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America’s most celebrated living composer is in town for a two-week festival spanning multiple venues. This week, the Library of Congress hosts Adams in residency. Various chamber groups and soloists will perform his work beginning tonight, including the premiere of a newly commissioned piece on Friday with the International Contemporary Ensemble. The following week, Adams conducts the National Symphony Orchestra as they perform his City Noir symphony at the Kennedy Center. Adams spoke with the Washington City Paper by phone from his home in California.
How did the Library of Congress residency come about?
I’ve been working with the Library of Congress for nearly 20 years and I absolutely love them and their music staff. They commissioned me to write a chamber work around 1993 or 1994, Road Movies, which gets lots of performances. I’ve also gone there for research for [2005 opera] Doctor Atomic, looking for sound files for the musique conrète moments in the opera. I was looking for actual recordings of airplanes and broadcasts from [World War II’s] Pacific theater. In those days it was a little bizarre: They make you sign in and then put you in a tiny room by yourself with a loudspeaker, kind of a no-hands-on experience. But I understand they’ve improved the process since then.
You last performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2010. What’s it like conducting your own music with them?
They’re wonderful to work with. I particularly enjoyed the audience. I was a little worried how they would react, if you’re not a big name like Tchaikovsky or Mahler. But I found they were really engaged and intelligent.
Really? How can you tell they’re intelligent?
(Laughs) I talked to them after the show, at the CD signing. But you can also tell by the ambient noise in the room during the performance, the coughing. I’m highly attuned to that sort of thing.
You’ve established your name as a composer, so you don’t really have to go out on the road and be a performer. Why also conduct?
I’ve done it my whole life, so it’s hard to imagine not doing it. It’s such a wonderful feedback loop that happens when you do it. You encounter problems and challenges, and get to see what performers do with your piece.
Are there any trends in classical performance that set parameters to what you write? For example it seems that on the rarer occasions that orchestras include contemporary pieces in their programs, they tend to keep them to 10 to 15 minute overtures.
I haven’t noticed that. What I’ve noticed is far more interest in commissioning new pieces now than when I was in my twenties. I recently participated in a workshop for young composers in Brooklyn. We had 20 composers there, almost all of whom are supporting themselves. It used to be the only way to make a living as a composer was to get a job teaching in a college. However for orchestras, most orchestras want to make sure your piece isn’t too long so they can make room for the cash cows, the Mozarts and such.
You’re unique among contemporary composers in that you don’t compose for film. Many of the best known composers primarily work in film: John Williams, Danny Elfman among others, and even Philip Glass moves between symphonic and chamber work and film scores. Is there a sharp divide—-professionally or artistically—-between contemporary composers who work in Hollywood and those that don’t?
The nature of commercial film music makes it almost impossible to write your own serious work as well. It takes a lot of time and concentration to write a serious composition, particularly if you’re writing operas or symphonic music. You’re working one or two years in advance on a commission. Movies are always a moving target. They won’t tell you the deadline at first, and when they do, they want a ridiculously short turnaround. I’ve had offers to do film scores from directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, that I really wanted to take, but couldn’t for that reason. Most composers I know who do film scores have to live in Hollywood and do it all the time.
What’s it take to be a successful classical composer?
I don’t think in terms of formulas for success. Any really serious artist does what he or she wants to do and risks having no audience for it. Many of the best composers like Charles Ives had no audience in their own lifetime. People tell me I’m tremendously successful, but it’s within a very tiny pool. Contemporary classical doesn’t compare to pop music. It doesn’t even compare to contemporary art. I mean look at people like Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman. Or in another era, Warhol and Rothko. They had huge, huge audiences even though they were controversial at the time. Part of it is that there is this entity called pop music, and a certain potential audience is siphoned off by hip hop, rock, or other genres.
How important is publicity, and particularly social media for rising composers today? One benefit film composers have is that they’re part of the Hollywood machine; they get the promotion that goes with the film to which they’re attached. You’re more of a free agent, and any promotion you do you have to do yourself.
It’s a huge challenge. There’s just so much noise out there. I think some younger composers have become adept in promoting themselves, and moving in the world of social media. I acknowledge that it is really important, and I realize that I have to do that to a certain extent. But I also realize how transient that is. You can spend so much time promoting yourself that you don’t have time for your music. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so much high quality energy that you have to devote to composing. It’s trite to say, but in the end, all that matters is having a really great body of work.
The Library of Congress’ John Adams residency and festival includes performances by the Attacca Quartet (May 22 at LOC’s Coolidge Auditorium), Jennifer Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida (May 23 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center), the International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by John Adams (May 24 at the Coolidge Auditorium), and U.S. Army Blues (May 25 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center). All at 8 p.m. and free with ticket; advance tickets to the May 24 performance are sold out but some are available at the door. Adams conducts the National Symphony Orchestra with pianist Jeremy Denk May 30 to June 1 at the Kennedy Center. $10-$85.
Photo: Christine Alcino