“You’ll never be as good as Bach”



John Adams (photo: Deborah O'Grady)

Composer John Adams recently addressed the 2011 graduating class at the Juilliard School, where he invoked  Johann Sebastian Bach‘s name a couple of times.

I have to say that being a composer invited into a public gathering is always an anxiety-producing experience. No matter how casual or at ease we composers may appear on the outside, there is always that little homunculus sitting on our shoulders, muttering cryptic and often insulting remarks and reminding us that, no matter how much we’ve composed or now matter how grand the honor we may be receiving, “you’ll never be as good as Bach.”

I remember hearing Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach sonatas for cello and keyboard. It was the first time I’d ever heard him live, and I remember thinking to myself, “Well he’s a superstar, so it will be note-perfect, I’ll be dazzled by his technique and he’ll look great, but I won’t expect any revelations.”

But just the opposite happened.

My reaction to his Bach was “Man, that was weird!” He didn’t play Bach at all like I’d come to think I’d known it. He was not afraid to be coarse and edgy at times, nor was he afraid to go beyond the accepted norms of polite expressiveness we’d been admonished to consider proper. He’d obviously asked questions before he started to consider the piece.

Read more: Commencement Speech (John Adams: Hell Mouth)

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