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The Influences on Our Taste : JOHN ADAMS : Focus on Music, Not Celebrity

December 20, 1987|JOHN HENKEN

BERKELEY — This is Calendar's third annual listing of Taste Makers, individuals who have brought a distinct focus to 1987 and who we feel will continue to influence the world of arts and entertainment long after this year passes. They were selected not so much for specific contributions in their respective fields but because they are clearly creative forces who move and shape taste. They were interviewed to find out what kinds of influences have moved and shaped them.

We've selected these eight individuals to reflect a broad range of creative work, though each year we try to vary the disciplines. For instance, in 1985 we interviewed architect Arata Isozaki, composer Philip Glass and restaurateur Alice Waters, among others. Last December, the group included choreographer Mark Morris, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown.

What follows, we hope, is a look at the thinking behind some of this year's brightest creators and commentators . . . 1987's Taste Makers.

This project was edited by David Fox, assistant Calendar editor.

Even before the much-publicized advent of "Nixon in China," Adams was one of the best-known contemporary composers, setting the standard with a substantial and popular body of work.

"I think that we're experiencing right now the death of modernism," John Adams declares. "By that I mean that the emphasis in the arts on experiment and procedure has given way--not without a great deal of infighting--to a new feeling about the arts that is more concerned with human issues."

People are asking again for content, Adams feels, and he is in no way embarrassed about delivering it--and finding a large audience. "A work of art without an audience is a very pale thing, and possibly a meaningless one," he muses.

The sincerity of his opinions is real but does not preclude an often self-deprecating humor. "I'm never quite sure if my music is pointing the way. . . . There are times when I'm quite sure that it points backward."

Ambushed by celebrity, the 40-year-old composer looks and dresses like a sort of low-budget, owlish John Denver. With his wife and two young children, he inhabits a house of many small rooms "on the cusp, the edge between old Berkeley and the new houses in the hills where the professors live." It is an area that Adams describes as a "gourmet ghetto," particularly lamenting the absence of a good Mexican restaurant. He prefers "emerging restaurants, where it's still cheap to eat, there's still good service and there are no lines."

Adams is a rarity: a full-time composer who pays the bills with his music. Though not exactly a workaholic, Adams adheres as strictly as his schedule permits to a regular 9-5 regimen. A gleaming black piano, synthesizer and recording equipment dominate his small upstairs studio. For the moment at least, it does not include a computer.

That may change, though Adams values the computer simply as an aid in notating scores. "I suspect that sometime in the next few years, I will have to retool my whole composition process," he says, to take advantage of the new technology.

The Massachusetts-born, Harvard-trained composer decries the "extreme concentration on the artist as personality," which he sees among the trendier practitioners of modern music. The idea of the avant-garde, he says, "has degenerated in our times to being nothing more than a branch of the world of fashion.

"I really feel that what's important is the art. I'm just a bourgeois person with a family. Art is the expression of my imaginative life, my hopes and dreams. My art is the best part of me."

The influences on his art are various. The course that his music has taken since 1974 was strongly affected by an encounter then with Steve Reich's Minimalist epic "Drumming," a work that astonished him with its rigor. Adams also absorbs all types of popular music: deliberate references to Motown and Glenn Miller can be heard in "Nixon in China." He feels that there is a "wonderful feedback between popular and serious music--I believe that all great art has very strong, healthy roots in the popular experience."

Social and political issues are never far from Adams' thoughts, whether deploring the need to send his children to private schools because the local public schools are so bad, or espousing government support for the arts. He listens to KPFA, which, like its Pacifica sister station KPFK in Los Angeles, is a radical arts/politics forum. "There's no other station like it in the world," Adams claims. "KPFK is just pure mayonnaise compared to KPFA."

When asked what inspires his current projects, however, Adams cites no lofty sociopolitical factors or musical experiences. Instead, he immediately mentions commissions, a sort of inspiration with which few other composers today have been so richly blessed.

With such ready stimulation, Adams can afford to regard composition practically. For him, it is not a mystical matter, but one simply of doing--intuitively.

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