Kyle Gann recently wrote a typically nifty little post in which he observed, “I get CDs from composers in their 20s and 30s, all very talented, very accomplished – most of them sounding like they’re trying to be the next John Adams.”  His point was that young composers should branch out a bit, find other influences.  The comments on his post all concurred.  Galen Brown followed up with a thoughtful response about the nature of influence here on S21, which had a host of comments from various perspectives.

I had been thinking much the same thing – that there was an awful lot of Adams appropriation going on among composers in their 20s and 30s — this past spring when I was planning our Composition Department’s 2010-11 course of study, and I decided to take an aggressive approach to the phenomenon.  I have planned this academic year around an intensive study of the works of John Adams.  We have broken our entire department into pairs of students this year; each pair has been assigned one Adams piece to study in depth.  In January and February, these pairs of students will give reports to the rest of the department on the piece they have been assigned.

In March, we’ll all attend a performance by the North Carolina Symphony featuring three Adams pieces, part of their Composer Portrait series.  Along the way, we’ll spark up some provocative discussions about his music and the way it is composed, perceived, performed and discussed.

My hope is that this immersion will serve a positive pedagogical mission. Those students who want to write like Adams will understand exactly what they are doing, rather than just pilfering surface details with no thought for context.  Others may find themselves overdosed on Adams, and react by striking out on contrary paths.

I won’t be encouraging them to move in either direction, but I will be helping them find their way in whichever direction they feel suits them best.

Bottom line: Adams has left a formidable footprint on the new music scene.  Young composers need to come to terms with his legacy – either to follow it or to reject it – and they should do so through knowledge, not ignorance.

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