Music, Taken Personally

The memoir of John Adams

John Adams at the New College Theatre, November 17, 2008

Forty years ago, composer John Adams '69, A.M. '72, was conductor of the undergraduate Bach Society Orchestra. A Crimson critic creamed one of his concerts, and the experience rankled Adams so much that he quotes the review almost in full in his new autobiography, Hallelujah Junction.

That old controversy was forgotten last November, when Harvard's Office for the Arts presented a special event honoring Adams, the University's 2007 Arts Medalist. The "Bach Soc," conducted by Aram Demirjian '08, performed The Wound Dresser, the composer's setting of one of the great poems Walt Whitman wrote out of his experience as a nurse during the Civil War. The New College Theatre was full and enthusiastic--and the Crimson's subsequent account respectful.

Afterwards, there was a discussion of the text and the music among Adams, President Drew Faust, and Porter University Professor Helen Vendler. The grey-haired, softly bearded Adams was earnest, thoughtful, intense, and occasionally disarmingly modest. (Speaking of his most famous work, the opera Nixon in China, a collaboration with poet Alice Goodman '80 and stage director Peter Sellars '80, he remarked, "I'm not sure my music comes up to the quality of the libretto.'')

 Adams said he was deeply moved by the performance, remarking that soloist John Kapusta '09 was the same age as the slaughtered young men Whitman wrote about. "It is always older men who send younger men into battle,'' he said. "Unfortunately that was true again in my own generation.''

Faust spoke about Whitman's focus on the suffering of individuals, through which he was able to suggest the scale of the national tragedy. Adams enthusiastically concurred: "What I love about the poem is its absolutely shocking, clinical veracity."

Adams's music is always personal; that's why audiences take it personally. So he also spoke of some of the other currents that flowed into this work: the gradual disappearance of his father into the fog of Alzheimer's and his mother's selfless caregiving, and the loss of friends during the AIDS crisis. And because his music often explores or responds to issues that people care about, it therefore interests a public that is not necessarily drawn to contemporary music--while sometimes annoying the public that is, or critics who pen jibes against his "CNN operas'' or suggest that he is the fast-food king of classical music.

The relationship of text to music matters to Adams; much of his music is bound to words. "I considered setting some poems of Wallace Stevens to which I was introduced in Hum 5," he told his audience. (His section man was Neil Rudenstine.) "But his rhythms and textures were not right for me. I was attracted instead to the purely American utterance of Whitman, the flow of the language, the deep soul he was."

 Adams said he spoke the words of the text into a recording microphone to imprint the rhythms and resonances in his mind, and only then embarked on composing the music; most of his models for text setting come not from composers of opera but from popular music.

I grew up singing Rodgers and Hammerstein with my mother, and I listened to Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin. But I am not a vernacular composer--I'm a classical composer who writes concert music, not a Bob Dylan kind of artist. I find a lot of contemporary classical music complex and self-referential. For me, though, inspiration comes from trying to connect with an audience. Music is fundamentally the art of feeling--in this instance my feeling, my take on Whitman's feelings. Whitman was not ashamed of his feelings. Neither was Leonard Bernstein, who was accused of bad taste and vulgarity, of banality and sentimentality. I'd rather have that--after all we got West Side Story out of the deal. Some composers work towards an international style that transcends its national identity. I am drawn towards what is local and site-specific about art.


Adams's remarks almost amount to a précis of Hallelujah Junction, the book. (He used the title earlier for a two-piano piece--the name comes from a tiny truck stop near his mountain cabin; the volume, partly assembled from his previous writings, would have profited from more careful editing.) More a memoir than a true autobiography, the book is about how he found his own voice and became the composer he wanted to be: his subtitle is "Composing an American Life.''

Therefore some of the things one might expect from an autobiography are not present. His account of his first marriage, for example, is brief and reticent. We view his rise to his current eminence obliquely, as a progress from dorms to a shared house in Porter Square, to a $250-a-month apartment in Berkeley where he made four dollars an hour cleaning toilets and chasing drug dealers out of the doorway, to a cottage a block from Golden Gate Park, to a large four-story home in South Berkeley, and finally the acquisition of a 40-acre plot of redwoods on the Sonoma coast, where he built a studio.

Adams does not shrink from the misfires and embarrassments of his career, because they were necessary. His story is primarily one of self-education, although he does devote two chapters to his time at Harvard--the bookends for him were the Beatles' Help! and "Let It Be.'' He admits he favored "a contrarian route through the curriculum,'' but speaks with respect and affection of such teachers as Luise Vosgerchian, Earl Kim, and Leon Kirchner.

Still, he writes, "I made more progress in my command of harmonic practice by reproducing these pop songs [by the Doors, the Beach Boys, and others] from memory at the piano than I ever did by my forced marches through the figured bass treatises.'' Later he makes the same point about working through Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane.

Adams was the first undergraduate allowed to submit a musical composition as his senior thesis. He has never heard a performance of that work, "The Electric Wake"--none could be prepared in that turbulent time. But he is amusing on the subject of one of the works he composed during his two years as a graduate student, a piano quintet that "sounded like it could have been composed in 1910 Vienna by a young man bent on committing a triple murder-suicide."

Although both he and his admirers make crude distinctions between the "East Coast establishment'' and the freedoms of California, Adams knows his time at Harvard was not wasted. The music department's acquisition of a modular synthesizer and a pair of tape recorders in his junior year launched a fascination with the relationship between music and electronics that continues to this day--he fervently believes that artists should take charge of machines and "make them instruments of divine play.''

Adams realized at Harvard that he wanted to be a composer, not a clarinetist or a conductor; he was not seduced by an opportunity to work with Leonard Bernstein '39, D.Mus. '67, at Tanglewood. He had already learned to focus on what he needed to discover and to learn; he was already steadied by an interior gyroscope that would serve him well in the future--after his first successes, for example, he turned down the poet Thom Gunn's suggestion that he write an opera about the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.

Much of Hallelujah Junction is a record of serial enthusiasms: for the swing music his father played; for Mozart, to whom he was led by the clarinet; for early rock music; for jazz; for composers as diverse as Ives, Copland, Cage, Ellington, Boulez, Conlon Nancarrow, Frank Zappa, Michael Gordon, and more. (Curiously, for a man often described as the most successful composer of operas today, Adams doesn't mention many operas by other people, although he does describe conducting The Marriage of Figaro in the Leverett House dining hall, in a 1968 production directed by John Lithgow '67, Ar.D. '05.) He writes probing and sometimes critical pages and paragraphs about all of these--sometimes so critical that the book feels like a history of serial rejections as well.

But not really, because everything Adams has experienced ultimately emerges, renewed, in his music: the music of his parents' generation appears in the music he wrote for the characters of Pat and Richard Nixon; even Schönberg looms behind the opera Doctor Atomic. Adams's music, like his book, is built around patterns that recur, imperceptibly shift into new directions, gather up the past, and move into the future over an ever-richer harmonic basis.

Wagner, whose music can also be described in such terms, provided the unexpected moment of epiphany. One spring night in 1976, Adams was driving his Karmann Ghia convertible through the Sierra foothills and listening to "Dawn" and "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from Götterdämmerung. "I said out loud, almost without thinking, 'He cares.'" It was a matter of the sensual and emotional power of harmonic movement; for Adams, it was also a matter of sincerity.

From that moment on, Adams understood what he needed to do; getting where he needs to be remains an ongoing process. He discusses most of his major pieces in Hallelujah Junction, both the creative process and the sometimes fraught journey to performance. He knows when he hasn't succeeded, so he says almost nothing about such works as his piano concerto Century Rolls. He manages to sustain a quiet voice of reason in describing the turmoil that always surrounds his opera about terrorism, The Death of Klinghoffer, and admits that at least one of the controversies was of his own making. He found it intimidating to compose his 9/11 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls; even though it won the Pulitzer Prize, he found himself "oscillating wildly between loathing it and loving it.''

His tone is occasionally defensive, because he is a composer who has been as much reviled as praised. Much as he dismisses that long-ago Crimson review ("[T]hey missed the palpable enthusiasm and unbuttoned pleasure that both the orchestra members and their conductor and possibly even the audience were experiencing"), so he dismisses the "cranky critiques'' of the "big sloppy kiss to multiculturalism" of his most recent opera, A Flowering Tree.

But Adams is more often generous than petty. He admits he remains puzzled by the music of Frank Zappa, but admires his autobiography without reservations: "Only Berlioz's memoirs give such a delicious taste of the life and times of its writer without resorting to pomposity or self-promotion.'' Hallelujah Junction belongs on the same short shelf as Berlioz and Zappa because John Adams does that also. And, above all, he cares.

Richard Dyer, A.M. ’64, wrote about classical music for the Boston Globe for 33 years.

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