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Cheating, Lying, Stealing: John Adams Talks to the Independent About What Makes a Good Composer a Great One

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com on Mar 07, 2014 04:32 AM EST

Most know that old adage, coined by Picasso (or Stravinsky): "Good artists copy, great artists steal."

And the acid-tongued, quasi-minimalist composer John Adams has heard it more than most.

In 2014, there might be some truth to that whole creative well run dry thing. I mean have you heard today's newest music? Not exactly Stravinsky.

To be fair, perhaps it's less about stylistic purity and more about unpredictability.

In an effort to clarify his generation's approach (once removed, of course), Adams talks candidly about his own ventures into "stealing."

"We composers, we're scavengers," Adams tells the Independent's Jessica Duchen.

"Beethoven was a scavenger, Bach too--that's one of the joys of being creative. Stravinsky is rumored to have said that 'a good composer borrows, a great composer steals.' That may be apocryphal. But it's not without truth," he continued.

And it isn't without proper cause that this idea is propagated by a lot of other artists, as Adams duly notes.

The inevitability of replicating other works and using them for your own expression is precisely why music has been able to sustain itself over the course of two millennia .

Quoth Adams: "I realized that the style's pure form was too rigorous for my musical personality. That's why I became the composer I am: less stylistically pure and less orthodox in my thinking, more embracing and more unpredictable."

Surely, Adams' most celebrated operas (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic) follow a traditional "template."

But does that make the idiom--or his works, themselves--any less valid?

Hell, even the late Steve Jobs knew the merits of successful aesthetic theft.

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TagsBach, Beethoven, Picasso, Stravinsky, John Adams

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