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America's voice finally tells the story of his life

Hallelujah Junction Composing an American Life John Adams Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 340 pp., $26

October 09, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

JOHN ADAMS is the voice of America. His instrumental music, and particularly that for the orchestra, conveys the American experience broadly. He is generous in his interests, which include the maverick Yankee-isms of Charles Ives, the populist strains of Bernstein and Copland and the classical jazz of Ellington and Benny Goodman, as well as the more progressive styles of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Pop music -- be it the Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, electronica or grunge -- is on his radar. He has experimented with experimental music and championed Minimalism. Sibelius looms large.

Adams' three major operas are an essential part of the American discussion. "Nixon in China," for all its Pop art whimsy, is a reflection on diplomacy, the profound differences between East and West and the insecurities of world leaders. "Founders come first, then profiteers," Mao sings, as relevant at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics as it was at the opera's 1987 Houston premiere.

"The Death of Klinghoffer," from 1991, is a haunting and meaningful meditation on terrorism, its roots and causes. The recent "Doctor Atomic" reminds us that the nuclear threat is greater than ever. The only musical institution in America that Adams has yet to conquer is the Metropolitan Opera, and that will happen this month when the company stages "Doctor Atomic."

The story of how Adams found his voice and became our country's is easy enough to paste together, given that the 61-year-old composer has long been in the media eye.

Yet there has been no biography. One in the works by a UC Santa Cruz musicologist seems stalled, and Adams, having gotten his autobiographical juices stirred by the many interviews he gave for that project, finally decided he would tell his own story.

The result is "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life," a memoir that reveals Adams to be self-reflective to a fault -- thoughtful, amusing, analytical -- and a good writer.

In "Hallelujah Junction," we discover that Adams is, like his music, a little bit of everything. He grew up outside of Concord, N.H., in modest surroundings, a Yankee individualist. He learned clarinet from his father, an amateur player in dance bands. As a boy, he appeared in an amateur production of "South Pacific" with his mother. He fell in love with classical music listening to Mozart and Beethoven on a cheap Magnavox record player and tried writing music early on, often with embarrassing results.

A Harvard education in the 1960s brought him sophistication. A budding conductor, he came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein. But he wanted to compose. In addition, after two years of graduate school, Adams found East Coast academic life too stifling. Armed with the writings of the Beat poets and John Cage's "Silence," a manual for opening the ear and the musical mind, he and his new wife put their few belongings in a near-dead Volkswagen Beetle and drove to San Francisco. They had no prospects and didn't know a soul.

In the Bay Area, Adams received his sentimental education. He landed in a funky building just off Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where he did janitorial work in exchange for rent and then found a job at the Oakland docks.

A lucky break led to a teaching gig at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and for some years, Adams attempted to become a West Coast radical composer, writing and performing self-consciously outrageous works.

A graduate student at Mills College in Oakland at the time, I attended Adams' first concert at the San Francisco Conservatory in 1974 and pretty much witnessed everything else he did for the next two years. Mostly what I remember was just how wary many of us who considered ourselves West Coast musical revolutionaries were of him. He walked the walk and talked the talk, but he didn't somehow seem authentic. He was showy and appeared to try too hard.

I next encountered Adams at the 1978 Cabrillo Festival outside Santa Cruz, where the Kronos Quartet premiered his "Wavemaker." The composer looked downright wasted. In fact, he recounts in "Hallelujah Junction," he had stepped on a nest of bees and was in toxic shock. He woke up the next morning in the hospital.

"Wavemaker" wasn't very good; it sounded like wan, predictable Minimalism. A year later, though, he reworked it into "Shaker Loops," and everything came together. Soon, he produced "Harmonium," a daring commission for a big piece for chorus and orchestra to celebrate the opening of San Francisco's Davies Concert Hall. In his early 30s, Adams had finally and laboriously arrived.

In telling his story, Adams provides the background for his major works, spells out themes in American music and gives his impressions of such important colleagues as Peter Sellars, Frank Gehry and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Writing with an eye on history, he worries about setting the record straight. Interesting as all this is, a few more revelations might have been welcome.

Some of his premieres were historic occasions. The first "Klinghoffer" performance in Brussels, during the Gulf War, was fraught not only with the fear of terrorism (the city had a large local Palestinian community) but also with a near open revolt by Jewish cast members who felt that Sellars, the director, was provocatively pro-Palestinian. In recounting that event, Adams doesn't completely skirt controversy, yet he does refuse to spill many beans.

Adams' discussion of his own music is straightforward and useful. For pure insight, Michael Steinberg's program annotations and CD liner notes will remain the best first stop. And we still need that Adams biography. But "Hallelujah Junction" offers the voice of America straight from the horse's mouth, and to read something so intelligent, reasoned and caring sure feels good these days.


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