John Adams: 'Grand' And 'Gnarly' In Concert The celebrated American composer says that some of his best ideas for pieces come out of dreams. His dreams come to life when he conducts some of his best-known works on his 60th birthday — sampled cow sounds, piano limousines and all.
NPR logo

Listen Now

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
John Adams: 'Grand' And 'Gnarly' In Concert

John Adams: 'Grand' And 'Gnarly' In Concert

Listen Now

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Set List

China Gates

Gnarly Buttons

  • Hoe-Down (Mad Cow)
  • Put Your Loving Arms Around Me

Grand Pianola Music

  • Part 1A
  • Part 1B
  • On the Great Divide


John Adams, composer and conductor

L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group

  • featuring Derek Bermel, clarinet
  • featuring Joanne Pierce Martin* & Vicki Ray, piano

Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, director

*pianist on "China Gates"

John Adams says the name for his Gnarly Buttons came from his 10-year-old son, who used the word to mean "cool." Deborah O'Grady hide caption

toggle caption
Deborah O'Grady

Celebrated composer John Adams says that some of his best ideas for pieces come out of his dreams. Like the time he dreamt he was driving up Interstate 5 in California and was approached by two black stretch limousines, which turned into pianos and blared arpeggios from their windows.

"The image of the limousines that became grand pianos stuck with me," Adams says. "And, of course, its absurdity was part of the generating idea of this piece called Grand Pianola Music."

In a performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall, some of his dreams — involving clarinet, banjo and a sampled cow — come to life. The American composer conducts the L.A. Philharmonic's New Music group in a concert celebrating his 60th birthday.

Adams is a star in the classical world -– his concerts often sell out. Among many other compositions, he wrote the iconic opera Nixon in China and the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece On the Transmigration of Souls, which commemorated Sept. 11. At Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the pieces he chose was Gnarly Buttons, for clarinet and chamber orchestra. It takes him back to his roots, literally and figuratively.

John Adams grew up in rural New Hampshire. His father was an amateur clarinet player who gave Adams lessons on the instrument when he was in grade school. But Adams never wrote a piece for it until he was 50.

"And my dad had, at the end of his life, suffered from Alzheimer's Disease and became -– in one of the very poignant and strangely comical moments that often happen to Alzheimer's –- my father had become obsessed with the clarinet," Adams says. "And he did funny, strange things with it. One time, my mother was emptying out a load of laundry into the washing machine, and she heard this strange noise and looked and saw that my father had taken the clarinet apart piece by piece and hid it in the dirty laundry. And somehow, this suggested a strange, slightly berserk piece that had both charm and humor, but also a certain personal poignance."

The second movement of Gnarly Buttons is a comic piece called "Hoe-Down (Mad Cow)." Keep your ears peeled for the cow sample.

"Of course, hoe-down is supposed to be about horses," Adams says. "But since I was writing this piece for a very great English clarinet player -– Michael Collins and the London Sinfonietta -– and it was shortly after the Mad Cow [Disease] scare, I decided to dedicate this to my English friends and make it a hoe-down for a mad cow."

One of Adams' most famous works, Grand Pianola Music, premiered at a new music festival in 1982. In this case, "new music" meant cerebral, challenging and possibly inaccessible.

"And then into this came me with this strange kind of P.T. Barnum of a piece that didn't even have strings in it," he says. "It was just basically for wind band and two pianos and these three cooing sopranos that never said anything –- they just kind of cooed like the sirens in Homer's Odyssey. You know, it's a piece with a sense of humor. And it also has a little Liberace, a little Beethoven, a little Ray Charles."

And, Adams says, the premiere audience was more than a little scandalized by it.

"So when I went up to take a bow, I stood next to one of the pianists –- this very lovely and much-adored pianist Ursula Oppens -– and I heard the booing and I was just, you know, very disturbed. And she grabbed my hand, she squeezed it and she said, 'Oh my God, they're booing! Isn't it wonderful?'"

Of course, audiences applaud now. John Adams conducts the L.A. Philharmonic's New Music Group in a performance of Grand Pianola Music.

Discoveries at Walt Disney Concert Hall is an eclectic mix of concert specials, recorded live at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and hosted by Renee Montagne. From singer-songwriters to classical, world music and Broadway stars, it's a celebration of the diversity of our thriving musical culture.