Composer John Adams puts his notes on Post-its before ‘City Noir’ premiere


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Upon opening the door to his office at Walt Disney Concert Hall after the Los Angeles Philharmonic‘s Wednesday morning rehearsal of his new work, ‘City Noir,’ composer John Adams, the philharmonic’s new creative chair, seemed slightly embarrassed by the array of scribbled Post-it notes stuck to a table in the middle of the room and hastily began to gather them up.

No, it’s not his grocery lists or phone messages; Post-its, Adams explains, are the easiest way to keep track of the thoughts he has yet to communicate to the philharmonic musicians and their new leader, Gustavo Dudamel, before Thursday night’s premiere of Adams’ L.A.-inspired composition ‘City Noir.’ The score he holds is also peppered with the little pieces of yellow paper.


Even this close to the unveiling of ‘City Noir,’ there’s still room for improvement. ‘I’m making some small changes, what I call ‘battlefield triage’ things,’ said Adams, a Bay Area resident who will commute to L.A. in his new post as creative chair. ‘Those usually have to do with balance. When I first heard ‘City Noir’ [in rehearsal] last Thursday, it seemed like all I could hear was the percussion and the low brass. So I went in and I made a lot of changes in terms of piano and forte and things like that.’

Added Adams, ‘What I can’t do at this point is a structural change; if I were to realize that this part is too long or this part needs to be extended, you can’t do that. That’s like halting a skyscraper construction project to add another floor. I can do that at a later time — but not now.’

(As it happens, Adams will get another chance in the not-too-distant future: ‘City Noir’ will be performed again during the philharmonic’s ‘West Coast, Left Coast’ festival celebrating California music, Nov. 21- Dec. 8, which will be curated by Adams. But he’s not predicting any major changes: ‘I’m pretty satisfied,’ he said.)

This isn’t the first time the 62-year-old Adams -- a Pulitzer Prize winner for his ‘Transmigration of Souls’ (2002), a choral piece commemorating the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- has sweated it out with an orchestra (and Post-its) before the premiere of a new piece. In fact, Adams composed another California-inspired work also commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic, ‘The Dharma at Big Sur,’ which premiered at the second gala marking the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003.

Still, the composer says, the premiere of a commission never gets any easier. ‘It’s like bearing a royal heir; everybody’s watching and everybody’s attendant at the birth. The piece ideally ought to be perfect on its first outing, and that’s just too much to ask of a new piece of music, unless the composer just simply took the easy route and played to his or her strengths.’

‘I never want to do that. I want to make my music an opportunity to extend myself, and my language.’

— Diane Haithman