Movement and Music: A Conversation with Peter Martins and John Adams

Classic Arts Features   Movement and Music: A Conversation with Peter Martins and John Adams
NY City Ballet presented a new Martins ballet, set to Adams' Naïve and Sentimental Music, at its Opening Night Benefit (three January performances scheduled). The two friends sat down for a conversation about their influences, and the symbiotic relationship between music and dance.


Question: Mr. Adams, we hear you have a bit of a dance background?

Adams: Oh, I myself can't dance at all. In fact I'm terrified when people start moving the chairs away at a party. (Laughs)

Martins: You described that in your book but then you also make a correlation between conducting and dancing.

Adams: It is a very funny thing: I love to conduct. When I was a little kid I used to conduct with my mother's knitting needle. The idea of moving choreographically to music is something I love to do, but I get incredibly self-conscious when I actually have to dance. But, I was always aware of dance. My grandfather owned a summer dance hall where the big bands came and played, and people sat at little tables and had cocktails and then got up and danced. But I watched.

Question: Do you feel that dance has an influence on your work Mr. Adams?

Martins: That's a good question, because you know, your music often has a real dance rhythm, which is obviously why it appeals to so many people, myself included. You would automatically think that there's this rhythmic pulse inside of you, and yet, it's not about dance necessarily.

Adams: Well, I think it's probably about dance. I mean I feel music very much as a pulse event, and for me the begin- ning of a new piece is finding the right harmony and then finding the pulse that goes with it. I think that's a very American thing. My pieces are rooted on a very strong sense of pulsation.

Martins: Which is exactly why it appeals to me: I haven't danced in 25 years but your music makes me want to move. I literally stand in my office, and I move things around, and I move. And that does not happen with other composers' music for me.

Question: Can you talk a little about the new piece?

Adams: Well, I think Peter should talk about it, because it's his impression of it that is going to count.

Martins: I heard it for the first time maybe about 10 years ago. I went to the New York premiere, it was the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted, and I was riveted. I was like, "Whoa." And then I sort of forgot about it, and my life took me in other directions. And then I would revisit it again. I got a recording of it, and intermittently every six months I would hear it and think, "My God, one of these days." And fast forward, about a year ago, I thought, "You know what? I think I know what to do."

Question: When you are creating new work, are you thinking of the audience?

Martins: George Balanchine said to me once, "You have five minutes when the curtain goes up to make your statement, to make your case. If you have lost them in the first five minutes, it's over."

Adams: Well, they say in this era of YouTube that you actually have 3.7 seconds. (Laughs) You know, we tend to think that the great creative artists are in their own world and they're going to do their thing and the audience can come to it if they want. But in fact, if you read Mozart's letters to his father he'd say, "I just finished this new piano concerto and the audience is gonna love it." So he was keenly aware of the relationship between what he did and keeping the audience's attention. It's nice to hear that Balanchine, who I think of as this great Apollonian artist, was actually a showman.

Question: What is it like to see your work performed as a ballet?

Adams: Well, for a composer to see beautifully executed dance by highly trained artists who are so keenly sensitive to the pulse: it's just an enormous aesthetic pleasure. You know, the great thing about New York City Ballet is that most of the dancers are Americans. They've grown up listening to pop music, and they may not have listened to my music, but they innately get that sense of pulse, and they go with it. And that's: that's fun.


The new Adams/Martins ballet will be performed January 5 at 7:30 PM, January 9 at 8 PM and January 14 at 8 PM.

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