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John Adams Mines Beethoven's Mind

John Adams' latest album features works inspired by Beethoven.
Deborah O'Grady
Courtesy of the artist
John Adams' latest album features works inspired by Beethoven.

All composers have obsessions. For John Adams, a composer who decidedly broke with the past, that obsession is Beethoven, as heard in the new album Absolute Jest.

"We have music that we love so much that we kind of want to get under the skin of that composer," Adams says. "For me taking not so much melodies but just little harmonic fragments, like fractals, from Beethoven and putting them through the black box of my own musical personality was real stimulation to my invention."

This album consists of two works, both distinctly contemporary, inspired by Adams' love of Beethoven. He sat down with NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about the string quartet concerto Absolute Jest and an older piece, Grand Pianola Music.

Would it have been — in the early '80s and in the late '70s — unfashionable to be evoking Beethoven, to be even loving Beethoven?

Back in 1983, new music, contemporary music, was a pretty dour affair. Composers were still arguing over tonality or dissonance. So, to write a piece that referenced Beethoven and did it in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner — it was considered a bit of a provocation, and, in fact, when the piece was played by the New York Philharmonic there were boos coming from the audience, which is something that didn't happen very often.

Listening to the two of them together, which I have to say I've never done in all this time — what the two pieces do share is just that joy and tonality, these big rippling arpeggios that just kind of vibrate on a single key. I can talk about a passage that was really controversial where there's the actual tune [imitates melody] that was really the moment that got sort of hardcore new music composers upset because they really did think it was a provocation to their very serious endeavors.

Most of the objections came from my fellow composers, who felt that anything that was tonal was retroactive and nostalgic and it wasn't looking forward to the brave new world of dissonant music.

Let's talk then about the most recent piece, Absolute Jest, that premiered about 30 years after Grand Pianola. Here there's an echo, in a sense, of some of what you were doing. What inspired you to reach back?

Well, I heard a performance of the wonderful ballet by Stravinsky called Pulcinella, and in Pulcinella, Stravinsky's manager, Diaghilev, suggested that he take very old Baroque music and put it through the machine of Stravinsky's musical personality and I was inspired by that idea. So, I took very, very small melodic fragments from some of my favorite Beethoven.

It's a little like sampling.

Yeah, I think that you can make a case that my use of Beethoven here is a form of sampling, although I do many different things with it — I transpose the music, I turn it upside down, I extend things, I telescope them. I mix them together.

I don't think you can appreciate my music without being fundamentally musically literate. I'm writing music for people who do know Beethoven and do know Mahler and do know Stravinsky in the same way that most contemporary novelists or poets assume some form of literacy from their reader, and you know, we live in a culture where popular culture is so prestigious and so pervasive that it's kind of hard to shout through the storm.

But my goal really is to really create something that is not only appreciable now, but 100 or 200 or 300 years from now will be even more appreciated as a document of what it was like to be alive during this time.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff