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Book Review

Hallelujah Junction

John Adams, Hallelujah Junction

Composing an American Life

John Adams
New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008. 340 pages
ISBN-10: 0374281157
ISBN-13: 978-0374281151
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Both Emanuel Ax and Esa-Pekka Salonen compare this autobiography to the one by Berlioz, and Salonen to Wagner's as well. Very high praise, but I am not going to dispute it. The book is not only a great read, as Adams writes so well, but it is highly informative about the author's career, his thoughts about music in general, his own in particular, and that of other musicians.

A true autobiography and not just a memoir, Adams tells us quite a bit about his personal life and family: from the first meeting of his parents at her stepfather's dance pavilion, to his father's eventual Alzheimer's; his own clarinet playing from childhood and his discovery of classical music through visits to neighbors in Vermont; a mention of his first sexual experience and youthful drug trips; his expulsion from music camp and a high school English class because he was too assertive for the authorities; his two marriages and the births of his two children. He and his first wife married in the East and drove to California in a car that broke down twice. When, after five years she left him to pursue her own career, Adams remained in a funk for a year, not to be consoled by any of the very available female grad students where he was teaching. Later he met his soulmate, with whom he had a daughter and a son, and whose births gave him a sense of wonder which he later transferred into his nativity work, "El Niño," in which he also strove to present a woman's point of view. There is a wonderful photo of his children – and their parents – when the former were twenty and nineteen. Adams gives brief descriptions of the places he lived in the Bay area.

Adams early learned all the basic clarinet repertoire including Mozart's concerto for that instrument but because of an injury to his lower lip was not able to produce the best kind of tone. He was more interested in conducting and, especially, composition anyway. I had not known how much more of a conducting career Aams has had, though I once saw him conduct his clarinet concerto, "Knarly Buttons," with a Milwaukee chamber group, Present Music. But early in his career he declined an invitation to study conducting at Tanglewood in view of what a conducting career had done to the composing career of Bernstein and Boulez. This is not the only brave decision he made concerning his career. When he went to California he needed to get a job unpacking imported clothing from containers, until his friend Ivan Tcherepnin tipped him off about a position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music teaching composition and directing a series of New Music concerts. He spent ten years there until, after a long period of creative dryness and the acquisition of a family, he decided to trust himself to earn a living through composition. Fortunately he responded well to the pressure of deadlines.

While a student at Harvard Adams found serialism repellent. It was there that he heard Terry Riley's "In C" and Steve Reich's "Drumming" and Adams found in this Minimalist aesthetic a path "out of the cul- de-sac" in which he seemed to be stuck. Adams subsequently developed a strong interest in electronic music, microtonality, polyrhythms and improvisation. Adam's early composing, while teaching at the Conservatory, was mostly electronic, with components he made himself, and it was so undistinguished that one of his students had the nerve to ask if he wanted the student to give him composition lessons! Adams describes a kind of epiphany he had while driving on the California coast and listening to the chromaticism of Wagner's "Goetterdaemmerung" on the radio. His reaction to Wagner – and Schumann – was "They care!" That is, they cared to express deep emotion through the western tonal system. In "Harmonielehre," the work which with which he ended his dry spell, Adams said he was making a "statement of belief in the power of tonality at a time when I was uncertain about its future."

Shaker Loops was the work which established his successful composing career. His first large-scale work, "Harmonium," was commissioned by Edo de Waart, who had recently succeeded Seiji Ozawa at the San Francisco Symphony. De Waart recorded a number of Adams' works and has a continuing interest in Adams' music; this season as director- designate of the Milwaukee Symphony he played one of Adam's shorter works.

Adams goes on to discuss his major works in detail, their origin, composition and performances. Lengthy discussions are given to "Nixon in China," the work that made him famous and "The Death of Klinghoffer," the work that made him infamous, as he says; to "Dr. Atomic," the musical "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I saw the Sky," and "The Tree of Life", as well as to "El Niño" and other works. He also writes about other composers, notably Cage, who strongly influenced him ever since his mother gave him a copy of "Silence" which no one at Harvard would have recommended; also Ives, Copland and Ingram Marshall. He writes about his collaborators, especially Peter Sellers and the poets who wrote his libretti. And anyone interested in vocal music should read his superlative descriptions of the singing of Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; for the latter he wrote the part of Oppenheimer's wife in "Dr. Atomic" but her final illness prevented her from singing it. Adams admits the shortcomings of some of his works and performances of them. For instance, the acoustic balances in "On the Transmigrations of Souls" were extremely troublesome.

In addition to narration, Adams includes the equivalent of short essays on tonality, the nature of musical creativity, the process of composing, and other significant topics concerning the state of music.

Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2009, R. James Tobin