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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: Hallelujah Junction

I just finished reading the new autobiography by the American composer John Adams entitled Hallelujah Junction – Composing an American Life.

There have been ample reviews of this recent book in the major press, and all I intend to do is add a few personal observations and comments to go along with the general praise and good will that Adams’ memoirs have already generated.

Even before Hallelujah Junction was published, I listened to Adams read a few chapters at his alma mater Harvard.

My blog has at times in the past year served as a soapbox for my views about the “ism” of minimalism, and I have oft railed against it as a musical trend that contradicts the way I hear and consequently write music. So it was much to my surprise that reading what Adams wrote about his career, formative years, and personal musical evolution resonated with me more that I would have expected given my admittedly anti-minimalist orientation.

His prose is not bad, clearly a by-product of an education well-rounded in the classics and humanities. The book would be satisfying to a lay reader not familiar with the cut-throat and aesthetically perverse world of contemporary music, but it also would be interesting to someone who works in music and is curious about the inside scoop.

Adams tells anecdotal tales about his youth and exploration of a wide-range of musical genres in the early chapters of the book, particularly about his undergraduate years at Harvard in the 60s and 70s. For example, like many in my generation, he had encounters with the Selective Service draft board during the Vietnam era after college. He writes eloquently about his teachers at Harvard. Knowing the context and having met a few of the individuals cited - Ivan Tcherepnin, Elliott Forbes, Leon Kirchner, Earl Kim, and Luise Vosgerchian – allowed me to relate to his writing in a direct and personal way (Regretably, all except Kirchner, have since passed away). Adams captures the late-60s to early 70s Boston-Cambridge cultural scene with a backdrop of nostalgia while possessing a sharp recollection with regard to the details of those years.

One question that comes to my mind is why would he write his autobiography at this point in his life? Adams, born in 1947, is a youthful 62 year old. He’s not yet retired or on Social Security, and must have a busy life fulfilling commissions and preparing for upcoming conducting engagements. My hunch is that the book was an opportunity for self-reflection about the rhapsodic life he has led as well as an opportunity to explain his unique perspective about a number of controversial and turbulent encounters throughout his jam-packed career. It may also present an opportunity to clarify the facts, such as the distinction between himself and a number of composers who go by the same namesake.

Among the details that I found interesting was that he gigged in and around Boston as a freelance clarinetist, and substituted for the BSO under Eric Leinsdorf. The last public concert that he recalls performing was at Brandeis, where he “played the tricky, rhythmically treacherous Sextet by Copland and had the pleasure of meeting its composer after the concert.” Copland was overhead commenting afterward in this thick Brooklyn accent, “Yeah, the kid knows his stuff.” I can clearly picture the scene in my mind and which Brandeis composer were present with exacting detail – even though I wasn’t yet in Boston.

The great adventure of his life really began at the age of 26 after he finished his Masters degree at Harvard and left the oppressive East Coast for an exotic foreign country: California. He and his first wife packed everything they owned into an unreliable Volkswagen Beetle and drove to the Wild West via the Trans-Canada highway passing through the Rockies on their way.

It’s comforting to read that even the most fortunate of composers have their ups-and-downs, dry periods, and feelings of self-doubt. Adams is frank in his book about the trials and tribulations of the American composer, which ain’t all curtain calls and inevitable hits. It’s a tough business, but somone’s gotta do it.

Adams ended up in Berkeley and after a year of bumming around. The composer found an apartment house to manage in exchange for reduced rent, and held the title of Assistant Building Manager. “With two degrees from Harvard University, I began my professional life at $4 an hour, cleaning kitchens and toilets and chasing dope dealers from the hallway and foyers of the building.” This keep him going for a year while he slowly acclimated to the culture of the local beatnik environ, although he fell into what seems to be a state of mild depression. Adams writes, “I soon found myself in a rut, sleeping late and at night drinking the local inexpensive wine that could be purchased by the gallon.”

But things improved… he landed a working-class minimum-wage job on the Oakland waterfront unloading huge containers at the docks while fantasizing about living “a double life as a proletarian worker during the day and avant-garde composer at night.” But at times, albeit reluctantly, he considered returning to Harvard to earn his PhD as a way to escape the drudgery his forty-six hour work week.

One day the phone rang. It was the personal manager of Leonard Bernstein with a personal message from the Maestro. The famous conductor/composer wanted to know if Adams would become his personal assistant – travel with him to Vienna and elsewhere. The manager said, “Lenny wants to know how you are. Are you still married? Yes? Well, give us a call if your situation changes.”

Adams continued to work on the Oakland waterfront – perhaps hearing in his head excerpts from Bernstein’s magnificent movie score from “On the Waterfront” as he unloaded cargo. Of course Lenny found other assistants, including my friend Peter H., a composer and hedge-fund manager, who wound up severing his professional services with Bernstein in moral outrage and disgust. It’s possible that Peter got a phone call from the (in)famous Maestro’s personal manager in 1971 right after Adams declined to take the assignment.

As luck would have it, Ivan Tcherepnin - his former professor at Harvard - called with an inside tip that the San Francisco Conservatory needed an instructor ASAP. It would also involve directing the new music concert series too. He got the job. No more slaving in the shipyard for Adams. Besides, his decrepit VW died. It was an omen.

It was serendipitous. If Tcherepnin had not called that afternoon, we may never have heard of the composer John Adams. Adams may have ended up as one of the many countless composers of that era who dissolved into the oblivion of obscurity. It was the first big break in a perfect storm of fortunate circumstances that would lead him down a road of career opportunities that are virtually unheard of in this profession. From his ten-year stint at the San Francisco conservatory, he gained the experience and connections needed to move on in his development as a composer. True, the San Francisco teaching position was but a mere stepping stone in the overall trajectory of his incredible career, but an important milestone nonetheless. And just as importantly, he grasped at the opportunity and used it to work hard at his craft, to network, and to grow.

One of the interesting threads in his autobiography is the theme about how a composer comes to find what they want to write after they “grow up.” Adams muses about his discovering Wagner on cassette tape in the Sierra foothills in 1976, “while still in the process of forming my own voice” at the ripe age if 29. Composers need time to mature. That’s one of the important messages of this book.

Of course there were many other important milestones along the way, and Adams has a unique sense and humbling perspective about the import of these acts of fortune – including his commission from the then obscure Dutch conductor Edo de Waart: the successor of Seiji Ozawa at the San Francisco Symphony. Adams writes, “I suddenly found that I’d had dropped in my lap a major commission from an ‘establishment’ arts organization to be premiered in a high-profile setting.”

The result of this commission was the work Harmonium for chorus and orchestra. The work was premiered at the new Davies Hall on April 15th, 1981 when Adams was 34 years old. He describes The tape of the first performance made the rounds, created a buzz, and the work ultimately received numerous additional performances (unlike most new works that are only played once – if at all). Harmonium was soon recorded by ECM Records. That project bred a relationship with Bob Hurwitz from Nonesuch Records that would thrive in years to come. Adams wrote that Nonesuch recorded and released virtually every one of his works since 1985. (There are currently three commercial recordings: ECM conducted by Edo de Waart, Telarc conducted by Robert Shaw, and Nonesuch conducted by John Adams).

The book if full of similar milestones and interesting stories about his encounters and collaborations with musicians, writers, directors, and the classical music establishment. It was fun to read about Adams and John Cage draining bottles of Vodka late into the night after a Soviet Composers Union meeting at the Hotel Leningrad during a residency where Adams had his Harmonielehre performed by the Lithuanian State Philharmonic Orchestra. Cage was a hero among the Soviets, who bathed themselves in his Zen-like answers to philosophical questions – even if the translation was questionable (at best).

I learned more about Adams the conductor, and he must be very skilled. At this point he has traveled the world and conducted the finest orchestras - not only in performances of his own music, but the scores of other contemporary American masters too: including Ives, Nancarrow, and Zappa. He has some very personal and astute observations about those composers, and how they influenced his compositional thought. For example, the software package known as Digital Performer can be used to expand or contract music into bigger or smaller intervals of time. He has made use of this digital music-processing technique extensively, but got the idea from the rhythmic inventiveness of Nancarrow (who he met in Berkeley California), Ives, and even Zappa.

And yet, with all of this success, there is something missing in the autobiography. It does not mention certain milestones that would have changed the life of many a composer. For instance, Adams won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in music in 2003. In 2008 he received a Grawemeyer Foundation award – amounting to $200,000. He won several Grammy Awards, and is a recipient of the $100,000 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Musical Composition which includes a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a residency at Northwestern University School of Music. Perhaps it was modesty, and the fact that this information can be easily gleamed from his website, but you would think that all of these events would be life-transforming and reaffirming to one’s mission. It’s a necessary and vital part of the story and deserves mention. There are many composers whose life would be changed for the better by receiving any of these honorary and/or monetary distinctions, and it is curious that Adams chooses not to even mention their existence in his book. (I remember the year that Adams won the Nemmers, since I formally nominated a former teacher of mine for that high-profile award. I still think that my nominee was deserving of the honor, and would have benefited from it greatly).

Another odd piece of omission is about his studies. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Adams studied with Roger Sessions at Harvard, yet there is no mention of the distinguished teacher and composer anywhere in his autobiography. Roger Sessions is one of the major figures of American composition – a founding father so to speak. It would have been interesting to read about their interactions, and differences of opinion they may have had. But Adams is silent on this subject, for reasons unknown.

Among the things I enjoyed most in the book were reading about the real-world entanglements of work and life, about the struggles of creation, and his work with others on large projects such as operas and various stage-works. On page 221 he writes “Artistic collaboration is never easy. On occasion it has occurred to me that, next to double murder-suicide, it might be the most painful thing two people can do together.” He writes about setting text, and the different attributes between languages in a musical settings.

The formative list of renown conductors, musicians, and singers that Adams has worked with over the years is well documented in the book. I particularly like his antidotes about late mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson - who he first encountered as a violist playing in Shaker Loops with a Berkeley new music ensemble. “She would arrive sleep and sexy, hastily dressed, barely awake, totally alluring.” Later, when she was a superstar and rehearsing for the premiere of El Niño, there was an unfortunate air of stress between her and the conductor Kent Nagao. “Lorraine, also a native northern Californian [like Nagano], having known Kent since her early days as a violist in the Bay Area, had some issues adjusting to what she construed as Kent’s maestro demeanor. So there in Paris, on the stage of the Châtelet, those two former residents of Berkeley and San Francisco, now nearing the pinnacles of their international musical careers, butted heads as if they were still in high school.”

It does seem that Adams has a Schoenberg-complex. On page 128-129 he recants in vivid detail a nightmare that he had about the old man. Schoenberg was “like a brooding, egocentric father, impossible to please, he looked in my consciousness, sometimes as the embodiment of a mercurial creative force and other times as a lethal defoliant, ready to kill off any and all sprouts of life that might appear in its immediate range.” In the dream, Schoenberg approaches him in an overcoat and tries to abduct his infant children. Adams admires Schoenberg, and despises him too. The inner-conflict inspired Adams to compose his own Chamber Symphony which “went to the edge of comprehensibility and clarity.” He writes: “Like the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, which also suffers from nearly insurmountable balance problems, my work is a virtual hive of contrapuntal activity. Scored for an ensemble of solo instruments that was similar to the Schoenberg with an additional keyboard sampler and drum set, it gives all players special moments to shine as soloists, often in melodic lines of finger-twisting complexity. A lot of gnarly music that I’d long had a fondness for…”

My brother-in-law Jan, a professional cellist in Amsterdam, confided to me that he had issues playing this work, saying that it is poorly orchestrated and individual parts get drowned out. Adams writes, as if in rebuttal to this criticism: “An inspired performance was both entertaining and breathtakingly virtuosic. But a bad performance – and I heard many – sounded like undifferentiated noise, fifteen instrumentalists loudly and aggressively riffing as if casually indifferent to one another.”

The book is roughly in chronological order, but also organized into chapters that focus on individual works or subjects of thought. Sometimes the writing double-backs on itself, and I lost track of dates and time. So many of his projects were multi-year events, so there is some overlap between chapters. I wish the book included an appendix with a complete chronological listing of his works as a point of reference.

In the final chapter – Garage Sale of the Mind – Adams tries to end on a positive note. It is a discussion about history, and questions if the concept of progress actually exists. He counters a point in the book Full House by Stephen Jay Gould comparing evolutionary science and cultural legend. Adams proposes that, “Rather than viewing ‘progress’ as the paradigm for novelty in the arts, we might be better advised to welcome the idea of ‘variation.’”

Now that I’ve read his autobiography, I intend to revisit his music. There certainly is plenty of it.

Halleluhjah Junction - Composing an American Life
by John Adams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, copyright 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0-374-28115-1
ISBN-10: 0-374-28115-7