Composer John Adams

The Saturday Wall Street Journal has started a regular weekly feature called “Creating,” that focuses on a different creator each week. Featured today (January 8-9, 2011) is composer John Adams, and I found it interesting because so much of what he says aligns with the perspectives on creativity I argue in my writings.

He refers to the myth about Mozart composing in a burst of romantic-era inspiration and finishing works just minutes before the premiere (it’s not true), and says it is “the worst possible model for any composer who hopes to get a decent performance of his or her own music.”

In preparing to work on a new composition, he exposes himself to a wide range of potentially related material. In writing his opera “Doctor Atomic,” about Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear bomb, he spent four years doing research on the topic.

For his most famous piece, “Nixon in China,” he’s still making small changes to the work, even though it was first performed 25 years ago. This practice has been quite common among composers going back hundreds of years. (Again, challenging our romantic beliefs in the wild burst of inspiration.) And like many historical composers, Adams collaborates with his players by listening to their suggestions and occasionally changing the work.