Composing and Instrument Knowledge

Guest John Adams   [Website]
Episode #2A
Original Air Date February 4, 2006
What to write about the incomparable John Adams? He's certainly one of my favorite composers, and he's one of my favorite people to boot. I have known him for a number of years, having sat next to him during many a concert and chatted about music and musicians. I have known his music for much longer, of course, having been blown away by Short Ride in a Fast Machine as a student in the 80's, and having subsequently explored and adored much more of his music. I remember vividly hearing his piano concerto Century Rolls for the first time. The sensation was one I hadn't felt in a long time — the sort of excitement I had as a child discovering a Mozart concerto, the overwhelming desire to dig my fingers deep into it. It was a few years before the opportunity arose, but when it did I was deliriously happy. It was the first piano work of John's that I was learning, and that meant my fingers needed to learn a whole new language. I started preparing months ahead of time, and I admit it was uphill at first. When you 'learn' a new composer, it takes time, patience, and much practice before his or her soundscape becomes a natural outgrowth of your physical movement. This happens with Brahms or Bach just as much as with a contemporary composer — the difference is that you probably learned Bach's language while you were still a child and languages still came easily. I remember sitting at the piano, staring intently at the opening pages of Century Rolls, unable to figure out how to incorporate the correct pitches into the correct rhythmic patterns both at the same time. It was one or the other. I had no physical/digital connection to it, though I listened to the recording incessantly and loved the piece. But, as these things do, one day it clicked. I had spent the requisite time in the composer's brain, and suddenly it all made sense. I felt I could finally properly make music with those delightfully quirky rhythms and ear-pleasing pitches. The story ends well, because although the first time the composer heard me play his work was in concert at Carnegie Hall in my orchestral debut there (no pressure), I believe he was quite pleased (whew!). It was the sort of reaction one hopes for from all those creators one adores and works so hard to be worthy of playing. John Adams speaks as brilliantly as he composes, and so was a natural choice for our question about whether a composer needs to be able to play the instruments for which he's writing. My producer, Lauralyn Hogan, enjoyed putting his voice together with the bits from Lollapalooza, which is one of my favorite works of his. I love a great composer with a sense of humor!
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