A Conversation with John Adams: “I’m not sure what art does.”

The world premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary, by John Adams, takes place tonight. Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic, LA Master Chorale, and soloists in this evening-length oratorio (135 minutes, in two acts) about the final days of Jesus’ life.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with John Adams, for a chat about the new work. You can hear the audio of our interview at the KUSC blog…or download it as a podcast here.

Below is a transcript of our interview. I’m really looking forward to this concert. I’ll be there Friday night.

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BL: Over the weekend you visited Skid Row, for an event called “Walk the Talk.” I’m just curious if you could tell me a little bit about that experience.

JA: Peter Sellars has friends who are involved in the LAPD, otherwise known as the Los Angeles Poverty Department, which is a community theater group essentially centered around Skid Row activities. We were invited to come down and join a get-together which basically turned out be a parade—it was very festive—centered around the various locations in Skid Row where people have done exceptionally generous things like create clinics, or soup kitchens, or places where people can go and bathe. So, there was a marching band, people from the area, and little skits in front of each one of these places. It was wonderful because we’re doing an oratorio which is essentially about homeless people, poor people. That’s what drew me to this story—the story of the adult Jesus—was this realization that he spent his entire adult life amongst what we today would call “the homeless.” And so, to bring our entire cast down: the woman who is singing Mary Magdalene [mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor], [tenor] Russell Thomas who is singing Lazarus, and Tammy Mumford who is Martha. It had a huge effect on them to be in this environment, where the smells are potent and the sights are extremely disturbing.

BL: I think of the proximity of this great building [Walt Disney Concert Hall] to Skid Row. It’s not far.

JA: That’s always been life. I’m sure that where Beethoven heard his Symphonies (or Mozart) was probably only a stone’s throw away from some place where very diseased people were. One of the terrible ironies of life is that there is unfair and, for me, unacceptable inequality in society. And one of the driving factors of my composing this piece—something I was constantly aware of when I was writing it—was that inequality in the United States is not improving, it’s getting worse.

BL: You were writing this piece during the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement and you’ve been very candid about your political beliefs and your religious and spiritual beliefs—or however you characterize those aspects of who you are as a person. And I’m curious if you view a work like this through the lens of some sort of social activism.

JA: I’m not one who thinks that art can change society. I guess I disagree with my friend Peter Sellars there, who does believe that art really should be at the service of social justice. I’m not sure what art does. I know that it’s impossible to imagine life without it. Anyone’s life would be horribly impoverished without art. Yet it seems to me if you really want to help people and improve their lives, the most efficient thing to do is to go right to the real issues, which are economic. And I think for artists to believe that their musical compositions or their plays or their poems or novels can have a really potent political effect is probably a bit overly optimistic.

BL: You’ve talked about this work—and others have said this work is sort of a companion piece to El Niño. How much of a link is there between the two works and would you prefer it if we were talking about this piece on its own? Some people have even said this is like a sequel to El Niño.

JA: I did originally think of what I call The Other Mary as a companion piece to El Niño and I still think of it as a diptych. I think “sequel” is probably not right—it sounds too much like George Lucas. But it is the adult Jesus and, whereas there was violence and darkness in El Niño: there’s probably nothing in the Bible quite as horrifying as Herod’s command to kill all the children to preserve his own power, which constitutes the main theme of the second half of El Niño. But despite that, El Niño is of course very, very good news. It’s the nativity story. The Other Mary is a much darker piece. As it has to be, because it’s Christ’s awareness of the fact that he’s going to leave this earth, he’s going to leave these people, and it involves the death or the supposed death of Lazarus—a body that, according to the Gospel, was so far into decomposition that the smell was almost unbearable. And yet this man comes back from what we would call a near-death experience. Then of course there’s the crucifixion, so necessarily it’s a darker and more complex piece. Nonetheless, there are a lot of links. The most obvious is the use of the three countertenors, which was an idea I had—I don’t know where the idea came from. I used three female voices to be Chairman Mao’s secretaries in Nixon in China and I think that idea came from Ray Charles. [laughs] But, I use the countertenors sort of as a narrative force, the way Bach uses the Evangelist to move things forward in his Passions. Musically, there are some links. I think probably the way I write for chorus [is similar], but this is a far more chromatic, far more shaded, and for me a far more experimental score.

BL: You mention Bach, and you mention the word “Passion” just now speaking of others’ work. You don’t use the word “Passion” to describe this piece. Is there anything about that word, I mean, that word to me conjures up so many great things of the past—or even something as recent as [Osvaldo] Golijov’s Passion of St. Mark. Is there anything daunting about that word?

JA: No, I just avoided using the word “Passion,” because so many others had recently. Including Osvaldo, but also Sofia Gubaidulina, Wolfgang Rihm, and not to mention that other guy, what’s his name? J.S. Bach.

BL: [laughs] Right. But you’ve talked about looking at ancient art that is depicting some of these scenes, where you have these great moments in religious history juxtaposed with everyday life.

JA: I was very affected by looking at certain medieval depictions of the Passion, particularly the crucifixion. Because, in quite a few of them you realize you are looking at a snapshot of contemporary life from let’s say 1400 or 1500. There’ll be a crucifixion portrait but you see essentially a Flemish village or a small town in Normandy and you see people going about their daily lives while this horrible event is happening. And I think this is part of both Peter [Sellars] and my impulse to weave a contemporary story into this Passion. And our story is—it’s a very California story in a way because it involves women who have been essentially beaten up by the authorities or by the police. The oratorio begins with a text by the Catholic progressive activist Dorothy Day, describing being in a jail cell. She’d been arrested for protesting at a labor strike and she’d been thrown into a jail cell and the woman in the cell next door is having horrible heroin withdrawal and is banging her head against the wall. So this oratorio starts right out at a very high level of emotional intensity and outrage. And then it moves on from there.

BL: Well, talk a little bit more about the juxtaposition of present day—we’ve talked about the social context, but that’s something that Peter Sellars always does such a masterful job of. He always has a way of making that extra political statement that is so in synch with what we’re talking about in America today. And he does that again here with his libretto.

JA: I think that this libretto is really quite ingenious. It’s a little bit like the libretto that Peter assembled for me for Doctor Atomic, in that it interweaves ancient sources—in the case of Doctor Atomic we have the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita, John Donne, and Baudelaire—with contemporary very edgy American language. In the case of Doctor Atomic we had scientists talking about the bomb. In The Other Mary there’s the Gospel language and there’s also some verses that I’ve set from the Old Testament—mostly from Isaiah. But then there are these texts that have the texture and the feel of contemporary life and that brings home this very important point which is that Jesus spent his time with the helpless. Unfortunately, we have all these problematic words like “the meek.” This was always a sentence I had difficulty with: “The meek shall inherit the earth.” And of course these are archaic terms from the era of the King James Bible, but what’s really meant is the poor, the helpless. I’ll say it over and over because for me it’s the most important point—maybe even more so than the resurrection itself—which is, the deep compassion and understanding that Jesus has for the helpless. If anybody asks me that awful question, which I’m frequently asked, which I usually can’t answer: “What should I take home from this experience?” I think I can say something this time: “I hope you can take home just a little more awareness of the need for generosity and for compassion.”

BL: I did want to ask you a little bit about next season, because this will be staged a year from now. What are you anticipating will happen then? Have you had conversations about that yet?

JA: [laughs] I haven’t a clue what Peter Sellars is going to do. He’s been at every single rehearsal for the last two weeks and I know that his cogs and wheels are turning and that he’s thinking things as he listens to the music and watches what’s going on, but I don’t know what he’s going to do and he probably doesn’t at this point. This has been an exceptional privilege for me because most composers get—especially for a work of this scope involving full symphony orchestra, chorus, and soloists—you get one crack at it. You get a week of rehearsals, then the piece gets done, and then that’s it. In my case I have the incredible luxury of this rehearsal period, then a concert performance without staging, and then everybody can let it marinate for a year. I can go back and perhaps and tweak things that didn’t quite come off right this time and we bring it back in a year and I’m sure that every aspect of it—the performance level, the depths of the characterizations, and Gustavo Dudamel’s understanding of the piece (he’s essentially as new to it as anyone else and a conductor needs time for a work to get into his consciousness). So this will be a very great and rare privilege for a composer to get another group of performances a year later.

BL: Well, you sort of got that with City Noir didn’t you? Same season, but at least a few months later.

JA: I did. The only regrettable thing was the recording that was made, was of the very, very, very first performance and there were still wrong notes in the parts that I hadn’t had time to fix. Everybody was hanging on for dear life because it’s an incredibly difficult piece. But the Philharmonic brought it back a couple months after the opening and they did four more performances here and then they took it on tour, so they own the piece now.

BL: Your role as Creative Chair. How much longer does that continue? Do you get to basically decide how long you hang out here with the LA Philharmonic?

JA: [laughs] Well, as they say, I serve at the honor of the President. We’re kind of a big family here and we enjoy working together. I think that the artistic staff here at the Philharmonic is absolutely—there’s just no other organization in the country that has as wide a bandwidth of interest. Everything from Baroque music up to the Brooklyn festival that we’re putting together with all these twenty-something composers. I enjoy being part of this long tradition of commitment [to new music]. And it’s only a 50-minte plane ride for me down from the Bay Area, so it’s been a wonderful experience. I also have an equally wonderful relationship with the San Francisco Symphony and with MTT, so I feel tremendously privileged to have these two organizations to think up things to do with.

BL: Finally, what’s it like before a premiere of a big piece like this and you have to do these sorts of interviews and chats with people like us? And you have to talk about this music. At some point, do you ever find yourself saying, “Well, just wait. Just listen to it. Wait a couple days and then let’s talk.”

JA: It’s very hard to talk about a piece before it’s been performed. It’s even difficult to talk about it immediately afterwards. I write a great deal. I enjoy writing. I enjoy writing about my own music. But I need the perspective of a year or more to know a piece. In this case it’s particularly difficult, because this is a story that has to do with very deep spiritual matters.  And to come up with sound bites or to try to say in a paragraph what my theological view is or who I think Jesus is when I’m not even certain myself, it’s very difficult.

BL: Well, thank you for your time, I really appreciate it.

JA: Pleasure.

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