American composer John Adams celebrates his 70th birthday in February, and opera houses and concert halls across the country (and around the globe) will be celebrating with performances of his works, including a new opera, Girls of the Golden West, premiering at the San Francisco Opera in the fall. I spoke to Mr. Adams by phone on one of his breaks from composing the new work; he sounded frazzled, but thoughtfully answered my questions with warmth and thorough detail.

RL: Well, first of all, happy 70th birthday! Scheherazade.2, according to Bachtrack's global statistics for the year 2016, was one of the most-performed pieces of contemporary music, so to start off, I was wondering if you could talk about the piece, both in its musical content as well as the narrative content that is obviously meant to empower women?

© Vern Adams
© Vern Adams
JA: I'm really very pleased and humbled by the fact that it was performed so often because it's 50 minutes long and that usually is a major obstacle for classical music. For most people in the US, the only knowledge they have is the tone poem by Rimsky-Korsakov, but of course she's the figure who appears in 1001 Nights, the great Arabic collection of stories. So she's an archetype and I very much respond to archetypal people or events, because I think it's really a modern form of mythology. And archetypes are what I would describe as a constellation of characteristics and of different meanings.

I thought, what would a modern Scheherazade be like? A woman who really fought back, which we've seen in the world, and sometimes the results are just awful: a woman being stoned to death or executed or physically beaten—but it's something that we've seen; we've seen it in the Arab Spring and in our own country with women marching, and women taking control of their safety on college campuses. I don't want to get too banal about it, but it is a movement that's happening now, so I just wanted to write a piece that was on the one hand a big virtuoso Romantic concerto, but then on the other hand had a distinctively modern narrative to it.

I wrote it for Leila [Josefowicz], whom I've known for about 20 years, and who is a really remarkable person. She had a difficult childhood because you know, growing up as a concert violinist is like growing up as a tennis star. You're so completely locked into this daily punishing routine that there is an aspect of oppression. Now she's at this point where she just lets it rip and she's got this fantastic sense of freedom and empowerment. It's really thrilling to write something for somebody and have it become part of their DNA, so to speak.

Has she been the sole performer of the work?

So far she's the only one, because it's a gigantic piece—it's like learning Hamlet. And no one yet has taken it up. But I know they eventually will, but I really think it's a piece that should only be played by a woman. I hope I don't get bashed for gender discrimination for that.

This year there will be many performances of your works, both old and new – how do you hear your musical language as having changed over the years?

I stay in very close touch with almost all my works because I conduct them. I'm aware that my style and my language has evolved over the years. Minimalism is a very pure and rigorous musical language, very much like minimalist sculpture and painting. From the start I felt a much stronger impetus towards dramatic surprise. While I love a lot of things about minimalism, I felt that it was a little too emotionally monochromatic. With my own music I wanted to create a language that was capable of more fluid emotional life… And over the years I've tried to develop a more varied harmonic language.

© Deborah O'Grady
© Deborah O'Grady
Is there a work of yours that you'd like to see programmed more?

The good pieces tend to get played a lot, and the ones that don't get played a lot… well, those really aren't the strongest pieces. I'm very grateful that at least among living composers I probably get more performances than almost anyone.

According to Bachtrack's statistics, you're actually number three; I think Arvo Pärt was number one.

Yeah, he's very popular.

Do you have a least favorite composition you've written?

Of mine? I do, but I won't say what it is.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the new opera, Girls of the Golden West, and what it's been like collaborating with Peter Sellars again.

I always work with Peter because he has an incredible theatrical mind, and most of [our collaborations] engage with social issues. I don't like to be called a political composer but I don't mind being called an engaged artist.

I've lived in California for two thirds of my life and I have a little cabin up in the Sierras where this story took place. There are parallels between the Gold Rush and present-day Silicon Valley that I find very amusing. There's a keen resonance between the frantic, hectic desire for wealth that happened here in northern California in the 1850s and what's going on right now. It was very interesting to be composing this opera during the campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, because what I discovered in reading about the Gold Rush was that there was an enormous amount of racism and prejudice against Mexicans, Chinese, Native Americans, Black people. As soon as people realized that they weren't gonna get rich, when they realized that there wasn't as much gold as they'd been led to believe through reading "fake news", they blamed people's color.

If someone asked you to write an opera about Donald Trump, would you?

Like I said, I'm interested in archetypes, and to me Donald Trump is an archetype of a sociopath, a person who is completely incapable of empathizing, and also I guess a narcissist as well. I suppose at some point I could do that, but he's so omnipresent that there's no point in making a serious work of art about him.

Performance of <i>Nixon in China</i> by Royal Swedish Opera, October 2016 © Markus Gårder | Royal Swedish Opera
Performance of Nixon in China by Royal Swedish Opera, October 2016
© Markus Gårder | Royal Swedish Opera
It's interesting that you wouldn't call yourself a political composer, when works like The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China have stirred political debates, even protests. What do you see as the political possibilities for classical music?

I don't know. There's always going to be an aspect of classical music that's elite entertainment, paying hefty prices to listen to Beethoven and Mahler, sort of like going to the same museum and seeking out the same Rembrandts and Van Goghs that you've seen before. But whether there's a way for contemporary classical music to engage with the political and social and psychological aspects of our existence, yes, I think that there is a future for that.

A few years ago in a New York Times interview, you referred to the “vacuous and superficial” music of the younger generation of composers. Do you have any advice for contemporary classical composers, particularly regarding accessibility?

I wasn't speaking about an entire generation of composers, I was just speaking about some young composers who I felt were indifferent to the legacy from the past, and were so dazzled by pop music and pop culture that they hadn't informed themselves about all the great works of the past. I should have worded my thinking a little more elegantly.

I love American culture, but I fear that this country at times, kind of like what we've just seen with the Trump thing, has a streak of anti-intellectualism. It's hard to say these things without sounding like an old fart, but I feel them very deeply! I think that the fundamental disciplines, like learning to hear and really developing your ear, are fundamental to the experience of being an artist.

You can find upcoming John Adams events here.