Affably, he adds that he prefers to write a piece rather than to characterize it.
In this case, that isn't surprising. After all, part of what's engaging about "String Quartet" is its unpredictability.
The piece starts with bright, slippery bursts of energy over a plucked beat, and maintains a sense of heightened alertness throughout. Yet its moods can be mercurial. There are sudden changes in rhythm and dynamic, and even gentle, almost mournful passages inside all that momentum.
"String Quartet" was first performed in January at the Juilliard School in New York, played by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. On Sunday, April 5, the group will give it a West Coast premiere at Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Auditorium.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Adams, one of the most celebrated American composers working today, is also scheduled to make an appearance at the Cantor Arts Center on April 2. Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington will join Adams in discussion about the composer's life and work. The event is free.
The April 5 performance will be a homecoming for "String Quartet"; Adams said he was inspired to write the piece for the St. Lawrence musicians after seeing them perform "John's Book of Alleged Dances" (1994), his first string quartet, at Stanford in 2007. The musicians have been Stanford's ensemble-in-residence since 1998.
"They have wonderful rhythmic integrity," Adams said in a phone interview, adding, "They are very well-versed in the traditional string quartet repertoire, but are willing to try new things."
Adams also liked the idea of working with a group of musicians in his "neighborhood," more or less. (He lives in Berkeley.) But that doesn't always guarantee geographic proximity, as he learned last summer after finishing writing "String Quartet." He and the St. Lawrence quartet hoped to get together to work with the new piece, but synchronizing schedules was easier said than done.
The quartet is often on the road, and Adams was also traveling, conducting orchestras, doing a book tour and spending time at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where his opera "Doctor Atomic" was performed last fall.
When the composer and the musicians meet before the upcoming performance of "String Quartet," they'll be working on a piece that is a bit different than when it was played at Juilliard. Adams said that he deleted some "awkwardness" in a few passages, and also shortened the last movement, which he decided was too long.
"I got bored. If the composer gets bored, that's a bad sign," he said, chuckling.
Adams' primary instrument is the clarinet; he admits to feeling like he's "often wandering around in the dark" when writing for strings. Still, for him composing a string quartet is an enjoyable change from writing "big-format" pieces such as his 1985-87 opera "Nixon in China" and his 2002 orchestral work "On the Transmigration of Souls," which was requested by the New York Philharmonic to remember those killed in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks. The latter composition won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
In an intimate string quartet, "each player is constantly playing at their maximum intensity, and there's something very wonderful about that," Adams said.
"It's a very intense medium," he added. "It's a highly, highly, almost hyper-lyrical experience."
The April 5 experience will certainly have a different character from the St. Lawrence quartet's performance of "John's Book of Alleged Dances." In that piece, a collection of 10 dances, Adams called for six of the dances to be accompanied by a pre-recorded percussion track.
Quoted on the Boosey & Hawkes music publisher's website, Adams said he used the word "alleged" in the title because he wrote music for "dances" without steps. "The general tone is dry, droll, sardonic," he wrote.
In contrast, "String Quartet" is Adams' first full-sized string quartet without electronics. St. Lawrence quartet first violinist Geoff Nuttall called the work "gigantic in scale," speaking in a Stanford Lively Arts video.
"I think it's really going to be a seminal work in his life, and it's not like 'Shaker Loops Adams,' that period," Nuttall said, referring to Adams' 1978 piece marked by oscillating patterns. "It's much more varied, expressive: Debussy, Beethoven. But it's always Adams."
Nuttall called Adams one of his musical heroes, but also "a super-cool guy."
He said: "He's constantly like a little kid in a candy shop: 'Oh! Let's try that! Oh, that would sound great with this and this!'"
At Stanford, the St. Lawrence quartet will also perform Haydn's String Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 9, no. 2 (1769) and Dvorak's String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, op. 106 (1895). The other members of the group are violinist Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza.
What: The St. Lawrence String Quartet performs John Adams' "String Quartet" and music by Haydn and Dvorak.
Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 5
Cost: Tickets are $46/$40 for general admission and $23/$20 for Stanford students.
Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS. John Adams is also scheduled to talk about his life and work with Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington during a free discussion at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 2.