John Adams

Photo: Christine Alicino/Courtesy of Nonesuch

What are your first cultural memories?
My father played in big bands, and my mother, who was less trained but probably had the greater natural talent, was a jazz singer. My earliest memories are of watching them rehearse. I remember the first two LPs that we had: Leopold Stokowski conducting the “1812 Overture,” and Bozo the Clown Conducts Favorite Circus Marches.

What did you like as a teenager?
The first week I was in college, I went to see the Beatles movie Help!, and of course I was drawn into that music. I even interviewed the rock group Cream, with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, for the Harvard Crimson. That was the period when Miles Davis was changing from straight-ahead bop to modal jazz and moving off into fusion. And Herbie HancockMaiden Voyage, Cantaloupe Island.

Did you like musical theater then?
I was weaned on that stuff because my mother sang it, and my first appearance as a performer was as the little boy who opens South Pacific. I had to wear a sarong on a freezing November night in New Hampshire.

And now? What’s on your iPod?
Before my son went off to college last month, he loaded it with twenty hours of stuff. Everything he put on there, from Brad Mehldau to Radiohead to Sibelius to Debussy to Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett—it was just amazing. The only bad thing was Frank Zappa.

How about books?
I hate to say it, but I’ve read War and Peace twice because it’s just such a damn good book. I went through a part of Don Quixote in Spanish—but it was just such hard work. And I read a lot of contemporary literature. Russell Banks, Philip Roth, Barbara Kingsolver—I think The Poisonwood Bible has the feeling of Moby-Dick, its depth and power.

I like Fellini and Bergman and Kurosawa, but I also have extremely fond places in my heart for The Blues Brothers or The Big Lebowski.

Do you watch TV? Any other diversions?
The Daily Show—that’s about it. I need to get my news, fake news. And I’m a serious Oakland A’s fan—I have season tickets. Heartbreakers.

What’s the first opera you ever saw?
[Laughs] Aïda. It’s like something out of Dickens: When I was 16, I got a letter in very shaky handwriting, and out came a check for $100. It was from a man who had grown up in New Hampshire and lived at 1 Sutton Place. He had read an article in some local newspaper about me, and he invited me to hear the Met. So my parents put me on a Greyhound bus. I stayed at the Y. I was met by his wife—who told me in completely unexcited tones that he’d had a heart attack and was in the hospital. So she said “I’ll take you.” It was with Birgit Nilsson and Richard Tucker, and I absolutely hated it. I just thought it was the most hideous thing I’d ever heard or seen. But I behaved well.

“In Your Ear” Festival
Composed and curated by John Adams
Carnegie Hall, November 11 Through 14

John Adams