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Conservatory Days

Address at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, April 22, 2004

(An address given at a benefit celebration by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to honor John Adams, April 22, 2004)

I began teaching at the Conservatory in the fall of 1972 at the age of 25. A good portion of the students in my graduate analysis seminar were older than I was. In those days the school was a humble institution and the building still very much showed the marks of its former use, a home where young homeless mothers could be with their newborn babies for a brief few weeks or months. I’ve often thought that the qualities of mercy and generosity which brought that building into existence in the first place were carried on in a particularly wonderful way when it transformed into a house of music.

Being a member of the faculty was being part of a close, sometimes eccentric family, and I think back with fondness, and laughter and—I have to be honest—sometimes with embarrassement as I remember the ten years I spent as part of it. The faculty and staff were, and I suppose still are, virtually married to their work and to their teaching. During one period of three months in what must have been the fall of 1975, I would show up at 7 AM every weekday morning to work on the synthesizer I was building. And every day I was there at the same hour I could hear Paul Hersh practicing the “Hammerklavier” sonata through the thin walls. In fact the peculiar sound of the Conservatory, with its endless continuum of music emerging from all directions at all times of day, has—now that I think of it—been responsible for a certain hallmark of my musical style. I doubt anyone else who had not spent 10 years in that building could have thought up “Grand Pianola Music” or the ballet “The Red Detachment of Women” in Nixon in China.

Milton Salkind hired me fresh out of graduate school. I had left the East Coast to see what life might be like in California. At the time Milton invited me to come for an interview I was working in a huge warehouse on the Oakland waterfront with the memorable name of “Regal Apparel”. I had started out as a “lumper”, that is, one of those poor guys who unload huge container trucks by hand and put them onto forklifts. Then it was discovered I could read, and I was given a less aerobically beneficial job of counting boxes, weighing them and addressing them to the various Sears and Roebucks around the country. I took the Conservatory interview not expecting to get the job, but Milton, always looking for a bargain, offered me a position that amounted to roughly $7000 a year for what was easily a sixty-hour week.

Over the course of ten years I had the great luxury, the great adventure of being able to teach pretty much anything I was interested in. It was a unique aspect of the school that faculty would be urged to step out of their routine fields of expertise and teach something that challenged them as well as their students. Piano faculty taught courses in the novel or poetry, and others taught philosophy and art. How many colleges or conservatories in the country would be as bold as to foster that kind of atmosphere?

I taught new music and composition (of course). But I also taught orchestration, analysis, a course on opera (about which I’d known absolutely nothing in advance), and I even had a clarinet student at one point.

I’m not entirely certain I was a very good teacher, but I do know that the ten years I spent at the Conservatory constituted the major part of my own education as a musician, and I know that I could not have become the composer that I am were it not for having been caught up in that crazy maelstrom of life at the school.

I started out as a card-carrying follower of John Cage, continuing a tradition of outlandish avant garde concerts that had already made the school famous and infamous. But over the following ten years, I had incredible moments of discovery, usually in the presence of some fellow faculty member or an enlightened student. That way I learned the complexities and passion of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto with Mack McCray and the sweep of the entire Beethoven sonatas with Paul Hersh. It was a Conservatory student, Jeff Kahane, who first introduced me to Schumann’s C major Fantasy and Camilla Wicks who showed me in our collaboration with the school orchestra on the Brahms concerto, what a true big-time virtuoso was all about. It was Alden Jenks, who taught electronic music and shared my love of early Stockhausen tape pieces, who made the life-changing suggestion that perhaps Wagner too was worthy of some attention.

And the students changed me irrevocably. I know it’s a cliché to say, “we learn from our students”. Of course we do. But I learned even more. I learned humility, came to understand that a gift for music, genuine talent is unfairly doled out by nature as it is in athletics. But that talent has so many manifestations that sheer technical skill is only one embodiment. A love for music, a life in music, can take so many different forms, and during my time at the Conservatory I saw it blossom in a myriad different ways. In these times when material acquisition and marketing principles so profoundly drive the collective psyche of our country, those of us who practice an art in order to give sheer pleasure and poetry to others are in short supply. When I see a young student willing to embark on a life of hard work with little promise of much financial gain all in the love of making art, I am really humbled.

So I am more than honored to be here tonight. It rounds a beautiful circle in my soul to see so many faces I recognize and to think back with such fondness and gratitude for all that this wonderful institution has given to me.

John Adams
April, 2004

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