Review: Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life by John Adams Print E-mail

Hallelujah-Junction(Contrary Magazine Spring 2009)

The Composer's Advocate

It’s arguable whether or not John Adams is America’s most prominent living composer. But after reading his autobiography, I have no doubt that he’s our most knowledgeable. No other composer can embody in writing the variant weather of our storm-tossed electronic, pop, classical, and contemporary music as lucidly as he can. Composer, conductor, innovator, controversialist, author, Adams is the deacon of New Music, whose career joins that of other great American mavericks—a tradition, it should be remembered, that exists for the likes of John Cage, not John McCain.

Narrating the entirety of his composing life—he is 62—Adams writes what amounts to a Lonely Planet guide to his many works, paying special heed to the cultural context of their creation. He moves from his precocious musical adolescence to his musical awakening as a member of the 1970s avant-garde to his monumental and controversial operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic. Last November I saw the Metropolitan Opera production of Doctor Atomic, a gun-pointing, bone-rattling work, often oppressive in its non-dramatic stasis and sound masses. The story of the first atom bomb’s final two days culminates in its detonation, which Adams scores as a maniacal crescendo of recorded clocks and room-drowning timpani. Its wake echoes with the taped utterances of bewildered and burnt Japanese survivors.

The musical currency of this New-Englander-turned-Berkeley-Californian is minimalism. Early exemplary works include the meteoric Harmonium (1980) for orchestra and the mesmeric Shaker Loops (1983) for chamber group. His musical design is based on pulsing patterns: harmonically tonal, symmetrically square, rhythmically propulsive. These patterns grow via gradual shifts in meter, added rhythms and melodies, contrasts in color and dynamics. At times, the climaxes are so loud and the pulsation so intense that the music blows away our studied listening, and we are swallowed up in a ritualistic fervor. It’s a music alien to the long-form classical structures whose thematic transformations and expected cadences we have memorized for 300 years. Adams’ music is blocky, riveting, pressurized, and unsubtle, scored for classical Western instruments but with intonations and grooves closer to rock and the Balinese gamelan, the percussion orchestra from Bali.

His prose has a similar verve, his music-cultural explanations the most vibrant. Often Adams makes and presses his case that he’s an "American composer," much as Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, would were Ross writing the book. Not undeservedly, Adams summons himself to Mount Parnassus, there to reside with our six other great composers, Ives, Gershwin, Ellington, Copland, Barber, and Bernstein. The gang of six, now seven, share a simple yet irreducible trait: each has taken the native character of our music (African rhythms plying European harmonies and form) and created a new emotional language.

Adams hits upon this in his qualified tribute to Ives. About Ives, he admires "his quest to keep the vernacular roots of the art alive within the context of his formal experimentation." The "fatal error" that Modern composers made (from serialist to neo-Romantic) was in "super-refining their ideas, following self-imposed protocols that robbed the experience of its cultural connectivity." Ives kept "the commonplace roots of his inspiration largely intact" as did Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Britten, composers whose influence has also spread through Adams.

"Cultural connectivity" is the sine qua non of music for Adams. His genius is to link his architectural musical sensibility with the ambiguities and passions of our contemporary moment. Thus, it is vital to Adams that he has an audience; that he composes with current technology and takes part in the political discourse of our time (Klinghoffer was roundly criticized for taking up the Palestinian cause); that he bridges the world of concert performance and its minutely-notated scores to the improvisatory exotica of live jazz, rock, and electronic music; and that he rescues "classical music" from its grandest meta-narrative, its subservience to the big-bust supremacy of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

In 1983, Adams wrote an obstreperous symphonic work, Grand Pianola Music , in which he mixed "all kinds of musical detritus." Some at the Avery Fisher Hall New York performance booed it. Bad-boy pleased, Adams said the piece "sticks its tongue out and wags its ears at the extreme good breeding and extreme good taste of ‘High Art.’ It [High Art] was something that had become so oppressive and so intimidating that it was threatening its own extinction."

But more important than strafing musical elites, Adams’s music has forced players and listeners to field a new music for which they have a blooded affinity but little technical understanding or formal knowledge. His works are notoriously difficult to play because they maximize performance bravura. Especially those that pound away at repetitious figures or mix electronic elements with live playing. Such physically demanding works are, like Jimi Hendrix playing the "Star Spangled Banner," often sublime, unforgettable.

By counterpointing Adams’s prose and his music, I’m following his lead: Adams believes his compositions have given his life autobiographical authenticity. His having done it all is big enough for one big book, like Bill Clinton’s My Life. And yet Adams’s writing has none of the self-aggrandizement of the world-class ego. He de-emphasizes the self by de-emphasizing feeling and memory. Except for the exuberant embrace of his work and of his collaboration with director Peter Sellers, he rarely speaks of his emotional life, almost nothing about wife and kids.

Another virtue: Adams knows that his value as a composer comes in reflecting the vicissitudes of the culture. His usefulness is his aesthetic. By the end, I thought of Adams much less like Orpheus or Adrian Leverkühn, figures tortured by music, and much more like the rhythm-king Count Basie or the march-happy John Phillip Sousa. Adams’s contented stature may stem from his agency, privilege, maleness, all of which are here. But there’s success, too, for example, in the psychological probity of Nixon in China, where he and Sellers capture Nixon and Mao, almost against their will, as more reflective and bedeviled than their statesmen roles allowed.

Adams treasures his role, with hints of too much self-anointing, as an American composer in whom the forces of our cultural and aesthetic pragmatism coalesce. His music’s popularity and his life-writing prove his gravitas as do his commissions. In 2002, the New York Philharmonic asked him to remember the victims of 9/11. Adams complied with On the Transmigration of Souls, a loss-contemplating work of survivor voices transmigrating into and through an extra-musical collage of street sounds and choral-orchestral ethereality. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Adams is a composer who let the possibility of a culturally connected new American music become him, who has pushed minimalism onto gargantuan stages, who enraptures as he challenges, even subverts, his audience. We didn’t necessarily need the composer and the author to commingle the two in order to better understand him. But now that he has we have much more to indulge in this masterful composer than mere common tones in simple time.