Terrorism, nuclear war, and politics are just a few of the topics that Adams, one of classical music’s preeminent living composers, has tackled in his work. Moving between the studio (where he writes alone) and the stage (where he conducts large orchestras), he now has a catalog of more than 70 pieces, including the new opera Girls of the Golden West.
HBR: How do you stay on the cutting edge while also ensuring commercial success?
Adams: Well, classical music does not have a fraction of the audience that somebody like Beyoncé has. But I’ve been very lucky over my career to have had a wonderful listenership—people who come up to me in the street or the supermarket or write to say how much my music has affected them—and that compensates for the fact that I don’t sell millions of albums. As for buzzwords like “cutting edge” and “innovative,” I don’t think that way. I encounter the world—whether it’s politics or history or the psychology of being an American at this time—and respond. If I were to sit down and say, “what can I do to push the envelope or be disruptive?” it just wouldn’t work.
Is that why you gravitate to big, controversial topics that don’t necessarily seem suitable for opera?
I’m trying to inject new energy into an art form that I don’t think is dead but needs to show its relevance to the world we live in. I don’t pick these subjects to be controversial. I pick them because I think they are at the psychic center of our collective consciousness.
Nixon in China put you on the map for being a different kind of composer. It was an ambitious undertaking for someone early in his career—what gave you the confidence to do it?
I think it was, in part, a dollop of ignorance. I had no experience with opera. I’d never written a note for a solo voice. But I was really charged by the story of this encounter between Nixon and Mao. I came of age during the Vietnam War, so Nixon was a real bogeyman for me. And of course, at Harvard Square circa 1970, Mao was a big deal, with a lot of people naively thinking his was the way to go. To explore that collision of a market economy and a communist ideology was a delicious thing.
How did you persuade people you could tackle it in operatic form?
It was very controversial, which piqued everybody’s interest. Of course, people forget that the reviews were pretty scorching. The New York Times said, “Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald’s did for the hamburger.” What kept me going was the fact that it created an enormous amount of excitement. People wanted to put it on and write about it in magazines like Time and People.
How do you follow a splash like that?
I’m 70 now, and I’ve learned through painful experience that each new piece has to begin with baby steps. My first scribblings and stabs are always profoundly humiliating. I would be terrified if anybody were in the room seeing how, after all my prizes and honors, I’m sitting there like a kindergartner with Lego blocks trying to put something together. But too often in the art world people hit on an idea and brand themselves with it and keep delivering the same thing. That to me is death. I would rather struggle but at the end of six months or two years have a work that is genuinely new and original.
What’s your day-to-day work routine?
We all have an image of the composer waking up in the middle of the night and grabbing a sheet of paper and coming out with some fantastic idea. But every composer I know works basically banker’s hours. It’s an extremely labor-intensive profession. When I’m home working I am very hermetic, and I have a strict daily schedule. I have a studio at our home in Berkeley and a hut in the redwood forest in northern California, where I spend as much time as I can. My life is a strange kind of whiplash, because I periodically go from that to conducting, and I suddenly become a very public person who has to stand in front of a hundred-piece orchestra, with musicians I don’t even know.
How do you make that switch?
It’s not easy. When I’ve been home for a month or more and know I have to go somewhere and conduct and be a public person, I start having strange dreams. Usually they involve having lost my score, or the plane suddenly drops altitude, or I’m in front of an orchestra not fully clothed. I think it’s psychological preparation for that wrenching movement from introverted to extroverted life.
Why is it important to you to play both roles?
I could not imagine being a composer without the finishing activity of being a performer. That doesn’t mean I feel I’m the only person who can conduct my music. I have most of the world’s great conductors and great instrumentalists and singers doing my music regularly, so I’m doubly blessed. But I grew up with a mother who was an amateur actress, and my first experiences with performance were on the stage with her, singing in South Pacific or Oklahoma or Carousel. That immediate buzz you get from an audience is very important to me.
You once compared your work as a composer to that of a medieval stonecutter. Can you explain?
I use it to describe how laborious it is to write the kind of new classical music that I write. Someone once counted the objects in one of my 30-minute symphonies—eighth notes, sharps and flats, indications of piano or forte—and there were more than 100,000. Each one represents an executive decision. In that sense, composing is not that different from running a big business; you’re constantly making decisions.
I read that you’ve suffered from writer’s block. Do you still?
I had one terrifying period of writer’s block. I was in my early or mid-30s, and I’d had my first successes. It was clear to me that this would be my life. But I got intimidated. I read too many critical reviews, and I got self-conscious. I started thinking about how I fit into the lineage of great music, going back to Bach and Beethoven; I got freaked. This went on for 18 months. I sought therapy; I tried everything imaginable. It finally did pass. I have days now when it feels like nothing is coming. But the good thing about getting older as an artist is that you can look back on those struggles and know that there are good days and bad days and that the ideas will ultimately come. Being a successful artist is very much like being a good athlete. If you stay in shape and do it every day and monitor your systems and are sensitive to your energy levels, things will function pretty well. The other analogy I make is that I’m like a gardener. I have these ideas—it might be a melody or a harmony or a rhythm—and let them grow but know where to trim, where to nurture, what to water, what to pluck.
How do you know when your work is done?
It’s a gut feeling. I trust my intuitive sense about when something feels right and long enough, when the gesture is not too grandiose or out of scale. I like to work in the twilight zone between consciousness and unconsciousness.
Can you explain?
A good artist has the aboveboard conscious technical activity going on, but there’s also a subconscious world of intuition and feeling. If you’re in touch with both, you can be successful. Think of Picasso’s Guernica, or a Jackson Pollock painting.
You seem to balance big projects with smaller ones. Is that intentional?
Maybe it’s a way of recharging the batteries. With string quartets and small chamber pieces, for example, people spend a lot of time learning them, so you get fantastic performances. But I also have an ability to write large-scale pieces—Tolstoy-style monoliths. The process is long—it took me two years to write the opera I just finished, and by the end of it I felt like I was dragging around a ball and chain—but if you can do it, it’s almost your duty to.
Once you’ve delivered a piece and are working with musicians, do you keep tinkering?
I occasionally make massive revisions, but not often. With various software programs, I can mock up an entire three-hour opera, and that helps me judge whether something is too long or not long enough and shape the emotional flow. In the old days, composers did that by playing things through on the piano. But I still make mistakes. I had a piece a few years ago called Absolute Jest, based on fragments from Beethoven string quartets. The first time I heard it performed by an orchestra, I realized that the first third was just not right. I had to rip it apart and compose something like 300 brand-new bars of music. But that’s very unusual.
You’ve had a very long collaboration with Peter Sellers. How do you two work together, and why have you been so successful?
It’s very rare to have an artistic collaboration last for decades. But Peter and I have been working together for more than 30 years. Part of our success comes from being able to live with each other’s personalities. We understand our strengths and faults, and we compensate for the other. But it’s very difficult to get an opera produced these days, partly because the classical music audience is the most risk-averse in art. With opera, people just want to stay in their comfort zone. We’re still going around hat in hand, trying to find companies that will produce and commission.
It sounds like you have a third job: convincing people that your work should be seen.
The arts have always depended on patronage. There’s a certain naiveté on the part of wealthy people who believe that their business models should apply to the arts—that if a work doesn’t produce a profit, there’s something wrong with it. More and more artistic institutions are hiring executives from the corporate world. They make decisions that appear to be correct from a business point of view but are terribly damaging in terms of artistic creativity.
How do you overcome that?
It’s a matter of educating both the public—your audience—and the people in management. One of the most important professional relationships I’ve had has been with Deborah Borda, who was the executive director of many symphony orchestras and is now at the New York Philharmonic. She has enormous charisma and an ability to shake the money tree, but she also understands the importance of fostering new work.
Do you feel pressure to save opera?
I feel a responsibility to younger artists and composers. I’ve been critical of the movement to loosen up on technical training. I’ve tried to point out that if you go to medical school or law school or study computers and technology, you’re expected to really know the tools. But universities are modifying their humanities and music curricula to focus more on social issues than on actual artistic tools and facility.
You grew up in New Hampshire and went to Harvard but famously left the East Coast for the West. Why did you make that move?
The decision to move to California was partly a romantic one. I’d had four years as an undergraduate and two years in graduate school, and I was sick of school. I’d been reading Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, and the West Coast seemed really appealing. I had no idea I would end up staying there. Also, the world of contemporary classical music had become very academic, and I wanted to be free of that.
You didn’t hit it big immediately. Why did you stick with it?
I was in fourth grade when I wrote my first piece, and one I composed at age 14 was performed by the local orchestra in Concord, New Hampshire. I had a rich fantasy life about being a composer. I was very aware of Leonard Bernstein, who was just becoming an American superstar. There was never a time when I didn’t think I was going to do it.
How long will you keep at it?
Brahms publicly announced his last piece, but that’s inconceivable to me. It would be like saying, “Next week I’m going to stop breathing.” Most creative people I know are like that. We just do it until we can’t anymore. I’m not particularly sociable—my wife will tell you that when we go to a dinner party, I’m always the first person who wants to go home—but I feel that I communicate with the world through my music. When people tell me that something I’ve written has affected them, it makes me feel my existence on the earth has been worth it.
A version of this article appeared in the January–February 2018 issue (p.160) of Harvard Business Review.
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