Music: John Adams on Finding his Voice

If you happen to have a copy of the August 25 New Yorker, don’t miss this article by the composer John Adams, in which he discusses finding his compositional voice back in the 1970s and early 1980s. (Check out the keywords they tagged the article with: Adams, John; Composers; Memoirs; “Harmonium”; de Waart, Edo; Studebaker; San Francisco, California.) The abstract begins:

PERSONAL HISTORY about the writer’s years as an aspiring composer in San Francisco. … The writer’s plan was to live as a proletarian worker by day and an avant-garde composer at night. He worked unloading clothes from shipping containers. He wrote no music for a year and began falling into a depression. … [So he soon got a job at] the San Francisco Conservatory. The writer taught there for ten years, by fits and starts finding his voice as a composer.

On a personal note, I have a friend who tried that proletarian approach too, though without the Marxist pretensions; he lasted on the Oakland waterfront just long enough for a hernia to force him to do something else. He’s gone into a profession that is similarly friendly to composition: freelance software coding.

If you don’t have a copy of the issue, this 15-minute episode of the The New Yorker Out Loud features John Adams discussing his career, and in the process he hits all the main points in the article. Plus there’s background music. (Phrygian Gates!) Now I’m never going to be able to go past the south windmill at the western end of Golden Gate Park without thinking of John Adams, as he apparently lived about two blocks from there.

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