Should you read this autobiography: Hallelujah Junction by John Adams

Posted on February 4, 2011

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Name: John Adams. Occupation: The Mensch

In 1981, the newly created Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles commissioned a multi-media performance for its opening at a temporary site, the warehouse that used to house the car repair shop for the LA Police Department. John Adams was to write the music, Lucinda Childs was going to do the choreography, and in charge of the set was “a local architect [Adams] never heard of”, Frank Gehry. The title of the piece, Available Light, was a suggestion from Lucinda Childs’ “close friend and companion”, one Susan Sontag.

Adams’ autobiography is full of episodes of this kind, the low key, devoid of pomp and self-importance descriptions of how a project or a collaboration came to be, peppered with names that have since become legendary. In Leningrad for a conference on the musical avant-garde, we’ll see Adams at a remote table of an empty hotel dining room deep in conversation with John Cage. He has known Lorraine Hunt since she was a violist of some renown in Northern California and he’ll give us a glimpse of LH arriving, recently awoken and charmingly disheveled, to an early morning rehearsal. As still a young composer, he recollects approaching Allen Ginsberg at a café in San Francisco and asking him for William Burroughs’ address so he can send him a copy of his piece Heavy Metal. (“Send it to him”, was Ginsberg’s reply. “He’s always interested.”) The descriptions of Peter Sellars and the many productive and hilarious moments of their long collaboration alone are worth the price of admission. No matter how wide Adams’ own reading range is, he always gives the impression that Sellars’ is much wider and that he keeps surprising him with new discoveries. (A typical start of the work on a libretto would be Sellars pulling from his backpack an obscure collection of poetry in its original language and saying to Adams, “You have, of course, heard of this…”)

Still. However many Indexical pleasures this book will hold for us indexical addicts*, they’re not the most important thing about Hallelujah Junction. It’s the fact that the book gives us the privilege of a peek into the mind of a composer with a great mind. It’s also a frank account of a life as an artist (hint: there’s a lot of trial and error). Adams is equally at ease discussing good times and bad, acclaim and criticism, and, surprisingly for an autobiography, a form often used to settle old scores and reiterate one’s side in every story, Junction is remarkably magnanimous.

Therefore, the avant-garde tradition into which the young Harvard composition graduate emerged in the sixties gets an excellent hearing across the chapters and only by the end of the book we realize that it is something that Adams in his composing practices actually repudiated or more precisely overcame (augehoben). Like many of his contemporaries, he was interested in Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt, while simultaneously being put off by their exclusivity (Boulez’s writing was a “dense thicket of procedural dicta”; Babbitt’s article “Who cares if you listen?” will be what he’s more widely known for than his music). John Cage was the composer with a much greater role for Adams, and his work and writing spoke to Adams “in terms both radical and illuminating”. He was also a rare artist who gave proper acknowledgment to chance and incorporated the aleatory in his composing. But ever so slightly, as termites working through an edifice, Adams brings us to understand why he ended up thinking of the avant-garde of that time as a desert and a dead-end. (Boredom these works inevitably caused was an important factor. Another one: it was music capable of surviving only through the composer’s charisma, but not in transmission. Pseudo-scientific models, lack of interest in whether anybody was listening were among others.) Discovering minimalism for Adams meant a renaissance.

Although he’s still sometimes classified as a minimalist, to follow the many trajectories that John Adams took from minimalism one is advised to read this treasure of a book. He argues, for example, that the late Romantic language developed by Schumann and Wagner did not die with the onset of Modernism, but rather continued to live in places like American jazz, show music and pop song. “The harmonic essence of the early popular American composers like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Ellington was not all that different from the chromaticism of the late Romantic composers.” (A Harmony Lesson, p 105) That is another tradition that Adams relates to. Other influential events and procedures: the electronic music; the alternative tuning (this is some fascinating stuff); non-Western musical traditions and instruments; the sound equivalent of ‘found objects’; computer programs that facilitate the creation of the alternative tempi for the instruments in the same piece and the spacial effects in composing (the far and near sounds, the ambiance sounds); the rhythms of poetry in different languages; and of course, what is known as the Western musical canon. And these are just a few things that I can immediately remember.

Adams shows us the detailed genealogy of each of his piece. As if it’s not enough that the music is so inventive and complex, the librettos to his operatic works zoom in to some of the toughest issues his country has faced or self-created. Urban class warfare, racial inequalities, xenophobic response to immigration, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, complicity of scientists with nefariousness of political power, environmental degradation, yes, all that is in, but Adams has probably received the greatest flak for his Death of Klinghoffer and the criticism of his country’s blind support for Israel. Even when he gives account of the many controversies and media storms that have followed his choice of topics, in his customary gentlemanly Adamsian way he lets his opponents speak. And a lot. And you realize that that’s the best way of embarrassing their argument. There’s a segment in the chapter on the Death of Kinghoffer which deals with the reception of this opera after September 11, when many used the opportunity to grandstand by qualifying Klinghoffer as ‘dangerous’. Richard Taruskin, for example. If you ever suspected that RT was a dick, but were hesitant to conclude it once and for all, that question will be put to rest after reading his opportunistic attack on Klinghoffer.

In his book Adams will often express admiration for performers and instrumentalists. He has no doubt that they are the integral part of what a work is and that they make or break a composition. Many times he would mention a name and follow it with “s/he taught me what it is that I composed; showed me there was more in the work than I even suspected.”

Own this book.

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* Indexical pleasure: the pleasure of checking the bio’s index first, then reading the text so we can see what context the names of interest emerge in.

Nixon in China opens at the COC on Saturday, February 5. It had its Met debut this week.

John Adams blogs here.