The Trickster of Modern Music : Composer John Adams Keeps Reinventing Himself, to Wilder and Wilder Applause

<i> Richard Stayton is a free-lance writer and playwright whose last story for the magazine was about impresario Reza Abdoh. </i>

John Adams is home from the wars. A veteran of art’s most grueling campaign--the creation of a contemporary opera--he has a wound to show for it: tendinitis in his right shoulder. He hurt himself by composing for more than 18 months, seven days a week, hour after hour, writing with pencil, 30 lines to the page, in a narrow upstairs room crowded with a grand piano, a bank of synthesizers, several samplers, a word processor, a printer and a tape recorder.

“I’m not sure I’ll be able to conduct for several months,” says Adams, who is sprawled on a chair in the tiny living room of his modest Berkeley home. He rolls his right shoulder like a sore-armed pitcher. “I’ve got some bad habits. I’m 44, and my body isn’t as supple as it used to be, and I write for eight hours a day and I don’t stand up and I don’t stretch and now I hurt myself.”

The hurt was worth it. “The Death of Klinghoffer,” his second ambitious opera in four years, recently premiered in Brussels. Most modern operas tend to vanish into recording history soon after an unveiling. Yet despite its controversial subject--the infamous 1986 hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinians and the murder of an elderly Jewish-American, Leon Klinghoffer, a tourist confined to a wheelchair--Adams’ opera is in the middle of an international run of performances that includes Brussels, France’s Lyon Opera and Vienna and will conclude 1991 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Next year will witness a staging by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera and a production at the San Francisco Opera. Seated near the 1989 Grammy award for his earlier opera, “Nixon in China,” Adams can’t even recuperate in peace. There are too many troubles on the home front. His Honda was stolen. His wife, Deborah O’Grady, is at the bank trying to resolve complications so that the family can move into a bigger Berkeley home with substantially more studio space. On this morning, his son Sam woke up ill. The family’s dog, a beagle named Flora, races crazily through the house in pursuit of imagined demons. And the telephone won’t stop ringing.


Adams’ prematurely gray hair looks wind-swept, and he blinks through spectacles as if preoccupied, looking every bit the part of an absent-minded, longhaired composer. But his Harvard-trained intellect is anything but absent. Jet-lagged? Yes. Burned-out? Maybe. Absent? Hardly. Adams is down-to-earth, his natural New England severity mellowed by two decades of California life into a laid-back graciousness. Even after having been hounded in Europe like a superstar during the “Klinghoffer” run, Adams remains cordial and articulate, speaking in complex sentences in a gentle sing-song cadence that pulsates like the waves of sound in his quasi-minimalist compositions.

He’s concerned that those who haven’t seen “Klinghoffer” might denounce it as anti-Semitic, anti-Arabic and/or pro-terrorist. Adams scans yet another newspaper article on the premiere, sighing wearily. “This is so weird. This writer quotes me at a press conference as asking: ‘What else does America export except smart bombs?’ What I said was: ‘I’m glad that there’s an opportunity for people to see something from America besides our bombs and machismo.’ ”

The Gulf War remains very much on Adams’ mind. “Klinghoffer” ritually examines centuries-old religious conflicts among Arabs, Jews and Christians. Unlike “Nixon,” which dealt ironically with the historic Beijing meeting between Chairman Mao and the former President, “Klinghoffer” is more stylized and ritualistic, modeled on Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion. Adams views the murder of Klinghoffer as “a ritualized crucifixion.” The gospel according to Adams is that Klinghoffer, like Christ and other indiscriminate victims through the ages, was an innocent who died for the sins of all. The God beseeched is the one God of Abraham and Islam. “People were very confused and disoriented,” he says, “because they expected a ‘Nixon in China.’ ”

Instead, an audience overflowing with critics confronted an abstract constructivist set by George Tsypin of huge steel girders and gangplanks that James Ingall’s lighting alternately transformed into flickering oil refineries at night, a boat or an ambiguous religious structure. Instead of hijackers in lurid garb and tourists in Bermuda shorts, the costumes were all what Adams labels “anti-costumes: simple, anonymous blouses in muted colors.” Director Peter Sellars borrowed from rock concerts by employing huge screens for video close-ups of soloists. Celebrated choreographer Mark Morris avoided spectacular dance numbers, opting instead for semaphore-like gestures that resemble a chorus in a Greek tragedy.And the Adams score? Although the British press--still outraged by Sellars’ “Magic Flute,” set against the landscape of L.A.--was vitriolic (“strongly hollow,” sniffed the Financial Times of London), most of the reviews had been laudatory. “A triumphant debut,” judged Newsweek, praising the music as “lush, considered and cathartic” and “revolutionary” for good measure. Perhaps that referred to Adams’ integration of keyboard synthesizers into the orchestration--or to his sophisticated use of computer-controlled microphones to combine the singers and the 80-member orchestra.

To outraged purists, Adams says: “These days we go to the opera and get people who are 400 pounds and have enormous bodies and enormous vocal resonators in order to cut over an orchestra and be heard by the 3,000th person in the balcony. What’s more unnatural, a speaker and a mike or a person who’s evolved to a state of looking like a refrigerator?”

NO, THE WORD REVOLUTIONARY doesn’t quite fit this composer. Adams is an independent Yankee who eschews the fashion of the moment. When he emerged in the late 1970s, his work seemed to fit the minimalist canon pioneered by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Sometimes called repetitive, solid-state or trance music and derided as “needle stuck in a groove” music, minimalism has evolved into the most popular serious music of our time. But just as the public grew accustomed to hearing minimalist music everywhere, on movie scores (“The Thin Blue Line”) and on TV (“Twin Peaks”), Adams tempered his to include colors not unlike those of Mahler and Ravel.

This refusal to remain consistent frustrates critics, who alternately define Adams as neo-Romantic, neo-Expressionist, postmodernist or anti-modernist. All this strikes Adams as somewhat irrelevant. “Call it postmodern,” he says, although he admits, “I don’t like to be called a minimalist.”

Adams’ nonconformist art is paralleled by his unconventional career. He’s a maverick who came out of the Establishment--a child prodigy, a graduate of Harvard’s music department. Purists, forced to honor his intellectual pedigree, find his passionate commitment to the unorthodox trying. He experimented with drugs, praised rock music and--most rebellious of all--rejected the Eastern Establishment in favor of California. His choice of Jungian therapy over Freudian analysis was the last straw. Yet, whenever Adams begins to acquire devotees, he violates their expectations by composing what he calls “trickster” pieces.

“Some of John’s pieces are important landmarks on the late 20th-Century scene,” says Michael Steinberg, artistic adviser to the Minnesota Orchestra and program annotator and lecturer for the San Francisco Symphony. “I’ll use a very risky word here: It’s John’s greatness as a human creature, and the way this informs his music, that makes him a wonderful composer.”

L.A-based composer Fred Myrow can attest to Adams’ influence. In 1969, despite a prestigious composer-in-residence position with the New York Philharmonic, Myrow grew disenchanted with serious music and fled to Hollywood, to score movies and plays. Then in 1985, he attended a concert by the L.A. Philharmonic of Adams’ “Harmonielehre” (meaning “the book of harmony” in German). “By God, somebody’s actually done it!” Myrow thought during the concert.

“Adams had made the big split from the three most influential European composers: Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen. He’s employing a new aesthetic, informed by the computer-synthesizer age,” Myrow realized. “Now Adams utilizes minimalist techniques in the service of a much higher and more ambitious musical architecture than Philip Glass. (Aaron) Copland’s staggering originality had not reappeared in American music until Adams. He’s alone at the top.”

Myrow, inspired, returned to serious composing for the first time in 16 years, resulting in the composition “Frontiers,” a piece using two keyboard synthesizers and more than 90 instruments that will premier in August at the Aspen Music Festival. Hidden within the third movement, Myrow laughs, “is a secret 15-bar homage to John Adams--my way of saying thank you.”

ON HIS FIRST WORKDAY AT HOME FOLLOWING his latest success, there is one undebatable truth: John Adams is in demand. The telephone rings constantly, echoing in discordant tones from the rear of the house. Calls to his unlisted number reach no taped message. And for now, Adams ignores the ringing in a calm display of self-discipline. “The curse of being in California are those New Yorkers,” he says. “It’s 8 o’clock and your tabula rasa is clean, when all of a sudden there’s some New Yorker who’s had eight cups of coffee and has dealt with the subway and a rude office boy, and, by God, he’s calling you to get an answer.”

Although Adams prefers to work “banker’s hours,” tries to avoid composing at night and attempts to keep weekends free for his family, his expanding career makes such a schedule difficult. For example, in 1988 and 1989, he conducted for the L.A. Philharmonic, London’s Royal Philharmonic, the Edinburgh Festival, Chicago’s Grant Park Concerts and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, among others. He also found time to occupy the creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where he conducted three subscription weeks and one new-music concert. Although Adams ranks among an exclusive handful of serious composers who can make a living solely from composing, he continues to conduct to achieve a better balance between the introverted isolation of creation and the extroversion of performance. Then, too, conducting fees far exceed the royalties on a composition’s performance.

“I realize I’m running a small business now,” he says. “I’ve got publications to proofread, tons of faxes to answer and conducting programs to make out--and the recording of ‘Klinghoffer,’ which is just staggeringly expensive and complicated to schedule.”

“Small” may be underestimating it. Adams has an exclusive contract with Nonesuch Records, granting that company recording options on any new compositions. Boosey & Hawkes Inc., of New York and London, publishes his scores. A representative of the California Artists Management agency handles his domestic appearances, and an English agent books overseas commitments.

Adams’ recordings invariably make the top-10 classical listings. Despite a $50 price tag, “Nixon in China” has sold into the five-figure range, quite a feat for a modern opera. His music is played all over the world; his fanfare for orchestra, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” has been performed more than 150 times. Dance companies as diverse as the Dance Theater of Harlem and the New York City Ballet have choreographed his works. “And every piece I write gets recorded. For me that’s of paramount importance,” he emphasizes.

Such productivity has not protected Adams’ music from the most dogged criticism: its accessibility. In popular culture, the creation of music that can be understood and appreciated with limited effort results in celebration as well as profit. But in the insulated--to Adams, “inbred"--world of serious music, such an attitude is anathema. Since Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg revolutionized contemporary music with his 12-tone system of composition in the 1920s, many composers have joined ranks with atonality. One rigorously atonal composer, New Yorker Charles Wuorinen, has condemned the music of minimalists as “unchallenging” and “unprovocative.” Adams has responded by calling Wuorinen “a square” and “the Patrick Buchanan of serious music.”

“I’m delighted to maybe be the first composer for whom the crisis of accessibility is a major philosophical issue,” Adams says. “It conjures up all sorts of awful things, like compromise of one’s loftiness, searching for audiences, placating audiences, designing a work of art with an audience in mind, all of which are wrong and have nothing to do with me. I write for no one except myself. I’m very suspicious of contemporary music. I think that a lot of it is written by people who are really cowards, who fear that if they don’t write in a certain mode, their colleagues will not see them as important.”

Adams’ stance has helped to break down one popular notion of the artist as an antagonist, a critic of society who lives apart and struggles anonymously, suffering for his art. “These things happen,” he concedes. “But the problem is that for a composer, it’s now required that his art arrive difficult, incomprehensible, thorny, bristling, full of a need for exegeses and explanation. One of my criticisms with contemporary music is that its obsession with purity has brought about a sterility.

“What I think is the most wonderful aspect of American culture,” he continues, “is that we are a culture with very few dividing lines. I grew up in a household where Benny Goodman and Mozart were not separated.”

LISTENING TO RECORDS IS AMONG ADAMS’ earliest childhood recollections. “I had a game with my father,” he recalls, “where I would listen to Bozo the Clown conducting circus marches, or a Jimmy Dorsey record, and as each instrument took a solo, I would pretend to play that instrument. I was 4 at the time.”

Adams was born in Worcester, Mass., 45 miles west of Boston, and raised in Vermont and in New Hampshire, where his grandfather had built a dance hall on Lake Winnipesaukee. His mother (“a gifted contralto with no training”) sang for the house band, while his father (“not quite a good” clarinetist/saxophonist) played in a touring band. They eloped in 1936.

Adams believes that his parents recognized early on that he was a musical prodigy. “My daughter has exceptional musical talent, and you see that immediately. When she was 4 years old, she would twist the radio dial until she heard violins, every time we got in the car. So she was taking violin by the time she was 4. Now she’s 7 and plays Vivaldi. And she writes her own pieces.”

Enthusiastically, Adams glides out of the room, returning with a sheet of music notated painstakingly. “I came home from a trip and she’d written this, which is a real piece; it isn’t just notes all over. I said, ‘Well, it’s very beautiful, Emily. It’s very sad, all in G minor. What’s the name of it?’ And she said, ‘ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” of course.’ ”

Adams remembers while in the fifth grade taking walks in the woods, composing imagined symphonies. By the sixth grade, he was playing clarinet in an amateur orchestra sponsored by the New Hampshire State Mental Hospital--a mixture, he says, of “well-meaning local professionals” and “very intelligent, skillful, absolutely wild-card mental patients.”

This strange episode gave Adams his first insight into music’s power to transform humans beings: “I remember the odor of a not-very-well-ventilated gym, perhaps in the middle of wintertime in New Hampshire, filled with 2,000 mental patients. We’d be playing the most banal piece of music, and I’d look out and see four or five people in the front row with tears running down their faces. My music has always been that way, and I think that’s why it threatens so many people. My music is emotionally committed.”

By the age of 13, Adams had written and conducted a suite for string orchestra. His parents would drive him to Boston and back for weekly clarinet lessons. He never had formal piano lessons, “much to my regret.” But his talents earned him a scholarship to Harvard, where he majored in composition.

His most influential professor was composer Leon Kirchner. Adams was among the few undergraduates Kirchner permitted into his graduate composition seminar. “Already you saw the characteristics of original turns of mind,” Kirchner says of Adams. “But I didn’t believe he was really interested in composition. He was an excellent conductor and a very gifted clarinetist. I thought he’d make his way in the performance world.”

Having been reared where jazz and classical music coexisted without prejudice, Adams found tradition-bound Harvard claustrophobic. “The music department started with the Gregorian chant and ended with Webern. . . . There was no discussion of jazz. Jazz was not considered a real art form. But we were all going back to our rooms and getting high and listening to Cecil Taylor and (John) Coltrane and the Rolling Stones.”

Through recordings, Adams grew aware of music from India and other “exotic” forms. “It struck me as ironic that there was so much feeling in rock--that rock expressed our Dionysian side, expressed our spiritual side, expressed our sexual side, and our convivial, social side, but in the serious contemporary music that I was being taught, feeling had become extremely refined and so restrained and so sublimated and so complicated. Right from 1967 I knew that I was leading a double life, and that it was dishonest.”

The late 1960s, even at staid Harvard, left their mark on those music majors. “I took LSD. I had some trips that changed me in a very good direction,” he remembers. Adams endured two years of graduate school, which he’s labeled “a malignant cocoon.” In 1971, he graduated with a master’s degree and the usual Harvard programming for his next steps: to wander through Europe before returning to pursue a Ph.D. in composition.

But, instead, he packed up a VW and drove to California, prompted in part by his parents’ graduation gift, a copy of John Cage’s “Silence: Lectures and Writings,” a book imbued with both Zen and transcendental philosophies. “I knew there was some activity in the avant-garde here,” he says. “It just seemed like the right place to me. And I think I was right.”

WHAT KIND OF WORK DOES THE RECENTLY graduated, serious contemporary music scholar find? In Adams’ case, society rewarded him with a year’s employment in warehouses on the Oakland waterfront, where he unloaded crates of Bermuda shorts for Sears Roebuck and became dispirited and exhausted.

Then “a total fluke” changed his life. On the verge of returning to Harvard “and becoming a proper professor,” he saw that the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was advertising for a music teacher. “Little more than an accordion academy at the time,” he says, the conservatory nevertheless had a provocative history of having supported the avant-garde. Adams was made head of its new-music program. For the next 10 years the conservatory served as his musical laboratory.

Jon Bailey, now director of the Gay Men’s Chorus in Los Angeles and a music teacher at Pomona College, was dean of the conservatory at the time. He remembers the 25-year-old Adams as “quiet but intense--not way out on the fringes of things but asking lots and lots of questions about the nature of music.” Among the pieces Adams composed was one commissioned by Bailey. Titled “Ktaadn,” the composition for piano and chorus premiered in 1972 at the University of California Art Museum in Berkeley. “Some in the audience started hissing and booing against the polite applause,” Bailey says. “John just loved it.”

At the conservatory, Adams experimented with John Cage-like indeterminacy (compositions where instrumental choices are made in part through chance). He obsessively explored electronic music and finally designed and built his own synthesizer. Tape music, sound-texts and the influence of minimalist composer Reich led Adams to what he calls a “diatonic conversion.”

At Harvard, he says, he had been dogmatically taught that tonality was dead--that atonal, highly rationalized scores were the only true serious music of our time. Schoenberg’s heirs, the serialists, were reducing melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre to mathematical formulas. But in 1976, the year that Glass’ opera “Einstein on the Beach” crowned minimalism as postmodernism’s theme music, Adams became convinced, as a result of his synthesizer experiments, that long-sustained harmonies and quick modulations were his musical language. Minimalism, he realized, was the perfect musical mirror of the vast California landscape.

In 1977 Adams composed “Phrygian Gates” for piano; in 1978, “Shaker Loops” for string septet. These pieces were--and at the same time were not --strictly minimalist. The repetitive Glassian patterns were interrupted by impassioned climaxes. The San Francisco Symphony’s music director, Edo de Waart, offered Adams a position as composer-in-residence in 1978. Out of that evolved a purely Adams invention, the New and Unusual Music Series. Structured to lure audiences his own age into the concert hall, it became the model for the popular Meet the Composer Orchestra Residency programs across the country.

In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts, Exxon Corp. and the Rockefeller Foundation made Adams their first composer-in-residence grantee. And more significantly, the San Francisco Symphony provided him with a composer’s favorite toy: a major orchestra. He was commissioned to write a full-scale orchestral piece to celebrate the inaugural season of the Louise M. Davies Hall. Adams seized the opportunity in ambitious style, explaining to the San Francisco Examiner that, “I went for broke. I didn’t write just a little piece, I wrote a monster for a 150-voice, 100-piece orchestra.” The recording of that composition, “Harmonium,” earned a Grammy nomination.

More grants, commissions and notoriety ensued. In 1982, Beverly Hills arts patron Betty Freeman was introduced to Adams’ music by Reich, and in November, she invited Adams to perform at one of her influential Sunday musicales. His music, she says, is “exciting and intelligent and humorous and ironic.”

Another significant contact occurred while Adams was in New England at a performance of his “Shaker Loops.” There he met an intense, younger Harvard graduate, Peter Sellars. “I saw in Peter a person who really understood music,” Adams recalls. “That’s rare, unfortunately, among opera directors.” The Wunderkinder discussed collaborating on the Super Bowl of serious music, a grand opera. Sellars suggested Richard Milhous Nixon as a subject. Adams was quite skeptical.

In 1983, secure with his composer-in-residence salary of $40,000, Adams married Bay Area landscape photographer and arts administrator O’Grady. Thus, Adams had everything a contemporary music composer could want--growing prestige, financial security, a supportive marriage, a commission for his next orchestral composition--plus a profound creative block.

Today he is matter-of-fact about the two-year dry spell: “I got blocked because I thought maybe I was doing the wrong thing, and life ought to be more complicated.” He sought out a Jungian psychiatrist, Dr. John Beebe, widely known for helping artists with creative paralysis. Through therapy, Adams realized he was suffering the burden of fame. Since “Harmonium,” his reputation was generating expectations of another minimalist masterpiece. But he felt like “a minimalist who is bored with minimalism.” In Jungian terms, his “feeling function” was being intimidated by the “thinking function.” In the midst of intense therapy, he experienced a breakthrough dream in which he witnessed a tanker launched out of San Francisco Bay like a rocket. The next morning he sat at his piano and pounded out “these huge E-minor chords.” His block was broken.

Adams had found his distinctive voice. It wasn’t purely minimalist. He wanted emotional self-expression, not intellectual purity. Even the title of his breakthrough work, “Harmonielehre,” was lifted from Schoenberg’s 1911 landmark treatise of the same name. Fin de siecle composers, from Debussy to Sibelius to Mahler, were lyrically “filtered” through the work. “ ‘Harmonielehre’ is about revelation and healing. Music is a means of getting myself and my listener in touch with our deepest selves, like the people in that state hospital.” “Harmonielehre,” a sensation, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And Adams had already embarked on the most ambitious project of his career. Two years of gestation had transformed Sellars’ opera: “Nixon in China” would not be a satire. It would be a grand opera about “the myths of our time, which are not Cupid and Psyche or Orpheus or Ulysses but characters like Mao and Nixon.” This first major opera based on a living figure in history would, as critic Mark Swed wrote, “not be about what Nixon did for China, but what China did to Nixon.” Adams requested that the libretto of fellow Harvard alumnus Alice Goodman be poetry; she delivered eloquent rhyming couplets.

After extensive research, Adams penciled “Nixon in China” at the top of a blank page. Two years later, in 1985, the score was premiered at the Houston Grand Opera. “No opera by an American has ever been awaited with such excitement,” wrote Michael Steinberg in Connoisseur.

Some critics accused the creative team of “glitzy populism,” but “Nixon in China” became the most popular modern opera of the 1980s, presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (for its Next Wave Festival), the Kennedy Center, the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam and the Edinburgh Festival, among others. An international TV broadcast added to its reputation. (Adams dislikes the PBS version partly because, he says, Walter Cronkite, as the commentator, mispronounces numerous operatic terms.)

However, not until last year at the L.A. Music Center, during the opera’s seventh staging, did Adams feel that “Nixon in China” had found its ideal form. That’s because Sellars needed the many incarnations of “Nixon” to refine the staging for the third act’s contrapuntal music. There, Adams’ dark, introspective score--far more complex than the first two acts--finally took stage shape. Not only did the new setting (the weary world leaders’ private bedrooms) make a perfect scenic match for Adams’ music, but it also inspired the composer with ideas for a new opera score that would offer still deeper musical experience.

Feeling “somewhat burned-out,” Adams fled with his family to Rome, “hid out” and struggled to compose again in the vein of that last ambitious act of “Nixon.” Yet, what emerged was “this ridiculous eight-bar phrase that was so square, almost like a figure from a rock or pop tune.” Through analysis, Adams had learned to “embrace the beast, no matter how perverse.” Adams has a name for this side of his creative personality: the Trickster, “the garish, ironic wild card.”

The result, “Fearful Symmetries,” is a work Adams adores, even though it has infuriated many of his followers. He jokes that its subtitle might be “Liberace in Hell.” Its unapologetic use of the American vernacular (wailing saxophones, boogie-woogie, funk, lunatic strings) has driven many reviewers into hyperbolic scorn.

But the somber side of Adams is clearly in evidence in a recent piece, “The Wound-Dresser,” an adaptation of Walt Whitman’s poem about nursing wounded Civil War soldiers. Adams’ late father, ill with Alzheimer’s disease, had been nursed at home by his mother. “Nursing is such an immensely important activity in a human life,” Adams says, “and yet it’s something that’s so uncelebrated. To me, it’s the ultimate relationship between two human beings.”

The extraordinary simplicity and emotional clarity of “The Wound-Dresser"--a solo violin hovering above elegiac baritone Sanford Sylvan, a distant military trumpet--prepared the stage for Adams’ monumental opera about suffering and redemption, “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The same team that mounted “Nixon” went back to work, this time financed through an unprecedented six-company co-production arrangement.

Again, a group of Americans abroad was confronted by a culture they did not understand. “On one level, ‘Klinghoffer’ is an exploration of the theme of sickness and healing,” Adams says. This time, however, he was reacting to a phrase he’d read that horrified him: Americans in the wake of AIDS and the homeless were suffering from “compassion fatigue.” Adams found such a phrase to be a revolting cover-up for a terribly sick national psyche.

OUR CONVERSATION IS DISRUPTED as a breathless Deborah O’Grady charges into the house. “The money spigots have all been turned on,” she announces. “Money is just pouring out onto the ground.” Adams’ wife explains that, to fight off a last-second counter-bid for their new house, ever-greater financial stability had to be shown. Now every penny they possess is flooding into the house account.

This is nothing, she laughs, compared to the 18-month war of “Klinghoffer.” At home, she says, even the two children--Emily and Sam, 5--were drafted into the opera’s creation. “Everyone had to sacrifice time, help out around the house and understand that John had to withdraw from normal activity for ‘Klinghoffer.’ ”

But Adams returns the attention. He proudly points to the framed paintings on the parlor wall. On close inspection, you discover they’re California landscapes photographed by his wife. “The ongoing theme in our house is the degradation of the environment,” he says. “My wife has done a lot of photographic work in the delta, which is very flat and very wide. This experience of California is one reason why all of my pieces are large-scale, big canvases.”

Adams’ next composition is ecologically themed. An orchestral work commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, “El Dorado” will premier this fall and has been scheduled by the L.A. Philharmonic for next year.

“L.A. has been better to me than (San Francisco) or New York or anywhere,” he says. “There’s some reason I’ve always gotten a warm, enthusiastic response there. The Philharmonic has a history of doing unusual programming. And Betty (Freeman) is there.”

Adams is resisting the many financial temptations coming his way in the wake of “Klinghoffer.” Yes, he gets offers to score films--"Money is no object,” he’s been told by Hollywood producers, which, to Adams, implies that “quality is no object, either.” He’s eliminating non-composing opportunities, even to the extent of having returned advance monies for a BBC series about American music. “I just decided that at this point in my life, I really wanted to write more music, not become a Leonard Bernstein,” he says.

And what about a third opera? Adams stares off into space and slumps back into the chair. For the first time he reveals signs of jet lag. “There’s already discussion of another opera in the works,” he says, “but I think I’m going to wait for two years. I think ’95 sounds about right. I’ll probably work with Peter, but it may be interesting to work with a different text, a different approach to language.

“I view composing as a means of assimilating the very, very complex life that I and everyone else around me live, especially as Americans,” he says, speaking intensely now. “The difference between me and most of my modernist friends is that they’re still busy trying to screen out the outside world and refine their experience into something very pure. And I’m doing just the opposite. I’m trying to embrace as much of it as I can.”