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New Music Composer Finds His Niche

February 14, 1989|GREGG WAGER

To composer/conductor John Adams, the Modernism of avant-garde 20th-Century art is over. Today, tonality and the images of television are much stronger vehicles of expression.

"There's something about an album by Bruce Springsteen or a movie by Francis Ford Coppola that reaches the audience immediately," claimed Adams while relaxing after a rehearsal at CalArts last week. "I'm trying to create that sort of immediacy in my music as well."

Tonight at Royce Hall, UCLA, audiences can decide for themselves as Adams conducts the combined forces of the CalArts 20th Century Players and the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in the West Coast premiere of his newest work, "Fearful Symmetries." Adams--who will be 42 Wednesday--will also conduct works by Harrison Birtwistle, Morton Feldman, Michael Torke and Henryk Gorecki.

"When I was a student, I thought that the classics of Modernism could be assimilated just like the great works from the 19th Century," recalled Adams, who frequently uses historical analogies when explaining his ideas. "It's an old argument. The first rehearsals of Schubert's Ninth Symphony were impossible. The musicians refused to play it. 'It's a confusing bunch of indecipherable notes,' they used to say. But now, Schubert's Ninth is a part of the standard orchestral repertory.

"So we in the academic world would apply the same logic to the works of Schoenberg. We thought his orchestral works would also become part of the standard repertory. But they never did. His pieces, like other high-brow Modern works of this century such as Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake,' will never become assimilated like Schubert. They will permanently be avant-garde works, always difficult to approach."

Adams, who knew about Andre Previn "editing" Robert Erickson's "Corona" at a recent Los Angeles Philharmonic concert, was surprised to learn that the 26-minute work had about 10 minutes cut. "I can't believe Andre would do that," said Adams. "He's a composer himself and knows the difficulties of having new music performed. I'd have to hear his side of the story before I make any other comment, but I can only guess that he must of had a very good reason."

Last Friday, Adams gave a lecture at the Crossroads School Auditorium in Santa Monica that covered many of his ideas on music and the death of Modernism. Mostly, he gave an extensive overview of "Nixon in China," his 1987 opera which he created in collaboration with stage director Peter Sellars and poet Alice Goodman. He also talked about Minimalism, a school of music originating in San Francisco, with which he is often linked. "I'm not a Minimalist," emphasizes Adams. "That movement started back in the 1960s and basically grew out of ideas from the drug culture. I was never part of that. I'm more of a Post-Modernist than a Minimalist."

A native of Massachusetts, Adams recalls that he first became interested in the music scene in California after reading John Cage's book "Silence," which he received as a present when he graduated from Harvard in 1971 in composition. The following year, he moved to the Bay Area to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory and later became new music adviser to the San Francisco Symphony.

Today, he is one of the most controversial figures in new music, especially after the fame he received for "Nixon in China." But confusion still reigns over exactly where Adams fits into the music world.

Adams is quick to point out that "Nixon in China" was an effort to access a vernacular musical and theatrical language. It was not meant to be either a satirical or a sympathetic depiction of Richard Nixon. Adams was particularly frustrated with the PBS broadcast of "Nixon in China," which employed Walter Cronkite as a commentator.

"It's like they turned the opera into a junior high school skit," sighed Adams. "Cronkite was a bad choice. He couldn't even pronounce coloratura aria. You should have seen some of the outtakes!

"Like Donald Duck or any other famous media figure, Nixon and Mao were just images that Americans know very well. Presenting them with the banality that I did shouldn't be misconstrued as poking fun or reconstructing some sort of heroic opera," observes Adams.

He jokes that his opera had more elephants on stage than "Aida"--"Republican elephants, that is." But Adams distances himself from the American political scene, especially the right wing.

"I despise it," said Adams about the new conservativism that emerged during the 1980s. "I see young people today wearing three-piece, pin-striped suits and most of them are so immature emotionally, that it's almost like we're reliving the days before the Great Depression."

He is also quite critical of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

But he still has problems with east/west politics here in the United States--East and West Coasts, that is. One of his works, "Grand Pianola Music," received cheers when premiered in San Francisco, but was booed when premiered in New York.

Yet he believes that California will overtake New York as the center of art in this country, so he doesn't heed his critics from the East.

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