John Adams – Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life

It’s the rare mid-career artist who can write a perceptive and necessary autobiography. Writing takes time away from other creative tasks, and the distancing perspective of later life is most often what makes an insightful artist memoir hum. At sixty-one, John Adams is, by Elliott Carter standards, basically a tadpole. But this is an intensely personal and perceptive book about music, life, politics, and the field. It’s also an invaluable exploration of how an artist develops a voice, as well as a deeply felt rendering of Adams’ take on American music and musicians of all varieties, including honest appraisals of his own work. Adams’ self-awareness in examining his music never seems like latent, after the fact pop psychology. He’s brutally honest about his own work, often pointing out its shortcomings. He also takes the opportunity to mount the occasional spirited and well-merited defense.

Generous with others, there is plenty of discussion of the music of his contemporaries. Adams is brave enough to find fault with almost everyone, while also pointing out strengths with admiration. At times you get the feeling he’s airing out his own dislikes in order to more accurately limn the boundaries of his personal tastes. His writing about music is not only lucid and technically descriptive, it’s also full of spiky detail:

Craggy, prickly twelve-tone pieces like Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto and the Variations for Orchestra continue to give me a thrill in a similar way that Francis Bacon can do. Moses und Aron, Schoenberg’s Old Testament fable of truth and falsehood, has the implacable voice of Talmudic authority written on desert stone. Berg’s Lyric Suite for string quartet is suffused with the restless and mercurial lyricism of an overwrought, hypersensitive lover. And Webern’s hyper-compressed chamber music, small and tightly compacted like a heavy atom, seems forever on the point of vanishing into pure expressive energy.

Adams isn’t afraid to wade into politics and world affairs, often farther than he needs to, albeit with thorough and fully thought-out positions. As a composer, one empathizes as he talks about the reception to Death of Klinghoffer – the resulting controversy is not the discussion he intended in writing the piece, but when it veered into sound bite politics Adams was not afraid to rebut without stooping to AM radio shock jock posturing.

Most of all Adams takes you on his journey through music: the strange and often mysteriously convoluted path of a life led in search of one’s voice, honestly and often painstakingly examining the world within and without. He gives a vivid sense of how identity revolves around national, cultural, and personal realities, resulting in a one-of-a-kind compositional tableau.

The first John Adams piece that really grabbed me was the Violin Concerto, in a recording by Gidon Kremer with Kent Nagano conducting. The spiraling ascent of the first movement shed a new light on the processes of Minimalism and Adams’ work for me, bringing a deep appreciation for the music of his that I know. His search for a consciously ‘American’ sound, much like Copland years earlier, endears.

It’s not until chapter 11 that there is a hint of the “and then I wrote” vibe, but it’s a minor complaint because what he has to say is so interesting. He writes of honoring Ives with My Father Knew Charles Ives without abandoning the hard-fought language of his own. He describes a challenging collaboration with June Jordan. And in speaking about musicians he captures the confessional spirit and conversational tone that ranks this among the best of the species of “composers dishing on composers.” Knowledgeable about jazz and other improvised music, Adams remains explicit in stating that he retains full control of his completely notated scores. That puzzles me, especially with his long interest in jazz and electronic sound invention. But that’s his way, and why not?

Just the other night we watched Doctor Atomic on public television’s Great Performances and it made me wonder what’s next from this thoughtful and imaginative composer who has also excelled, in the most American way, by wearing many other hats. I’ll happily wait 61 years for a Volume 2.