Musical Founding Father

“Nixon in China” composer John C. Adams ’69 returns to a changed Harvard for award

When eminent composer John C. Adams ’69, the somewhat reluctant winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music, returns to Harvard this weekend to receive the 2007 Harvard Arts Medal, he’ll find a campus fundamentally different from the one he attended during the late ’60s.

“I think back on the anxiety and fear because of the war and the immense exhilaration of counter-culture and the explosion of popular music,” says Adams. “I could turn on the radio at any time and listen to great AM music from Bob Dylan to the Beach Boys.”

Harvard was not immune to the upheaval of the era—in April of 1969, Adams’s graduating year, the Crimson had this to report: “More than 400 policemen charged University Hall early this morning and forcibly—and sometimes violently—removed several hundred students who were occupying the building. Between 250 and 300 people were arrested in the raid, and nearly 75 students were injured.”

It was amidst this tumultuous backdrop that Adams, the composer of operas such as “Nixon in China,” and “Dr. Atomic,” began to hone his creative abilities as well as gain a sense of self.

‘AN URGE TO REBEL’

Despite being a native New Englander and sharing the name of another well-known Harvard alumnus, Adams did not always make it his goal to come here.

“Neither of my parents graduated from college,” Adams recalls. “[College] came up as just sort of a wish.”

In his youth, Adams took up the clarinet. Upon graduating from high school in 1965, he had already mastered the instrument.

“It’s a well-kept secret, but the clarinet is a rather easy instrument to master,” Adams adds humbly.

Feeling that there was little for him to learn at a conservatory, and urged by parents deprived of college education to build a broad base of knowledge, Adams enrolled at Harvard, having already worked with some professors in the music department before his arrival.

“The first month or so was high anxiety with high hopes of scholarly ambition,” Adams says.

He enrolled in a course on ancient Greek, hoping to be able to read Classical texts soon. Adams failed the course that first semester, and stayed away from Classics from then on, focusing instead on his passion for music.

Adams studied under Leon Kirchner, a professor of musical composition and composer who Adams says had a definitive impact on his education at Harvard, for better and for worse.

“He was tall, very handsome. Terribly serious. He didn’t have much interest or connection with American popular music,” Adams says of Kirchner. “We would study contemporary classical music and try to come to terms with a style that was so dissonant and then go back to our rooms and listen to Jimi Hendrix. I felt an urge to rebel.”

Adams adds, “[Kirchner] himself felt that no matter what he did he’d never be as good as Shubert and passed that onto the students. It became a form of self-flagellation, kills the creative spirit, and was incipient in his teaching.”

Despite this, Adams has words of praise for his taskmaster: “His seriousness is something I’ve taken with me. He was someone who truly did believe in the greatness of great art.”

THE BEATLES AS ROSETTA STONE

Much of Adams’s musical education came from outside the classroom, he says.

“I didn’t go to a lot of classes,” he says, although he graduated magna cum laude.

He filled his time with listening to popular records of the day, he says.

“I learned harmony by listening to the Beatles and John Coltrane, then playing,” Adams recalls.

He vividly remembers the day in early June of 1967 when the Beatles released their seminal album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

“I remember waiting in a long line in front of the Coop for the record store to open,” he says. “We all hurried back to our dorms to play it then to parse through it like it was the Rosetta Stone.”

Adams readily admits to being influenced by the music of his generation, saying, “American composers brought up on rock and pop are more comfortable with electronic instruments and a really powerful, identifiable pulse.”

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY

Besides studying music, Adams also conducted the Bach Society Orchestra and would often serve as a substitute clarinetist for the Boston Symphony.

He remembers the weight of his responsibilities coming down on him one night during rehearsals, saying he alleviated his anxiety by sitting in a snow bank outside Payne Hall until his pants became wet.

“The stress and anxiety that students feel are actually inoculating them for later in life,” Adams says, recalling his hectic college days.

As an undergraduate, Adams was far from immune to bad reviews, with one Crimson critic writing in 1967, “The Bach Society Orchestra concert was the major disappointment of last week’s musical offerings. Many heads could roll when a collective effort like this goes awry, but the conductor, John Adams is the one who must stand in the dock.”

“I remember being just shocked and upset,” Adams says of that concert and its reception. “It was the first time I ever got a real stinker.”

However, the harsh words would prepare him for the world outside Harvard.

Reviewing “Nixon in China” 20 years later, a New York Times critic wrote, “Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald’s did for the hamburger, grinding out one simple idea unto eternity.”

Though the review was harsh, Adams says it “was a laugher.”

“That guy was an old fogey,” he says of the reviewer, saying that the Times tends to “promote the most conservative reviewers to the position of chief reviewer.”

WRITING AND DRAFT-DODGING

In his senior year, Adams petitioned the music department to allow him to write a composition for his senior thesis, making him the first student at the College to do so.

“It wasn’t hard,” Adams says, adding that in the late ’60s, the faculty was generally intimidated by students, many of whom had recently taken over University Hall.

“Many times, the students took advantage of the state of emergency,” Adams says wryly.

His thesis was anything but traditional.

“I wrote a song cycle based on psychedelic poetry. Hopefully, it’s buried in Widener, never to be exhumed,” he says.

Two months before graduating, Adams received a draft notice.

“I do remember trying to beat the draft during reading period,” he says. On a combination of No-Doz, caffeine, over-the-counter-drugs, and other substances, Adams tried to stay up for days prior to his medical screening to make the army doctor believe he had some type of disorder.

“I had destroyed my nervous system on no sleep, controlled substances and looked like a frightful mess,” he says.

Noticing something amiss, the army doctor asked Adams to return for repeated visits.

Adams had 15 physicals in total. On this extended regiment of no sleep, Adams recalls a particularly harrowing incident.

“I walked out of my house and onto Mass Avenue and [saw] a mass of soldiers coming towards me.”

Having not slept in days, Adams panicked, thinking the troops were there to conscript him. Only later, in a more coherent state, did he realize it was Memorial Day and the soldiers were war veterans on parade.

In the end, Adams received a medical deferment thanks to his frazzled state.

“I’m not proud of it,” Adams says of his deferment. He adds, “ It was a terrible war.”

After graduating, Adams attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, then left the East Coast in 1972.

“I had been at Harvard for six years. I really wanted to get away,” he says. “I had been reading Beat literature, so I went to Haight-Ashbury instead of going to Europe to study with some German composer. I went the opposite direction.”

It would be a time of immense creative growth for Adams.

“I spent my twenties in wanderlust being ill defined. I didn’t write my first mature piece until my thirties,” he recalls.

‘APPALLING’ NEW TRENDS

With two children in college, Adams ruminates on the current trend of graduating students going into business.

“I think it’s appalling, that there’s a panicky assumption that if you don’t start on an upwardly mobile attempt that you’re going to miss the boat,” he says.

Following his period of self-discovery and creative maturation, Adams went on to compose minimalist-inspired symphonic orchestrations, including the ever-popular “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”

Today, Adams is well known for composing historically-based operas like “Nixon in China” and “Dr. Atomic,” a work based on the life of Robert Oppenheimer.

“I love to probe the essence of the American psyche,” Adams says of his operas. “We’re the Rome, the big guy on the block and we have a complex about our power.”

In 2003, Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work, “On The Transmigration of Souls,” a piece commissioned by the New York Philharmonic honoring the victims of September 11, 2001.

“Suddenly everyone knew who I was, much to my embarrassment,” Adams says of his win. He adds that the award had lost much of its prestige as it was primarily given out to “academic composers” who wrote music notated for conventional orchestrations, mostly college professors.

Adams cites the fact that the Pulitzers denied Duke Ellington the award for Music as grounds for how narrow the Pulitzer Committee is in awarding the prize.

RETURNING CHAMPION

Now much acclaimed, Adams will return to a much tamer campus than that of his college days to accept the Harvard Arts Medal. In addition to delivering a lecture on his life’s work, Adams hopes to revisit the stimulating atmosphere that nourished his artistic impulses.

“The friends I made at Harvard and the kind of intellectual and spiritual exploration I took, they formed my life,” Adams says. “I don’t think of it as Harvard. It’s the locus from which my consciousness evolved.”

—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at abcohn@fas.harvard.edu.