Darcy James Argue’s open letter to John Adams

I just came across this and thought it deserved to be reposted. This is in response to John Adams being kind of mean to composers like me lately. The formatting for an embedded post looks a little screwy on my website, so – this is from Facebook. Visit Darcy James Argue online and listen to his music, because he and it both rock, at secretsocietymusic.org

Dear John Adams,

You are awesome at composing. You’ve written several works that have become pillars of the late 20th/early 21st century canon. Whenever you premiere a new piece, it’s an Event. Your style is hugely influential. Basically everyone out there tries to orchestrate like you. There are maybe, like, two other living composers more famous than you. I think it’s safe to say you’ve MADE IT.

I also understand that it was hard for you when you were first coming up. Lots of mean old composers talked all kinds of smack about your music. They said it was boring and insubstantial and pandering and commercial and derivative and unserious. And that stung. I get it. It really sucks to hear people say that about your music, especially when it’s coming from Established Famous Composers. And even moreso when those Established Famous Composers are just mouthing off without having listened carefully, because they are so stuck in their own little bubbles that they are unable to approach the music of anyone younger than themselves with anything other than reflexive, unconsidered disdain.

But you SHOWED THOSE ASSHOLES. You shrugged off their bullying and just kept doing your thing, and now you’re rich and famous and all the important people agree you are awesome at composing. You are ON TOP.

So why do you still feel the need to inflict the exact same hazing on younger composers that you received when you were coming up?

Seriously, here are the words you’ve been throwing around as blanket descriptors of the music of composers “20, 30 years younger” than you (by the way, you are 66 so that means you are describing the music of composers who are roughly between the ages of 36-46, and I just want to remind you that you wrote “Shaker Loops” when you were 31):

“extremely simplistic”
“user-friendly”
“lightweight”
“sort of music lite”
“absolute mediocrity”
“very, very vacuous and very superficial”

Has it occurred to you that these are precisely the words that all those Established Famous Composers used to describe your own music in the early years of your career? It seems impossible that this would escape your notice. But it also seems like maybe you don’t realize that this is what everyone else is thinking whenever you use these kinds of epithets to insult the work of younger composers. Which it seems like you’re doing with some regularity, of late.

Have you seen Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused? It seems like it’s possible you’ve maybe seen that movie — unlike some of the mean old composers who used to rag on you, you’ve never been one to reflexively turn your nose up at ALL popular culture. I mean, the name of your blog is a Buffy reference! And Dazed and Confused is actually a really good movie. There’s like a Criterion Collection edition and everything!

Anyway: you know how, in the opening sequence of that movie, all of the high school seniors get all excited about the merciless ritual hazing they are about to inflict on the incoming freshman class? And as you watch them paddle the crap out of the boys and force the girls to “fry like bacon, you little freshman piggies,” you realize that a big part of the reason why everyone’s so excited about bullying these younger kids is that they, too, were hazed mercilessly as incoming freshmen? And even now, the wounds are still so fresh, so raw, that they can’t wait for the opportunity to dish out that kind of punishment on someone else, as if doing so might somehow heal their own psychic trauma?

What is your reaction when you watch these scenes? “This tradition is awesome”? “Hazing builds character!”? “Vicious circles are good for everyone”?

Seriously, John Adams. Seriously. You are a brilliant composer and an incredibly smart and perceptive and sensitive individual. Why do you persist in acting like the high school bully who can’t wait to dish out some of the abuse he was once on the receiving end of?

UPDATED: Here’s a link to a great essay on the subject by composer Alex Temple, who has quite a few examples of what exactly Adams said: alextemplemusic.com/2013/09/john-adams-rolls-his-eyes

Respond

All material copyright Nick Norton unless otherwise noted.