Friday, October 24, 2008 10/24/08-The Composer John Adams

In today's excerpt--composer John Adams (born 1947), among the best known of living American orchestral composers, writes of his move to the West Coast as a young man to escape the influence of the music establishment of the East Coast and Europe. A composer with strong roots in minimalism, his well-known pieces include On the Transmigration of Souls, Harmonium, Nixon in China, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Fanfare for Great Woods):

"In 1972 ... I set off for California. At the time, aspiring composers typically pursued postgraduate studies in Europe, learning the latest styles of twelve-tone music and soaking in the great traditions of the past. But the California I had been reading about in books by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and the beats appealed to my contrary stae of mind. I was twenty-five and had spent my entire life in New England, growing up in East Concord, New Hampshire, and attending Harvard for six years. I was eager to strike out on my own. ...

"A friend, Ivan Tcherepnin, called me and said that the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was looking for someone to teach composing and to direct the school's series of new-music concerts. I took the job. ... In those days, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was based in a former home for unwed mothers in the Sunset district. ... The school was a place of pulsing, chaotic excitement. Students sporting wild hair and dressed in baggy jeans and sandals wandered through the hallways, and, every morning at 8 a.m., the practice rooms began emanating an Ivesian cacophony of pianos, trumpets, drums, double-basses, and singers.

"I taught there for twelve years, from 1972 to 1984, by fits and starts finding my voice as a composer. The Conservatory was still struggling to establish itself, and few students were on par with the typical Julliard or Curtis performer. But there was a keen interest in all kinds of avant-garde music, something unimaginable at any of the East Coast colleges. I had students who could barely play their instruments but were nevertheless delighted to join me in a John Cage 'event' or perform in one of Alvin Lucier's electro-acoustic 'process' pieces.

"One of my duties was directing the school's New Music Ensemble. This group, although made up of students, had for years given attention-getting concerts of avant-garde music at the de Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park. The works of Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti, and others were presented to enthusiastic audiences, and the concerts were covered by three of the local newspapers--again, something unthinkable in Boston.

"My first concert signaled my ambition: Cage, Schoenberg, and Robert Ashley shared the program with the Messe de Nostre Dame by the fourteenth-century French composer Guillaume de Mauchat."

John Adams, "Sonic Youth," The New Yorker, August 25, 2008, pp. 32-33.


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