Classical: Cool, calm and collected

With the release of a 10-CD set of his music, John Adams, at 54, takes stock of his brilliant career.
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The American composer John Adams has been put in a box by his record company. The John Adams Earbox is a beautifully designed and constructed product, and as boxes of this sort go, it's a real luxury item. Although the 10 CDs can by no means be taken as a complete edition of the prolific composer's many works, and his operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer are represented only by excerpts, the act of collection inevitably brings with it the sense of a mid-career summation; a weighing up of the evidence thus far. But, as the poet Basil Bunting wrote in the preface to his Collected Poems: "A man who collects his poems screws together the boards of his coffin."

Sitting in his Edinburgh hotel bedroom last August, on the eve of a festival performance conducting the Ensemble Modern Orchestra in a programme of Charles Ives, Michael Gordon, and his own Naive and Sentimental Music, John Adams doesn't look even remotely cadaverous. A comparatively boyish 54, despite the shock of grey hair and those by now iconic owlish spectacles, he's as open, friendly and charming as you could wish for, in the approved Californian manner.

Although Adams was born and brought up in New England and educated at Harvard, he first made his reputation in San Francisco, where he still lives. As he writes in a revealing essay in the booklet that comes with the box: "In the summer of 1971 I packed everything I owned into a Volkswagen bug and drove across the continent to California. I wanted to put a distance between myself and the New England of my birth and upbringing. California, rather than Europe, seemed like the right location to `find my voice' as a composer."

Adams admits to feeling taken aback by the literal and metaphorical weight of the box, and a little embarrassed by his "huge essay" to accompany it. "It's shocking," he says. "The people at Nonesuch seem pleased with it but I don't know what I think; the works are so much a part of you that being in a room with them is a bit like Samuel Pepys being surrounded by all the volumes of his diaries. But I do perform most of these pieces on a regular basis and it does at least show the remarkable range of things I've been attracted to. There's two grand operas, a musical with 24 pop songs, a violin concerto, synthesiser music and all these gigantic canvases, along with smaller pieces for chamber orchestra. It's a very large bag of material, but I was a slow learner, in Thomas Pynchon's phrase.

"I'm always dazzled by these new English composers who keep springing up. It astonishes me because in America we've all kind of built our edifices brick by brick. Maybe it's a response to growing up with too much music, but as a result we tend to have very long careers." Is Thomas Ades being given a gentle clip round the ear?

What is striking about Adams is a number of things. One is his success: according to his record company, he's "the most frequently performed living American composer of concert music". Another is his dual career as composer and conductor; as a freelance, he's in increasing demand around the world to conduct, and not only his own works.

Thirdly, there's the tricky question of his relationship to minimalism, for Adams is surely the most maximal minimalist imaginable. When heard in the context of the box's chronology, even the famous Shaker Loops - composed for string septet in 1978 - sounds less minimalist than a prototypical example of what has since become perhaps Adams's stock-in-trade: the architectural exploration of musical space on a truly grand, widescreen scale.

However hackneyed an approach it may be, Adams's music really does seem to connote those vast democratic vistas at the heart of so much American music. "It's no surprise to people who know me that I'm drawn to composers who use music to suggest geographic space and landscape, like Sibelius, Mahler, Bruckner, and more recently Ives," he says. "A lot of people ask me if it's a function of living in California, which is a trite way of putting it, but it is also true. I would in all honesty have to say that the experience of the Californian landscape has influenced me, and I would also add driving through landscape. I have a farm three hours north of San Francisco and I get my best ideas driving there; I never listen to music in the car. You can see the same effect of space in early, derivative works of the Hudson River School, and in Thirties painters like Marsden Hartley or Edward Hopper; even in the Abstract Expressionists, although they didn't paint identifiable landscapes. I think that as an artist, Jack Kerouac is highly overrated but through novels like The Dharma Bums, I realised how much of that mythos is burned into American consciousness."

Adams's ambivalent relationship to minimalism might also contain the reason for his conspicuous success. While for his contemporary Steve Reich - whose own box was released by Nonesuch a couple of years ago - the conventional symphony orchestra is more or less the enemy, Adams has prospered at least partly because his works are so amenable to it. Reich sees the orchestra of today, like the bel canto tradition in opera, as a kind of regrettable accident; a late 19th-century corruption of what went before, as Wagner beefed up the orchestra for entirely selfish reasons until it became an intransigent monster whose form was then made to dictate all subsequent contributions to the repertoire. Interestingly, while Reich and Philip Glass - the "authentic" minimalists - have rather struggled to find appropriate forms for their later works, Adams has gone from strength to strength; for him, the form was there already.

As Adams is proud to admit, his own response to the behemoth of the orchestra is completely different to Reich's. "I embraced it!," he says. "I was brought up with the orchestra as almost a second home. I played an orchestral instrument (the clarinet, which he learned from his father, a gifted amateur musician) and from the age of 10 I played in a community orchestra. At 13 I wrote my first orchestral piece and I began conducting as a teenager. On the one hand I try to distance myself from it, but I'm aware that I don't travel round with an ensemble of electric organs and there's therefore more of a linkage to `the repertoire'. It's true, and it's gratifying because my music gets performed. I feel that if the orchestra is to have a future, it has to be injected with new repertoire."

This doesn't mean, however, that Adams is entirely comfortable about his own status. "I'm intensely aware of the fact that my music has begun to be absorbed and I have mixed feelings about that," he says. "On the one hand it means that you experience success; on the other, for young people the orchestra is like going into an old museum. I think I live on a strange cusp between post-orchestral experience and the earlier period; you have to see what the passage of time brings. They've been saying the novel is dead since William Burroughs, but it's not dead yet and my guess is it's the same with my music.

"On a regular basis I say `This is it, I'll never write again', but then I have an experience like I've just had rehearsing the Ives 4th with Ensemble Modern, and it's like, `fuck history, this is where my musical life is'."

`The John Adams Earbox' is available on Nonesuch Records (around pounds 80)