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In the first half of a two-part conversation, we hear from John Adams, composer of the Art + Ideas theme music, about his early days and compositions. Adams talks about his childhood in New England, musical education, experiments in electronic music, and influential move to California.

Portrait of John Adams

John Adams. Photo by Margaretta Mitchell

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JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

JOHN ADAMS:  Our third grade teacher read a child’s biography of Mozart. And I suspect most of my classmates were bored out of their minds, but I was completely entranced by the idea of this young boy who could write symphonies and concertos, and I just decided—that’s when I wanted to be a composer.

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with composer John Adams in the first half of a two-part conversation.

John Adams is one of the greatest composers and conductors of our day. Among his most celebrated works are the operas Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, and compositions for voice and orchestra “The Wound-Dresser” with text by Walt Whitman, and “Harmonium” with texts by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. Following 9/11, John was commissioned to compose “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a 25-minute work that incorporates a chorus and taped voices, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2003. John is also celebrated for his orchestral and chamber works, including “Violin Concerto,” “Shaker Loops,” and “The Dharma at Big Sur,” which is the theme music of this podcast.

I’ve known John for forty years, since he was head of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s New Music Ensemble and I was a stock boy with an interest in avant-garde theater and music. Through a mutual friend, Anthony Gnazzo, the Dada found-and-spliced-tape electronic composer, we met and moved within the same circles that comprised the New Music scene in the Bay Area in the early ‘70s.  At that time John was transitioning from being an experimental electronic, minimalist composer, influenced by the likes of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, to being a much more eclectic, original, and confident composer, bursting with one bold and complex composition after another.

John turned seventy this year, and in recognition there have been special retrospectives of his work in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Geneva, Stockholm, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

I recently sat down with John at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where he was rehearsing a concert version of his opera Nixon in China. This is the first of two episodes from that conversation.

John, thanks so much for giving us your time—

ADAMS:  I’m delighted to be with you after so long.

CUNO:  It’s been a long time.

ADAMS:  Yes.

CUNO:  Speaking of a long time, let’s go back to the early years in New England, let’s go back to Woodstock, Vermont and Concord, New Hampshire, and the access that you had then to musical instruction and performance. What kind of access did you have as a young child?

ADAMS:  Well I grew up in two very rural villages in Vermont and New Hampshire. My father had been 4-F during World War II because of a polio condition he had had as a child and he had a rough time during the war, but he wanted to be an artist and so he and my mother moved when I was about six months old up to Woodstock, Vermont, which was kind of a bohemian enclave.

CUNO:  Which is a little hard to believe now.

ADAMS:  Yes.

CUNO:  Now it’s like Rockefeller resort.

ADAMS:  It’s a boutique enclave now but probably some of the only Jews in all of northern New England were clustered there and some, I suspect, former communists. You know, it was quite a community. And then there were all these New England farmers. But there, I met some people who were friends of my parents who were in the local theater company and they gave me my first exposure to classical music which was of course, you know, listening to LP records. But my dad was also a fairly accomplished amateur clarinet player and I took my first lessons from him.

CUNO:  On the clarinet?

ADAMS:  On the clarinet. We never had a piano. Not until it was too late. You know, I’d lost that that—there’s just a certain point in one’s life, whether you are an athlete or a dancer or a performing musician, where if you don’t get going at a very young age, you never have it. So I lost that with the piano, but I became a very accomplished clarinet player. My parents moved when I was in the second grade to a small village outside of Concord, New Hampshire. And I started playing in a local band. And then with an amateur orchestra that was sponsored by a local—just New Hampshire State Hospital, which was a mental hospital.

CUNO:  Did your father play in the same orchestra?

ADAMS:  Yes. I played with my dad in both the band and the orchestra. He was a very sweet gentle man. Loved music and both my parents loved literature. My mother was very dynamic and loved to act and sing. The first time I actually ever appeared on a stage as a performer was in a local production of South Pacific, my mother was Bloody Mary. And I was a little Polynesian boy.

CUNO:  Do you remember any lines that you had?

ADAMS:  “Dites-moi porquoi, la vie est belle…” I think that’s the only line I did have. [they chuckle]

CUNO:  But quickly thereafter or when you aged a few years you went to Dartmouth for a summer program, and there you met a woman a very dynamic woman at Harvard, Louise Vesgeshen. And you were then in high school when you met her?

ADAMS:  I was. I went to this contemporary music festival at Dartmouth College. I’d say probably 1964, in 1965; I went two summers. And I was a real oddball there because all of the students had come from New York and Philadelphia and very sophisticated places, and I was this kid from rural New Hampshire thrown in there. But I, you know, I think it was clear to the teachers there that I was highly motivated and really devoted to learning. And I didn’t have a lot of fundamentals; I couldn’t play the piano. And acquiring harmony and just sort of basic tools was hard for me. On the other hand, I was a really good performer and I had several teachers who identified me and gave me special opportunities and I’m intensely grateful for that.

CUNO:  So what was the program like at Dartmouth that summer?

ADAMS:  I think what I remember most about it was that I got to meet a lot of composers. They were invited there—the great Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, Henry Cowell, who was, you know, one of the true original American mavericks. I know that term is used altogether too often these days, but he was a real maverick, and he was one of the great influences on John Cage.

And I met Walter Piston who is not that well known now but was a highly accomplished sort of neoclassical composer and that was critical because he was a retired professor at Harvard and he helped me to get into Harvard which was very important for me.

CUNO:  Had you thought of composing before that time?

ADAMS:  Well, this will probably shock you, but I decided to become a composer when I was ten years old and I know exactly why—well, I’d say nine years old. Our third grade teacher in this little school elementary school in East Concord, New Hampshire read a child’s biography of Mozart. That year was the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, and I suspect most of my classmates were bored out of their minds, but I was completely entranced by the idea of this young boy who could write symphonies and concertos, and I just decided—that’s when I want to be a composer. With a few passages in my life where I was slightly distracted towards becoming a conductor, I would say it never really varied.

CUNO:  So you went soon thereafter to Harvard. What was it there that attracted you, as opposed to Yale as opposed to Juilliard or some other place, why Harvard?

ADAMS:  I think I probably went to Harvard first of all because, you know, neither my parents had had a college education. My mother grew up in a family that simply didn’t appreciate the value of college and my father went two years and then the Depression hit. So for them, a college education and particularly Harvard was the great dream. And I grew up in northern New England so Harvard was kind of this city on the hill, this institution of great learning. Of course I arrived right at the beginning of probably the most traumatic period in the history of the university. I got there in the fall of 1965 and I left in the summer of 1971, I believe. So I was there during the period of the Vietnam War, of the great eruption of protest, of LSD and psychedelia. You know, it was during those years that I was at Harvard that we had the first Earth Day and the kind of dawning awareness of the ecology, of the sexual revolution. This was a great time.

CUNO:  Did you go thinking that you would study composition?

ADAMS:  I arrived at Harvard thinking that I was going to learn about 20 languages and become—

CUNO:  Oh that’s right, you first—

ADAMS:  A professor of—

CUNO:  —ancient Greek.

ADAMS:  Yes, I was going to become a professor.

CUNO:  That was ambitious.

ADAMS:  And I failed ancient Greek my first semester. I simply didn’t know how to learn a classical language. But I did well in music, and the great thing about Harvard was that there was a long tradition of student-produced and student-organized art events. You know, whether it was drama or dance or music. And so right off the bat I was involved in creating my own performances. And my junior year, I conducted a performance in the dining hall of the house where I lived of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and the stage director was a classmate two years older than me by the name of John Lithgow.

CUNO:  [chuckles] Well that was a good start. What about, I think it was then that Pierre Boulez paid a visit and he must have met him then?

ADAMS:  Boulez came to town on tour as a conductor. He guest-conducted the Boston Symphony. I never actually met him. I didn’t shake his hand. I’m afraid if I had I probably would have said something very insulting because I was very confused and intimidated by what he represented. I mean Boulez was the sort of archetypal example of postwar European modernism. And when I look back on that, it was a style of musical composition that was highly theoretical, highly orthodox with what I felt and I still feel—was a lot of kind of intolerant attitude towards creativity and towards style. You know, Saul Bellow once made a comment about style, and I can’t cite [it] exactly, I think I found it in one of his letters but he said, “there’s style and then there’s voice.” And we don’t think of Bellow as a great stylist, not in the sense that we do, let’s say of Henry James or James Joyce. But we think of Bellow’s incredible voice and I feel that my rebellion against high modernism and music typified, for example by composers like Boulez and in our country Elliott Carter, and even in a sense by John Cage—I feel that my rebellion was really one of not wanting to be obsessed with style but rather to develop my own voice.

CUNO:  But you were either close to or impressed by Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim on the faculty at Harvard. And I think of Earl Kim as a high-styled modernist but he was encouraging of you, and you respected that of him?

ADAMS:  I had several professors while I was at Harvard and I didn’t get along with any of them really very well except for Louise Versgeshen who really wasn’t a composer. But, you know, I fought with them—largely it was a father-son thing. You know, I just resented—in the case of Kirchner, he kept reminding us that no matter what we did, we’d never be as good as Schubert. And imagine having a father who said, you know, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be as good as your uncle or something like that. And in the case of Earl Kim, I just felt that he was a lovely man but his model was not the right one for me because he obsessed over every note and it took him five or ten years to write a single piece. It was an era of enormous blockage for so many composers because they felt they needed to write in order to be relevant and in order to be au courant had to write in this kind of stingy, theory-bound style of 12-tone composition. A lot of them, I think, really basically didn’t want to do that. Even Aaron Copeland felt at the end of his life that he needed to write 12-tone music, and in retrospect it was his least interesting music.

CUNO:  Do you think that Harvard was good to you by making you want to work against it?

ADAMS:  Well Harvard was good for me because I got a very good basic training in the tools of music there, and I got an appreciation for great art. I know that sounds kind of toney but I mean it. You know, I sat through classes of analysis of Beethoven piano sonatas and then, you know, I took literature courses. One of my teachers was Neil Rudenstine who later became president of the university. And I remember reading—deep reading of Yeats and Shakespeare and George Eliot, and those plus, you know, the late night bullshit sessions you have with your roommates, those are really what create an education.

CUNO:  Much later of course when you are composing as a profession and as well as an identity, I suppose, texts are extremely important to your composition, whether it be Whitman or Emily Dickinson and John Donne whoever it might be. I suppose that that’s also a contribution that Harvard made to your art, putting deeply into you the sense of the power and beauty of words and the rhythm of language.

ADAMS:  I think my literary interests—really, I have to credit my parents for that. You know, as I mentioned neither of them had a college education but literature and art and music were the holy grail for them. And there was literature in our house from the day I can remember and, you know, going to a bookstore was the most savoring, wonderful experience, and it still is. You know, my wife and I, if we’re walking down the street and there’s a bookstore, we can’t, you know, hold ourselves from going in. And I credit that to my parents, and of course Harvard helped.

CUNO:  You talk also about the time between ’64, ’65, and ’72, that period of time in which of course rock and roll music was effervescent, particularly you mentioned the Beatles with The White Album of interest to you but also Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. But also Coltrane and Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, and then also John Cage. So that’s quite a mixture but is all of that mixture as alternative to what you are learning in the classroom, I guess?

ADAMS:  Yeah, I mean none of that ever appeared in the in any course survey at the Harvard music department. It was really tunnel vision there. I mean our course requirement to get a degree in music was, it started with Gregorian chant and ended with Stravinsky and it was, you know, no reference to any kind of popular music or music from other cultures. It was kind of—what is it, the Great Books, the Mortimer Adler. You used to be able to get the Great Books, which is all these white guys from, you know, from Greece up to I don’t know Joyce or something. So everything that I did outside of that, and much of which ended up becoming who I am as a composer, was sort of subversive activity. You know, whether it was going to hear Cream or the Paul Butterfield [Blues] Band at one of the local clubs in Boston or in New York, or whether it was playing saxophone, you know, in my dorm with a jazz pianist or picking out Beatles tunes from The Album on the piano, those were the things that I think actually as had as much effect in creating my musical geneotype as what I learned in the classroom.

CUNO:  Was it at about the same time that electronic music becomes something of interest to you, and is it then that you have your first synthesizer, the Studebaker?

ADAMS:  [chuckles] Electronic music has been around since the early ‘50s, and as soon as, you know, magnetic tape became readily available, and, you know, there were composers like Stockhausen in Germany who had been making electronic pieces back in the, I’d say, mid-1950s, and I was aware of all that. And the Harvard music department acquired a synthesizer about, I’m guessing right around 1968 or so. I think the professors only allowed it to come in simply because they knew that, you know, all the other music departments had one but they found the most obscure room in the building to hide it in. And, you know, everybody was interested in it like a new baby for a couple of months and then it was completely abandoned. But I spent a lot of time creating pieces on it and then I moved out to California in 1971. And shortly after that, I started learning a little bit of electronics enough to be able to build my own.

CUNO:  —that’s where the Studebaker comes in—

ADAMS:  —a clumsy synthesizer which I—

CUNO:  But you wrote an electronic composition I think while you were still at Harvard.

ADAMS:  I did.

CUNO:  Called “Heavy Metal.”

ADAMS:  “Heavy Metal,” yes. Long before the genre was invented.

CUNO:  And how did you get to sort of play around with the synthesizer? Was there anyone there that could help you, either an undergraduate or a graduate student or a faculty member who could do that or do you find your way?

ADAMS:  You know, it’s amazing how, I don’t know, word gets around, maybe there was another student or, you know, I don’t think there was a faculty member that taught me anything, but there were—there were other students that were technically very smart. And the thing with a synthesizer, it’s like with a computer, you go in there, into this environment and you basically self-teach through trial and error.

CUNO:  What was “Heavy Metal” like?

ADAMS:  [chuckles] Well “Heavy Metal” was a big, loud collage of a piece that included readings from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch by one of my classmates who had a voice that sounded just like William Burroughs. And a lot of synthesizer sounds and also recorded things. I remember taking out some pots and pans from a kitchen and recording them and then processing the sounds through various modules like ring modulation and filtering. So it sounded a little bit like a John Cage or Stockhausen piece but the William Burroughs was what made it special.

CUNO:  Where was it performed? In your undergraduate house?

ADAMS:  Well, it wasn’t a performing piece. It lived on a on a reel of scotch tape so, you know, if you came over to my apartment and we had a couple of joints, you could experience it there. [chuckles]

CUNO:  Probably under the circumstances that’s probably how you should have experience it. [chuckles]

[“Heavy Metal” clip]

So you do pick up and leave after two years of graduate school, I think, out to San Francisco. What was your intention of going?

ADAMS:  You know, I’d spent my entire life living in New England. I’d never been out of New England. I’d maybe gone to New York once or twice for brief trips and I’d never been to Europe. And part of the reason was that, you know, the Vietnam War was hanging over me for almost all the time I was in college. In those days if you dropped out of college you would immediately hear from your draft board.

So when I finally was free of that threat, I’d been reading—I read Henry Miller’s book about Big Sur. And I read Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and I just decided I wanted to go to San Francisco. I didn’t know anybody there, but California just seemed like sufficiently far away from the East Coast and from everything I’d grown up with. So I left with the woman that was then my first wife and we drove across the country in a dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle, which kept breaking down. And I expected to maybe live there for six months or something, and in fact I never went back.

CUNO:  But a friend of yours made a contact and I think it was Ivan Tcherepnin—

ADAMS:  That’s right.

CUNO:  —who was a composer also teaching at Harvard or maybe assisting teaching at Harvard. And he puts you into contact with some of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which led to your teaching position there and your being head of the New Music Ensemble. Is that more or less right?

ADAMS:  That’s right. The only job that I could find was working in a warehouse on the waterfront in Oakland. So I actually had to join the Teamsters Union and I had the grandiose title of being a lumper. And lumper was these poor souls that had to go into these big containers and actually by hand pull out whatever goods were in them and put them on pallets, which would then be driven off to various parts of the warehouse on a forklift.

And I remember that while I was doing that, thinking well I couldn’t do this much longer and I was reluctantly realizing I’d have to go back to Harvard and get a Ph.D. I got a phone call. From my friend Ivan Tcherepnin who said that there was a job opening at the San Francisco Conservatory, which was a very small school at that time, housed in a building that had been a home for unwed mothers out in the sunset and in outer San Francisco. So I went in and interviewed for the job and the president, whose name was Milton Salkind, was clearly looking for a bargain and he saw a good bargain in me because here I was working for four dollars an hour as a lumper and, you know, I had two degrees from Harvard and a fair past as a performer and had played as a substitute with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So he took it he took a risk and I ended up staying there for ten years.

CUNO:  I moved to San Francisco in 1973 and I was interested in the world of which you were a part. And the first time I saw you—I didn’t meet you at the time—was at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at a performance of the New Music Ensemble. And I was impressed by the ambition, I was impressed by the numbers of students you had, and I knew vaguely about the culture of the region, the role of Mills College. What was it like then for you as a young budding composer? Was it helpful, was it exciting, was it encouraging?

ADAMS:  You know, I think in retrospect the most important thing was that even though I knew the classical canon—Beethoven, Stravinsky, Wagner—and I loved it, I viewed myself as a renegade. You know, a real outlaw, and that there was a community of avant-garde composers. I guess John Cage was sort of the pater familias of it, which included, you know, people like Robert Ashley at Mills College and Alvin Lucier, who I think at that time taught at Wesleyan, and Gordon Mumma, and further afield, people in Europe. And, you know, it was a very kind of free-form society of experimental music and—with the emphasis on experiment. Cage had sort of given us license to consider almost any kind of experience that involves sound as a concert or as music. And I would say probably in retrospect most of what we did I think had very minimal value, but it was it was fun and it was also very much a period, you know, it was just the zeitgeist of the early ’70s. And then, you know, it’s funny because like within seven or eight years, minimalism kind of came in and, you know, it was a more organized approach to music and it drew audiences with much more intensity.

CUNO:  It was at that time when in those early years when I got there that you were devising performances of something that you called “homemade guerilla electronics,” [Adams chuckles] and that’s when the Studebaker synthesizer comes in.

ADAMS:  Yes. Right. Well, yeah, that became sort of an ethic in a way. I mean a lot of the composers I knew, we were all building our own electronics. I think the inspiration for that was David Tudor who was part of John Cage’s circle. And David Tudor was an avant-garde pianist but he also became obsessed with, you know, little analog circuits and things. This is in the era before digital electronics so I used to read these really boring manuals on transistors and circuits, and then I would drive out to a surplus—it was like a shack out by the Oakland airport called Mike Finn’s and, you know, there’d be these bins of resistors and transistors and capacitors, and I just was fascinated by it. Probably because I really didn’t know very much about it but I built these modules, and the module became the piece, which was again—it was very much what David Tudor was about.

CUNO:  And it was about that time you performed something called “Lo-Fi,” as opposed to hi-fi, in the Hall of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. And I recall going there on that night, that occasion—

ADAMS:  Wow.

CUNO:  —with all of these palm trees.

ADAMS:  Yes! I can’t believe you were there.

CUNO:  —yeah, and the occasion that I remember participating in involved directions to either turn the dial on the radio left or right.

ADAMS:  [chuckles] Yeah.

CUNO:  And it was like five seconds, ten seconds, spin it around, and so you gathered all these voices and sounds from across the universe. And it was all mixed up—there must have been thirty people involved.

ADAMS:  That’s right. I had all my students going and part of the project was we went to various like Salvation Army stores and we bought old 78 rpm records and also old—you could actually buy in those days—record players.

And then we would, you know, I don’t remember, having Liberace and Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters, these are all old 78, and taking the music and then putting it through one of my crazy synthesizer modulators. And yeah, there somewhere there’s a picture of me in the middle of that performance and I have a bass fiddle bow and I’m producing a sound from a saw blade that’s hanging from the ceiling.

CUNO:  But it was also about that time that you composed “American Standard,” I think, and later I think, a “Christian Zeal and Activity,” but I think of the latter in particular as having some resonance with Gavin Bryars’s “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” And Gavin Bryars, as I recall, it’s the first time I’d ever heard him was about that time. Did he come to San Francisco or was it just—?

ADAMS:  Robert Ashley introduced me to Gavin Bryars via mail—via good old fashioned air mail. And I began a correspondence with him and then I invited him—I got a little tiny amount of money from the administration of the conservatory, and invited him to come. And it was the first time he ever came to the United States, first time his music was ever done there. We did both of his—at that point quite well-known pieces—“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me [Yet]” and “The Sinking of the Titanic.” This is long before he did the remake of “Jesus’ Blood” with Tom Waits.

CUNO:  Oh, that I don’t know because my memory of “Jesus’ Blood” was a whole orchestration of science behind it.

ADAMS:  That’s right. Well the idea—what “Jesus’ Blood” is, is it’s just a little, like an eight-bar phrase of a street person with a cockney accent, obviously a man very, very down on his luck singing this, you know, two-phrase thing, “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me.” That’s all it is.

[“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” clip]

And it goes over and over and over and with each repetition you would add an instrument and a harmony. And after sixty minutes, you know, you could have like a whole football field of people accompanying it.

[“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” clip]

This is again, it was a typical 70s piece.

CUNO:  But it was also at that time that Ingram Marshall becomes a friend of yours I think. Or what was that—

ADAMS:  I know Ingram Marshall was born and grew up in Westchester County and I met him in San Francisco about 1974, ’75. He [chuckles] was living in an abandoned, you know, warehouse underneath the freeway and used to cook these fantastic Indonesian dinners on a Coleman stove and he became my dearest friend, still is. And again, you know, he did a lot of live electronic music. What I loved about Ingram Marshall of music was that although it was electronic and in a certain sense very experimental, it had great soul. It was the first time I encountered an electronic composer who wrote music that really emotionally touched me the way you know a Mahler symphony could. And, you know, we found that we had shared a lot of common things together. You know, we loved Sibelius and we loved the Sierras and we ended up buying cabins close to each other up in the mountains.

CUNO:  It was about that time too that I think either you became aware of or certainly became much more familiar with it and maybe even inspired by in part of the music of Terry Riley and Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and I think I read once that you saw Einstein on the beach or you heard—

ADAMS:  I heard music from him.

CUNO:  You heard music from him. And so those must’ve been adding into the mix of your sort of musical imagination because shortly thereafter, maybe in 1977 or so, you compose your what you call your first mature composition “Phrygian Gates.”

ADAMS:  It’s really hard to describe, you know, where my head was at in the mid-70s, you know, I was I was 26, 27, 28. I absolutely was determined that I was a composer and would be a composer. There was never a time when I had any doubt about it but I was kind of flailing around because, you know, there was a lot of prestige given to modernist music. I’d pick up The New Yorker. There was a very influential critic at the time, Andrew Porter, who wrote beautifully and he was always given a ton of space. I mean it was amazing. Every single issue of The New Yorker would have a long article about serious music—hard to believe but it was true. And I would read yet again a glowing account of some piece by Elliott Carter or some, you know, very modernist composer.

And I was trying to make peace with the John Cage aesthetic, which I had taken to heart so strongly. And then I started hearing pieces you know by Glass and Reich, and they really appealed to me because first of all they went back to what I felt were the absolute sine qua non of music, which is pulsation, tonality, and some form of structural integrity. And I felt that modernism and music had atomized all of those elements.

Stravinsky had made wonderful inroads and rhythmic complexity but there was always this wonderful, basic choreographic security with Stravinsky. But by the time Cage came along everything was destroyed. And I desperately wanted those elements back in music. Of course they were always there in pop music. And I thought that the minimalism was really an astonishing moment because all those elements were back but they were in a brand new guise.

CUNO:  Was “Phrygian Gates” commissioned by anyone? How did that happen?

ADAMS:  “Phrygian Gates” is a big virtuoso piano piece about twenty-eight minutes long nonstop. And I wrote it for a very close friend of mine, a pianist Matt McRae, who played it on a faculty recital at the San Francisco Conservatory. And it’s amazing it still gets played by pianists all over the place today.

[“Phrygian Gates” clip]

CUNO:  But shortly thereafter maybe the next year, “Shaker loops”—well it—“Shaker Loops” starts out as “Wavemaker,” and it was for the Kronos Quartet. Talk about “Shaker Loops” because that’s ambitious.

ADAMS:  Well, I was conducting a group of students who were called the New Music Ensemble. And I kind of use them as, you know, to try out my ideas. And the first version of “Shaker Loops” is a work for strings. The first version of that was actually, I wrote for Kronos but it was just a failure. I just made all kinds of strategic mistakes and I’ll never forget that first performance; it was a catastrophic performance. But I did have the good fortune to identify the elements in the piece that were worth keeping. And I realized it needed to be a larger ensemble, it needed to have a bass. And so I expanded it to seven instruments and performed at first, I think it was in December 1978 at the San Francisco Conservatory, and right off the bat it was clear that it was it was going to be a good piece, and I still do it a lot around, you know—I’m asked to do it.

[“Shaker Loops” clip]

CUNO:  So was that a turning point?

ADAMS:  Yes, I think that those two pieces, “Phrygian Gates” and “Shaker Loops,” were definitely a turning point. And shortly after that I sort of began being known as the second generation minimalists. I remember there was an article in Time magazine which featured Steve Reich and Terry Riley and Philip Glass and me and, you know, people, “who’s this guy John Adams?” You know, because I wasn’t at the time that well known but the writer had identified me as part of the minimalist juggernaut.

CUNO:  And with that turning point in John’s career, we end the first half of our conversation. We’ll continue with the second half in the next episode.

Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

JOHN ADAMS:  Our third grade teacher read a child’s biography of Mozart. And I suspect most...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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