Your Majesties, your Royal Highness, your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Please allow me to start this laudation in an unconventional manner, with a poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s titled: To make a prairie.
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
This airy and touching poem, which seems to capture the creative process in so few words, was imaginatively translated into Dutch by Peter Verstegen:
Het maken van een wei vereist een klavertje en één bij,
Eén klavertje, een bij,
Genoeg is enkel dromerij
Bij weinig bij.
To me, these lines by Emily Dickinson also relate to the music of John Adams: inventive, seemingly evident, but made on the strength of a close connection with the surrounding world. For those of us who are not composers – in other words, for many of us – that reverie is especially intriguing.
Let me digress for a moment and mention Franco Donatoni, the Italian composer who died in 2000. Nothing to do with John Adams, it might seem. I performed a lot of Donatoni’s music with the Nieuw Ensemble, and I remember he told me how a woman once asked him what his profession was. His answer? I’m a compositore. Now you should know that the Italian word ‘compositore’ does not just mean ‘composer’ but also ‘typesetter’: a newspaper typesetter. Aha, replied the woman, ‘My cousin also works for the newspaper. You arrange the letters in the right order!’ Exactly, said Donatoni, ‘I’m just like a typesetter. I arrange the notes in the right order.’
Some Italian terms we musicians use every day, such as ‘staccato’ and ‘legato’.
Thinking about the music of John Adams a ‘staccato’ evokes an association with his rhythmic vitality and colour brilliance. And ‘legato’, with his gift for composing large-scale structures and moving lyrical melodies.
Yet for him, composing never becomes routine. It is an intense, partly intellectual, partly subconscious process. That’s what Adams said in a conversation with composition students at the Conservatorium in Amsterdam. I was touched by the fellow-feeling he demonstrated as he engaged with the students. His attitude wasn’t one of: “Wait till you’re as old and famous as I am”, but more of: “Indeed, it’s a real art to come up with a catchy opening and then follow it up coherently”. I was struck by the compassion he showed towards those budding composers.
John Adams is a highly esteemed and respected composer in Dutch musical life. He maintains close relationships with the Concertgebouworkest, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Schönberg Ensemble – three ensembles that over the years have performed much of his work, with the laureate himself often on the rostrum. Edo de Waart occupies a special place because in the early 1980s – almost 40 years ago – he was chief conductor with the San Francisco Orchestra. He premiered various pieces by Adams, and he encouraged him to compose large-scale works, no doubt giving the budding composer some decisive words of encouragement in the process.
That resulted in 1981 in Harmonium, an impressive composition first performed by Edo de Waart. This choral symphony is partly based on a text by – there she is again – Emily Dickinson. It’s a dazzling and ecstatic piece that calls to mind the fascinating title: I was looking at the Ceiling and then I saw the Sky, Adams’ rock opera that premiered in 1995 at UC Berkeley, directed by his trusty lieutenant Peter Sellars, and featuring a decor by graffiti artists from LA. Even though Harmonium is written for a more conventional choir and orchestra, what unfolds in the music is anything but ordinary: the heavens open and light starts to pour in.
Harmonium proved to be a key piece in the oeuvre of John Adams, rooted in the minimal music of his slightly older compatriots Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Harmonium is a work in which Adams allows himself more complexity and freedom. Like Louis Andriessen here in this country, Adams has elevated minimal music to a new level. Or, perhaps more accurately, has ushered in a new era. The basis remains the energetic movement, the sequence of repeating notes that seem to express a modern way of living: speed, activity, excitement, optimism – yet also melancholia, reflection, reverie.
He has opened up that repetitive structure to musical influences that he then could absorb. And of those there are many. A wide-ranging taste is something he grew up with. His mother excelled as an untrained singer in local musical productions. His father was a virtuoso clarinettist who passed on his love for that instrument with devotion to his son. What other contemporary composer can claim to have played with their father in a local concert band?
Classical, jazz, musical, folk, pop… even musical traditions from Asia and Latin America – Adams is an omnivore, able to distil ingredients from them all and serve them up in that appealing, typically Adamsian idiom that many performers and listeners will instantly recognize.
John Adams himself once explained that European classical music, with its 12 standard notes, is insufficient for him. The slide, the blue note – from Jimi Hendrix to Indian raga, they all distort those strictly defined notes.
‘Composing for today’ is the theme of the Erasmus Prize 2019. The board unanimously holds the view that John Adams more than lives up to this motto. After Olivier Messiaen in 1971 and Mauricio Kagel in 1998, Adams is the third composer to receive this award. His music resonates with a wide and varied audience, impacting on contemporary classical music as a whole. Adams sensitivity to what’s happening in society is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the series of operas he has been creating since 1985 with director Peter Sellars: Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic, El Niño and A Flowering Tree – each and all musical theatre productions that comment on events, political or otherwise. I was very touched by the prologue of The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera whose central theme is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the choirs of both the Palestinian and the Jewish refugees, Adams immediately demonstrates his empathy with both camps, a stance not appreciated by everybody, but to me humane and ground-breaking.
It is a great honour for me this evening to conduct the concert for John Adams, featuring three of his compositions. In the spirit of Prince Claus, the father of our King and late husband of Princess Beatrix, who 21 years ago – during an official speech – took off his tie, I do not know exactly what part of this outfit I’ll keep on.
Read by Ed Spanjaard, on behalf of the Board, 28 November 2019