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Culture

Composer John Adams talks about his past

Classical composer John Adams talks about his early days in San Francisco in this audio cast from the online version of the New Yorker.

This week's New Yorker magazine has an outstanding autobiographical piece by composer John Adams, best known for his operas such as 1987's Nixon in China and 2005's Doctor Atomic. While he's an established composer now, back in 1972 he was just another nearly-broke artist with strong a strong bent toward the experimental. Of course, he ended up in San Francisco.

The piece has many scenes that will ring true to any musician who's tried to create something new rather than going for pop gold...the blue-collar day job and attendant financial problems...the underground gigs in abandoned buildings...the realization that the only people attending your shows are other musicians in the same genre, and that incorporating things like melody, harmony, and dynamics might not necessarily mean you're a sellout. But my favorite section was his description of how he had to build his own electronic musical instruments:

In the predigital seventies, electronic music came either from the manipulation of tape recorders or from oscillators whose sensitivity to heat made them capricious. On the typical day, I'd spend...the evening huddled in my office with a soldering iron, my desktop covered with resistors, capacitors, wires, and circuit-board chips that I had scrounged at a flea market near the Oakland airport. I eventually emerged with the Studebaker, a homemade modular synthesizer that featured a bank of intermittently truant oscillators, filters, ring modulators, and a primitive sampling device. Housed in a heavy redwood case, it was comically bulky.

Take that, all you kids with your Macbooks and Kaoss pads!

The full piece isn't available online--Adams is planning a full-length book autobiography, and I imagine he or his publisher didn't want part of the book online for free--but the Web site does have a 17-minute audio interview in which he talks about his roots.