A composer moves opera into the future

John Adams looks for a stylistic revolution from the next generation of composers.

Often called America's greatest living composer, John Adams says he wrote his memoir, "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life," for the next generation of musicians, the 20-year-olds struggling with doubt about the viability of a life in art. The Berkeley-based musician wants them to know it is possible to survive the drubbings of a pioneer relatively intact. "We ignore the good reviews and fret about the bad ones," he laughs.

But he understands that he is trying to move an art form forward, one that often finds itself mired in the past. "There are many who just want to experience the old chestnuts and don't want to see opera as a living art form," he says. At the same time, he says he has great optimism about the future.

"This is a potentially transformational generation," he says, pointing to the profound changes that have taken place during the arc of his career. "Back when I was just starting out, if I wanted to listen to music from Bali or Ghana or Turkey, I would have had to search out anthropological recordings or go to the Library of Congress." Now, he says, the group of emerging young musicians can tap into musical influences from anywhere in the world at the click of a Google search.

He expects a stylistic revolution to arise from this access because, as he points out, the defining contribution of 20th-century composers such as Stravinsky, Copland, and Bartók was their ability to expand the musical palette beyond the established canon. While a wide range of influences is valuable, Adams says, he is most moved by "sincerity."

He shares the concerns of many about the lack of musical education in US elementary and secondary schools, as well as the short attention spans that can derail both the ability to absorb musical art or deter the creation of meaningful work.

He points to his own recent encounter with a team creating musical clips for YouTube. After he "sketched" a piece for them, they sat down for what he called his "first product evaluation." He says they were not happy with what he'd written.

"I asked them what they expected, and they responded that they wanted something classical, something with a nice melody like Mozart." And "to the point." Visitors usually don't stay longer than half a minute, he says. "I'm working on an art form that requires sustained concentration and that creates cognitive dissonance in a YouTube environment."

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