John Adams: Hallelujah Junction

John Adams is a smart guy.

The New England-raised, California-based composer played clarinet concertos when he was a teenager. He tried to study ancient Greek while at Harvard in order to read the classics in their original language. (He didn’t get far.) He’s composed operas about Richard Nixon and the development of the atomic bomb.

No ghost writer is listed on the cover of his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, and given the college-level writing style, none was needed. (His blog is great as well. I really hope Marcel Proost is real.)

As such, Adams can’t help but come across as the smart guy he is, and when he’s relating stories about the creation of his biggest works, he’s entirely engaging.

Hallelujah Junction really takes off when Adams details the history of such works as Harmonielehre, Nixon in China and Grand Pianola Music. A disastrous premiere of a piece called Waveforms by Kronos Quartet made him rethink his approach, and the piece became Shaker Loops.

The liner notes of the San Francisco Symphony’s recording of Christian Zeal with Activity never made clear that the extra-musical material incorporated into the performance was Adams’ own tape composition titled Sermon. I’m glad Adams cleared that up.

When something doesn’t work, Adams doesn’t shy away from his own critiques of his works. The chapter titled "Technical Difficulties" lays out his expectations for pieces such as I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky and The Dharma at Big Sur and examines why they failed to catch on.

In the chapters which deal with his development as a student composer, Adams echoes the story told many times by his contemporaries — how the stifling world of atonal composition clashed with his own personal taste, how Terry Riley’s In C became a lightning rod to spark a search for his own voice. The sentiment and anguish Adams conveys during those exploratory years is something to which any budding composer can relate.

Adams talks about other composers and about creativity in general in the chapter "Mongrel Airs", and despite arguing his ideas well, I would have rather heard him talk more about his own work. I can find praise for Charles Ives or criticism of Frank Zappa anywhere.

I waited till Hallelujah Junction came out on paperback before I read it, but I bought the two-CD retrospective that accompanied the publication of the book last year.

The CD release was definitely a promotional item. The liner notes were excerpts from the book, and the pieces were presented only as excerpts. Steve Reich’s Phases boxed set was an incredibly convenient introduction to his works, and I didn’t understand why Adams received a more truncated treatment.

After reading the book, the CD retrospective makes sense. Adams does a fine job describing his music in such a way that makes you want to hear it, and it only takes those excerpts to map words to sound. Hallelujah Junction, the CD set, only works with Hallelujah Junction, the book. I imagine at some time Picador and Nonesuch will get their act together to publish a CD and book set.

(That doesn’t mean Adams doesn’t deserve his own mini boxed set. Or Philip Glass for that matter. Some of us just aren’t the dedicated fans to shell out for the Nonesuch 10-disc sets.)

Hallelujah Junction can come across as high-minded — Adams could easily out-throw me with the $10 words — but there’s a lot of heart in his writing. I read Philip Glass’ out-of-print autobiography, Music by Philip Glass, back in my waning years of high school, and I don’t remember it being as personable as Hallelujah Junction.

So when is Steve Reich going write his own book?