Is there anything about the composer John Adams that still needs writing down? The critics have surely had their say: Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, Alex Ross in the eloquent epigram to his important book (The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century), myself in these (sob!) pages, Thomas May in his John Adams Reader, which wisely collects us and many more. We have lacked only a few words from the object of our affection himself, and if you know Adams’ music — really know it — it may not surprise you to discover that everything written up to now is puny, indeed, besides the guy, and what he has to say about himself.
You want to know what it takes to compose great music, serious music that can reach out and touch people importantly. Read Adams in his wonderful new memoir, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, especially the pages on his activities after 9/11. As it happens, he is in London at the time, preparing a recording of his Death of Klinghoffer, the opera that pits choruses of Jews and terrorists against one another in equal force. The New York Philharmonic wants a piece from him on the tragedy. He is repulsed by the idea, by the media’s almost immediate “kitschification” of the attack. He is moved, finally, by New York itself, by the hand-lettered signs posted around Ground Zero, by the racket in the streets even at 3 a.m., by the “fractals of information” that he can interweave with a text of victims’ names, quietly spoken by a chorus of children. Most of the performing organizations made the automatic move on 9/11, plugging in the great requiems of Mozart and Brahms. The intensely human, quiet urgency of Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, completed months later, came far closer to the sense of that day. It also earned Adams his first Pulitzer Prize.
Composer-memoirs, no less than prose authors’ memoirs, come a dime a dozen. Something about this intense, immensely charming and revealing work of Adams, however, transcends the bunch. Show me another composer willing to admit that one of his best orchestral works, the Chamber Symphony, is a blend of influences by atonality pioneer Arnold Schoenberg and the cartoon comic Ren and Stimpy favored by his son Sam. (Show me another composer, for that matter, willing to name his firstborn after a beer.)
Hallelujah Junction follows a circuitous path — like the eponymous dirt road in the High Sierras, where Adams’ maintains his composing retreat. It starts with a dance-band on a New Hampshire pleasure boat, with Dad on clarinet and young John listening, learning, moving on to music jobs at summer camps, eventually to Harvard. There his life is bracketed by the Beatles, LSD and Pierre Boulez. He learns the rules of strict counterpoint, discovers John Coltrane and submits his first composition, The Electric Wake. On graduating, his mother presents him with a copy of John Cage’s Silence, a libertarian manifesto; Adams’ response is to climb into his car and head west. Cruising along California hilltops at sunrise, Wagner on the car stereo, he has his first epiphany; he begins to know what music is all about. Later, looking down at the Pacific, he will turn a second epiphany (The Dharma at Big Sur) into music to help dedicate Disney Hall.
The first San Francisco years run on familiar tracks: beans and ramen in the Haight-Ashbury, one marriage torpedoed, one small break leading to a bigger one, a brave new conductor at the symphony (Edo de Waart) willing to take a chance and – kaboom! – Harmonium, a first masterpiece and a big one. The second was the supergorgeous Grand Pianola, and I was privileged to be in the Lincoln Center audience that erupted in almost-unanimous booing, and to chronicle the event in Newsweek as the arrival of West Coast music.
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Adams gained security: composer-in-residence at the San Francisco Symphony. He had not composed a note for the human voice when, in 1982, boy-genius Peter Sellars descended upon him with plans fully drawn for an opera called Nixon in China, but somehow he drew blood. Everything you wanted to know about Nixon is set forth in Adams’ brilliant character-analysis of Sellars’ and Alice Goodman’s scenario and libretto.
Next came, however, Klinghoffer, with its good-Jew/bad-Jew censorship controversy that won’t go away so long as producers assume the chutzpah of producing the opera in any form. (The original Sellars staging has been superseded by the interesting Penny Woolcock revision on DVD, which does not, fortunately, pull the teeth of the drama.) Adams fairly details the many attempts to kill the work, most of all the jeremiad by musicologist Richard Taruskin, which ran in The New York Times, which is answered with equal sting by librettist Goodman (who converted from Judaism while creating Klinghoffer’s poetry).
Doctor Atomic differs in that Adams approached Sellars with the idea rather than vice versa; the piling-up of controversy, the intensity of positive and negative criticism, remain the same. (Balancing, however, is the sublime A Flowering Tree, composed almost simultaneously, impossible to disparage.) First of all, Doctor Atomic rests on a fabulous mingling of poetry: John Donne, the Bhagavad Gita, Muriel Rukeyser, blended into Sellars’ gathering of scientific memoranda, data rescued from trash cans, etc. Again, any doubts about the sureness of Adams’ part in this music are easily dispelled in his own words on the opera’s focal moment. J. Robert Oppenheimer stands alone, his soul lacerated by the words of John Donne, the shadow of The Bomb behind, as John Adams lacerates us all in the key of D minor. You don’t need to read music to know how this works; Adams is there to make it clear.
HALLELUJAH JUNCTION: COMPOSING AN AMERICAN LIFE | By John Adams | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 352 pages | $26 hardcover