonielehre. They used the whole opening, I don’t know, 20 bars or something. But when I went online to look at it, I noticed that they’d electronically transposed it up a step and added a thrash drum set to it. My music wasn’t quite trashy enough, so they had to trash it up some more.

COWEN: How do you avoid what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence?

ADAMS: Harold Bloom was a very great literary critic, sometimes a little bit of a windbag, but his writings on Coleridge and Shelley, and especially on Shakespeare, were very important to me. He had a phrase that he coined, the anxiety of influence, which is interesting because he himself was not a creator. He was a critic, but he intuited that we creators, whether we’re painters or novelists or filmmakers or composers — that we live, so to speak, under the shadow of the greats that preceded us.

If you’re a poet, you’ve got all this great literature behind you, whether it’s Shakespeare or Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. And likewise for me, I’ve got really heavyweight predecessors in Beethoven, in Bach, in Mahler, in Stravinsky. Maybe that’s what he meant, just the anxiety of, is what I do even comparable with this great art? Another thing is, if I have an idea, has somebody already thought of it before? Those are the neurotic aspects of my life, but I’m no different than anybody else. We just have to deal with those concerns.

COWEN: Are you more afraid of Mozart or of Charles Ives?

ADAMS: [laughs] I’m not afraid of either of them. I love them. I obviously love Mozart more than Charles Ives. Charles Ives is a very, very unusual figure. He was almost completely unknown in most of the 20th century until Leonard Bernstein, who was very glamorous and very well known — Bernstein brought him to the public notice, and he coined this idea that Charles Ives was the Abraham Lincoln of music. Of course, Americans love something they can grasp onto like, “Oh, yes, I can relate to that. He’s the Abraham Lincoln of music.”

Charles Ives was a hermit. He worked during the day in an insurance firm, at which he was very successful, but spent his weekends and his summer vacations composing. His work is very sentimental, also very avant-garde for its time. I’ve conducted quite a few of his pieces. They are not, I have to admit, 100 percent satisfying, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Ives never heard these pieces, or hardly ever heard them.

When you’re composing, you have to hear something and then realize, “Oh, that works and that doesn’t.” I think the fact that Ives — maybe he was just born before his time. He was born in Connecticut in the 1870s, and America at that time just was still a very raw country and not ready for a classical experimental composer.

COWEN: You seem to understand everything in music, from Indian ragas to popular songs, classical music, jazz. Do you ever worry that you have too many influences?

ADAMS: When I was a kid, it was very hard to get ahold of a recording of something. In those days, there was something called the Schwann Catalog of recorded music, and I used to get it at the music store. It might be one recording of Mahler’s sixth symphony. That seems hard to believe these days, but in 1963, a lot of that music was very rare, and I had to send away for it and wait months. So when I got it, it was really, really special.

Today, everything is available at all times. All you have to do is have a subscription to Spotify or Amazon Music or something, and you can access anything. The same goes for books. I have a Kindle. I have too much stuff on the Kindle. Nothing is special anymore.

One has to actually make some kind of a pact with oneself to go back to that very, very personal relationship with one work or with just a group of very valuable pieces because, otherwise, we’re just flooded with so much information that we end up with very short concentration spans, and we end up with a problem of what do we really value?

COWEN: Earlier in your career, you fought an internal mental war against serialism and 12-tone music. Take Boulez — after all these years now, today, what do you think of it as music? Approach it fresh. Is it wonderful? Is it boring?

ADAMS: I came of age during what I call the bad old days of contemporary music. I can’t explain why that happened, but sometime in the early part of the 20th century, a lot of very brilliant composers started writing music that was essentially inaccessible to average listeners, whether it was Schoenberg or Varèse. I could name many other composers who started writing very dissonant music.

Later on, composers got interested in fracturing rhythms to the point where you had a composer like John Cage, who essentially devoted his life to atomizing, deconstructing all of the aspects of the musical language, both acoustically and culturally. That ran its course.

The bad part of it was that it made audiences very wary of anything that was new. Even to this day, I’m still suffering from that because an uninitiated listener will go to a concert and open the program and see, “Oh, there’s a piece by John Adams. I don’t know who this is. He’s still living, so it’s probably going to be an unpleasant experience.” That’s just something that is the result of years of very difficult, inaccessible, and very often rationally conceived contemporary music.

At the same time that that was happening, there was this fantastic explosion of wonderful music in the pop realm. I had this crisis in my life where I said to myself, “Why should I surrender the influence that great music can have to a pop artist and have to go and write serial or 12-tone music because that’s what’s required of a contemporary composer?”

I basically walked away from that, walked away from all that surrounded me when I was in college. I had to put up with a great deal of criticism, including a lot of critics who were writing for the major newspapers and magazines. They had come around to thinking that the only way you could write contemporary music was this same very difficult, challenging, rigorous — whatever the adjectives that they loved to use — bracing, all these things —

COWEN: Take Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata. If you put it on, as listener, aren’t you thrilled today, in 2022?

ADAMS: You’re asking me about Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata. I think it’s just an utterly unpleasant experience to listen to. For a while, you can be dazzled by the fact that a human being can actually play that. There are very few human beings who can do that, but . . .

It’s interesting, Boulez wrote another piece which I think very much typifies what his attitude was. The piece is called, let’s see, To the Farthest Reach of the Fertile Territory. It’s the name of a painting by the artist Paul Klee, but it represents a period in contemporary music where artists were just pushing the envelope as far as they could in terms of complexity, of density, of fracturing the language. It became like a laboratory rather than seeing music as essentially an act of communication.

COWEN: What’s your favorite Bob Dylan album?

ADAMS: I still like the early ones. I’m very fond of “John Wesley Harding.” In most cases, it’s just individual songs. I think I show my age when I talk about that period because I’m so fond of it. It’s an interesting thing with pop music, that it’s so much linked to periods in your life, so that somebody who’s my age has a very, very strong sentimental attachment to music that you heard when you were 20.

I don’t know, maybe this has a lot to do with your recollections of romances or revelations or the drugs you took or the lovers you had, and a lot of pop music evokes that. I don’t relate to pop music from the ’80s, for example, or from the ’90s. I think that’s very much a general thing. My parents related to music that was big in the 1930s and ’40s, so you measure by when you were born and the music you listened to.

COWEN: Sergeant Pepper or Abbey Road — which are you more likely to put on?

ADAMS: [laughs] Let’s see. I think Abbey Road was really just the great period. Sergeant Pepper had a lot of provocative stuff in it. It had the synthesizer for the first time, and it was very frankly discussing psychedelic drugs, so it was very popular with my generation. I think just for pure musical experiences, those albums — the White Album and Abbey Road — were really the peak of their artistic achievement.

COWEN: What do you see as the peak of Miles Davis’s career?

ADAMS: Miles Davis had a career like Stravinsky or like Beethoven or like Picasso. He went through so many periods. He started essentially in the bop era and then moved into a modal period when he started working with Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock. Then his latest period — it’s really hard to find a word for it. He was strongly influenced by African music, showed his identity with his own race in a very strong way that had never been done before.

I can’t cherry-pick anything specific. I do know that when I look at my collection of my pieces that I keep going back to, that the albums he made with Gil Evans, the Big Band albums — Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain — those really stand out for their incredible beauty and for the lushness of the scoring.

COWEN: Why isn’t Robert Ashley better known? To me, he’s one of the greats, but no one ever tells me to listen to Robert Ashley.

ADAMS: I knew Robert Ashley way back in the 1970s, because when I first came to California, a friend of mine said, “Oh, you have to get in touch with Bob Ashley.” At the time, Bob was teaching at Mills College, a very small college in Oakland, California.

To answer your question, I think that one of the things about Ashley is that he’s just off the grid when it comes to finding a conventional way to describe it. Some people would say that he wrote great operas, but “opera” isn’t really the word. I think maybe Bob used the term opera, but he used it in a wry way.

His greatest gifts were, really, this combination of his texts that he wrote, and of course, this fantastic droll manner of speaking them. They would be accompanied usually by his longtime collaborator, Blue Gene Tyranny, who played in a sort of light, bluesy, sometimes gospel-style piano.

But it was Ashley’s — I don’t know — this very special Americana that you associate with road movies and quiet, anonymous people talking about their relationships or their experiences in a diner or a gas station or an automobile. That’s what makes him very special. For me, I don’t think of him in the musical realm. I think of him more in the literary realm.

COWEN: Do you think Morton Feldman has gone down as the truly great eternal American composer of his time?

ADAMS: Morton Feldman — the special thing about him was that he was absolutely unique. I think the Latin term sui generis, which means “just born of himself” — he didn’t sound like anyone. Each piece was very similar in the sense that the music tended to move very slowly in terms of time. It was very delicate, very sensuous, and when you listen to a classic Feldman piece, it’s like getting into a warm bath. The bath, though, is sound. It’s very erotic in a very exquisite way.

It’s interesting because my friend Michael Tilson Thomas invited the great classical pianist Emanuel Ax to play a Feldman piece, a work for piano and orchestra, and they put it on a special program. It was a program of just contemporary music. It was wonderful to hear it, but I noticed that he never brought it back in the regular subscription series. He never put it on a program with Debussy or Stravinsky.

That is still an issue with Feldman’s music. It requires a certain kind of listener. It requires a certain, shall we say, suspension of expectation, and it requires a whole kind of acoustical setting. It really, probably, doesn’t survive in the more aggressive, busy format of a standard orchestral concert.

COWEN: Jefferson Airplane, the album Surrealistic Pillow. Is it still good music?

ADAMS: Jefferson Airplane — I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time. I was a student at Harvard, and I didn’t know what San Francisco was. I think I’d read maybe some Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, but my first musical impression of San Francisco was Jefferson Airplane. There were a couple of good songs, and they had a great photo on their Surrealistic Pillow album, but I can’t really list them as one of the great bands.

Many of those bands in the 1960s and ’70s became famous because of one or maybe two songs, and then they kind of hobbled along and disappeared. That really was the case with them.

COWEN: Now, you mentioned San Francisco. You first became a major orchestra conductor there, and your music has been promoted in San Francisco quite a bit — Edo de Waart. Is it an accident that this happened in San Francisco, which is a highly innovative city in other ways, or is it something that, to you, organically made sense?

ADAMS: What is it they say? That success has to do with being prepared, and then the moment will come. I’m mangling whatever the familiar saw is, but I think that I had all the tools. I had been well trained and I loved this music, and I knew it. The opportunity came. It was a young Dutch conductor who was named to succeed Seiji Ozawa as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. I met him; he liked me. He heard some of my music. He offered me a commission; I took it. The piece was a success, and things started to happen from there.

The fact that it was San Francisco, I think, really is not critical. It could have happened in St. Louis or Minnesota or wherever. I live here because I’m very strongly affected by the landscape, the California landscape. Of course, now, it gets increasingly harder to live here because San Francisco itself has become taken over by tech. And it just experiences this unpleasantly hectic urban development, which goes hand in hand with the very distressing situation of the unhoused. Then my state — part of it is burning every summer because of climate change. There’s a mixture of delight and extreme disappointment about being a resident of California.

COWEN: What do you think it would take for American classical music to get a real, true foothold in European concert halls? Now, you’ve had premieres in Europe. Maybe you’re somewhat of an exception to this, but it seems that American classical music is not that significant in Europe.

ADAMS: Well, we do live in a country where popular culture has enormous reach, and it also has enormous prestige. But with that said, I have to say that a lot of the greatest classical musicians alive are Americans. Either they’re American-born, like Yo-Yo Ma, or they came here and have become Americans, like Gustavo Dudamel or Yuja Wang. Despite the fact that we’re a country that’s literally controlled by popular culture, we have some of the greatest orchestras in the world, and we have very, very intelligent audiences.

I keep hearing that classical music is dead or that it’s dying, but then I go to concerts and I have these incredible experiences, whether I’m conducting or whether I’m just in the audience. It’s always a challenge. If you go to Europe, they have the same problems there. They have problems filling the halls. Musicians don’t get paid as well as they do in this country. I think this idea that classical music in America is a dying art — I don’t buy that at all.

COWEN: Why don’t you write more for clarinet? It was an early instrument of yours.

ADAMS: I wanted to play the violin. I grew up in a very small town in New Hampshire. There was a music teacher who came to the public elementary school every two weeks. He could teach anything. He could teach the piccolo or the violin or the trumpet. I wanted to learn the violin, but I was told I would have to wait until the fifth grade, and I was restless. My dad played the clarinet, and I reluctantly agreed to have him be my teacher. I started playing the clarinet. I got very good, very quickly.

The clarinet was my key to getting into the music world. While I was in college, I was a substitute clarinet player with the Boston Symphony, but it has a very small amount of literature. It has a couple of great pieces by Mozart and a few by Brahms, and really, most of the rest of the music is in the classical realm. It’s just being part of an orchestra. The most exciting thing to do if you are a clarinet player now would probably be to play Klezmer music.

COWEN: Helmut Lachenmann — yes or no?

ADAMS: I left my clarinets in the wine cellar about 30 years ago, and they’re still down there.

COWEN: Now, as composer of Doctor Atomic, are you looking forward to Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer? Or you don’t care?

ADAMS: I might watch it, but Oppenheimer has become an obsession with me. I’ve read the two wonderful biographies of him that have come out in the last 10 or 15 years. I’ve read them both numerous times. Oppenheimer actually lived and taught in this city where I live — Berkeley, California. In many ways, he was a very special and mysterious human being. A great, great, brilliant scientist, but also somebody who appreciated poetry and art and music.

I have my own impression of him, and I don’t know if I’m going to go to a Hollywood movie and see somebody else’s imitation of Oppenheimer. I might, but I doubt it.

COWEN: Are you much influenced by cinema when you think operatically? Or not really?

ADAMS: Like most Americans, I watch a lot of movies — mostly, these days, at home. There are some wonderful cable series, many of which come from Scandinavia, that I like, and I’m very often asked, “Why don’t you write for films?” The reason I don’t write for films is that, in order to be an effective film composer, you have to be ready to drop everything you’re doing and just focus without sleep for three or four days on a project.

I have a life that is already full of things to do. I have works that I’m commissioned and I am absolutely focused on. I have a life as a conductor. The few films that I have written scores for — in the end, I will spend a great deal of time working to make music that fits exactly the scene, and then it comes back, and the directors changed the scene and put the music in another place. Ultimately, it’s just very frustrating. I’m not a film composer.

However, there are some directors who have taken my music pieces and put them in their film scores, particularly the Italian director Luca Guadagnino, who used music of mine in several of his films. And that’s very satisfying when a sensitive director can do that.

COWEN: But if you hear, say, that Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack to Dune, are you excited, you’ll go see it and hear it, or it’s a peripheral interest for you?

ADAMS: I’m almost always very frustrated by the low level of inspiration in film composing. I think that film composers market themselves and basically give directors what they want. And a lot of the taste that even the greatest directors — people like Steven Spielberg — have is just very sentimental and, to me, rather tacky, which is why most of the film score music I like comes from France or Italy, not America.

These days now, a lot of films don’t even have a composer. They have a music consultant. You’ll get a film, let’s say a Coen brothers film, which would be a great film, but the music comes from all different sources, maybe three or four different pop artists or whatever.

COWEN: Is it intimidating to conduct Philip Glass in front of Philip Glass?

ADAMS: I’ve conducted quite a few of Philip’s pieces. It’s not very difficult music to perform. A lot of the thrill of it is just in the connection with the audience because Philip’s music is very simple and very easy to access, so you get a nice buzz from, usually, a very large audience. Often when I do my own music, I won’t have a full hall, but often when I do Phillip’s music, a lot of people will come, people who wouldn’t normally go to a classical concert.

I remember doing the world premiere of his 12th symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Disney Hall was just absolutely packed each performance because Philip — he’s much more known, has a much wider audience. People recognize his name more than any other classical composer.

COWEN: When you were a young man, you wrote Leonard Bernstein a letter, and he wrote you back, of all things. If you received a highly intelligent letter from a young man today, would you write him back?

ADAMS: [laughs] Well, it depends on what the letter was. If the letter was as snotty as the one that I wrote Leonard Bernstein, I don’t know if I’d write him back. But I was a freshman at college and just at the most obnoxious point in my life when I had very strong opinions, and Leonard Bernstein — he was who he was.

He had written a piece that, even to this day, I find a little saccharine and certainly not a piece that I choose to listen to. I wrote to him, and I scolded him for not being more up-to-date and writing the proper kind of atonal or serial music that I thought one should do when I was 18 years old.

He wrote me back. It was amazing. He said, “I have to do what I have to do. This is me.” That was a really important thing for me to hear. I may have not understood it at the time, but as I grew older, I realized, yes, he was absolutely right. You just have to do who you are and not pretend to be somebody else or be influenced by what the supposedly proper way to make art is.

COWEN: Last three questions. First, how ambitious are you?

ADAMS: “Ambition” is not a very helpful term. I know people who are ambitious, and you can tell because when you’re talking to them, you see in their eyes that they’re not even listening to you. They’re thinking about their next move or what the world thinks of them. I certainly do think about what other people think of me, whether they respond to my music. I care deeply about whether my music reaches people.

I would say I work hard. I do it not compulsively; I do it just because that’s what I do, but I wouldn’t call myself ambitious. I think maybe there was a time in my life when I was young, and I was anxious to meet people and make sure they knew about me, but I guess I’m just a little more philosophical now. I think if I have an important body of work and the pieces that I’ve written are good, they will continue on after I’m no longer a living, breathing specimen, and that’s really all I can ask for.

COWEN: Now, I suspect many of my podcast listeners and readers don’t know your music. For an uninitiated listener, where would you recommend they start to learn John Coolidge Adams? You have to send them somewhere.

ADAMS: First of all, I never use my middle name except on my tax returns. [laughs]

I think the most easy entrance point into my music is a short orchestral piece called Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which was inspired by a terrifying car ride I had in a sports car. It’s a high-energy, enjoyable piece. Very popular piece of mine, gets a performance almost every day somewhere in the world. Four minutes long, and I think that’s probably an easy way to get into my music. It has a lot of John Adams in it in terms of the driving pulse and colorful orchestration. It’s fun.

COWEN: Very last question. What will you do next?

ADAMS: I am writing a piano concerto for an amazing young Icelandic pianist named Víkingur Ólafsson. I recently wrote a piano concerto with a funny title, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? And he and I have been performing it around the world. I was so thrilled by his playing that I decided I was going to write a special piece for him.

COWEN: There’s also a great Yuja Wang recording of that piece, as you know.


COWEN: John Adams, thank you very much. To listeners, I’m also happy to recommend John’s autobiography, the Collected Works boxed set, John on Spotify, of course, the new opera, Antony and Cleopatra, which has been receiving very strong reviews. John, great chatting with you. Take care.

ADAMS: Thank you.