Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life Hardcover – Sep 30 2008
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“What a wonderful book! Entertaining, touching and revealing. Like Berlioz's memoirs, it gives us a glimpse into the life and times of a great composer. Not to be missed.” ―Emanuel Ax
“John Adams's memoir is elegant, hilarious, humble, sophisticated, touching, and enormously enlightening about a whole era. It is a remarkable demystification of what it means to be a composer. Adams is a philosopher/craftsman, attempting to reflect and render the truth as he observes and feels it, in all its complexity and its simplicity. His book is a testimony that is equally emotional and intellectual, refreshing and comprehensible to anyone who has ever built or created something with care and attention, whether it be a piece of music, a table, a business, or a family.” ―Derek Bermel
“Hallelujah Junction is one of the best and most important composer autobiographies next to those of Berlioz and Wagner. A fascinating picture of John Adams the man unfolds with the same directness, precision, and passion as his music. What impresses me most is the sense of absolute honesty in the narrative: a quality exceedingly rare in composers' writings about themselves and their work.” ―Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
“John Adams's memoir is exuberant, opinionated, and vastly informative. Like a renegade tour guide, he takes us on several trips at once. In recounting his own story, he shows us the inner workings of his own creative process and simultaneously illuminates the recent history of music-making. His learned, witty, self-mocking voice is both subjective and objective, telling us all about him and all about the music around us. Amazingly, you can almost hear it.” ―John Lithgow
“Charming and illuminating . . . Hallelujah Junction stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures.” ―David Hajdu, The New York Times Book Review
“Thoughtful, amusing, analytical . . . 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.” ―Los Angeles Times
“In the classical-music world, Adams is seen as a sort of late-career Picasso: a star, a standby, a one-man manufactory of brilliant, audience-friendly work. Hallelujah Junction doesn't overturn these perceptions, but it adds a surprising hue of restlessness and uncertainty to the portrait. One of America's most accessible living composers turns out to be one of the hardest to pin down.” ―Slate
About the Author
John Adams was born in Massachusetts in 1947. He is the composer of such acclaimed works as Harmonielehre, Nixon in China, Naive and Sentimental Music, El Niño, and On the Transmigration of Souls, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. He lives in Berkeley, California.
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This is a book for all readers, not just specialists or fans. It's an exceptional autobiography of any kind, of any figure in contemporary American life, and for anyone interested in classical music in general, and the current iterations, this book demands to be read. This will be as essential a part of the literature of music as Adams' own work is an essential part of the history of music itself.
The early years of Adams' upbringing, training, surviving with odd jobs, and becoming established were the most interesting for me, as it illustrates the social forces and dispositions that make the person. The later and current years are the increasing successes of an international musical leader, and the parade of orchestras, conducting, travels, and assorted musical stars are as we expect, although much of the details of creating a composition and performance are particularly worthy. I found his perspectives on music, musicians, and the actual work and struggle of composing always edifying. Reading the autobiographies and biographies of composers have a historical and analytical purpose, but this nontechnical book is contemporary in every way, making it attractive to the general reader, not just the musicologist or classical music fan. Adams is only in his early 60s and far from retirement. There will probably be a future updated account of life long after we revel in his forthcoming compositions.
In his autobiography Halleluja Junction the composer cogently and vivaciously retraces the path from his early musical experiences to creative maturity. The early chapters recount his New England youth and composition studies at Harvard University. In 1971 Adams moved to the West Coast and settled down in the Bay Area where he still lives. As a composer Adams started to find his own voice in the late 1970s. He considers his piano piece Phrygian Gates (1977) to be his first mature piece. Harmonium (1980), his first large scale work for large orchestra and chorus, was another important milestone.
I found the transitional part of his autobiography, roughly covering the two decades from 1965 to 1985, the most insightful. Here is an aspiring composer who has absorbed and tries to forge his own voice from a fantastically wide range of influences - the canon of 18th and 19th century European art music, the vernacular of jazz and American popular song, post-war serialism and Cagean aleatorics, minimalism, counterculture pop music, the emergence of electronically generated sounds. His early infatuation with the musical avant-garde, however, proves to be stillborn. In 1976 Adams had a revelation whilst driving his old Karmann Ghia convertible along a ridge in the Sierra foothills. His tape recorder was playing music from Act I of Götterdämmerung. Wagner’s chromatic but still tonal harmonies produced „an expressive world of constantly changing, forever ambiguous, disturbingly human yearning”. Adams realizes that he could not relinquish the power of tonal harmony if he wanted to build expressive, large scale musical structures. There and then he understood that a personal harmonic language would have to be the core of his compositional genome. All this went against the grain of the atonal avant-garde the budding composer initially felt attracted to.
Adams felt, however, he was entitled to embrace this legacy: „The harmonic language developed by Schumann and Wagner did not die out with the advent of Modernism. It simply moved across the Atlantic, where it was appropriated by composers, many of them African Americans and émigré Jews” who created the tradition that he grew up with. The harmonic essence of composers like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Ellington was not all that different from the chromaticism of the late Romantic composers. But in that process of migration the morbid self-awareness of turn-of-the-century European composers was transformed into a characteristically New World, jubilant lyricism. This „fresh optimism, busy and brash and thoroughly at ease with itself” is in my opinion still the tinta, the color or atmosphere that pervades John Adams’ mature oeuvre.
From 1985 onwards the flow of commissions provided Adams with a constant supply of artistic challenges. The storyline of Halleluja Junction then turns into a blow by blow account of how he tackled his major compositions. Here it is interesting to see how his fundamental optimism intersects with the grave conflicts and dilemmas of our time. Particularly in his stage works - Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic - Adams confronts the ambiguities surrounding his American identity. These are counterbalanced by a series of works - El Nino, A Flowering Tree, The Gospel According to the Other Mary - that confirm his belief in the generative and healing potential of particularly the female element in our society.
Adams is an exceptionally reflective and articulate artist. There is much more in this book to nurture the reader’s understanding of his artistic position and a richly layered compositional process matured over decades.
I found this book rewarding in many respects. It offers a compelling autobiographical narrative, a variegated and often jocular panorama on the development of 20th century ‚classical’ music, and a fascinating insight into the workings of a creative mind. However, a solid grasp of 19th and 20th classical music and at least some exposure to Adams’ own work is necessary to fully enjoy this book.
The book is a keeper.
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