Notes in a Modern Key

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Reviewed by Anne Midgette
Sunday, November 2, 2008


Composing an American Life

By John Adams

Farrar Straus Giroux. 340 pp. $26

"Composed" means "written," but it also means "restrained." John Adams's new memoir is both. Coming from the man who leapt to fame with the wackily exuberant docu-opera "Nixon in China," Hallelujah Junction is striking for its dogged earnestness.

There are not many books for the intelligent lay reader that give a good perspective on contemporary music; Adams, in the wake of Alex Ross's success with The Rest Is Noise, has set out to write one. He places his own development within the context of his musical epoch, against a backdrop of pedantic little lectures on recent sociopolitical history. Often stilted in tone, he draws on the rhetoric of Great-Man biographies ("my school chums" sounds odd from a laid-back resident of California). This is not a confessional or intimate memoir. The composer's family and selected friends (such as Peter Sellars, his operatic collaborator) make cameo appearances, but the book is primarily a Portrait of the Artist: an image of the development of greatness.

Not that it isn't, overall, engaging. Like Adams's music, it contains a lot of information, some weak, much good, packed together in contrasting blocks of events, and with plenty of bang for the buck. He offers a wealth of interesting nuggets: a thoughtful section about the process of composing; a concise exegesis on Western tuning and the way that contemporary composers use pitch.

One of the book's selling points is that it tells the story of America's most recent musical history, which to many people, I fear, still seems opaque and bewildering. Adams presents, in small unthreatening doses, vignettes of the arc he traversed from academic rigor through electronic experimentation and minimalism to his current path as -- in his own view, at least -- the only concert composer who has successfully merged all these elements into a continuation of the Western concert tradition.

The reliability of his account is of course affected by his own subjectivity, particularly when it comes to minimalism. The term is commonly used to denote the repeating, even hypnotic musical patterns in the early works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who reject the label. Adams, however, uses it without qualification; and he tries so hard to distance himself from it that he does not give a clear picture of what a watershed this movement was. Within a few pages of describing his initial excitement at minimalism, the young composer is already poking holes in it, recognizing "that Minimalism as a governing aesthetic could and would rapidly exhaust itself," and dismissing Philip Glass, in particular, in a couple of pages. He neglects to mention, until later in the book, that he was long regarded as a minimalist himself.

Adams is certainly the center of his own universe. The picture that emerges in Hallelujah Junction makes him seem self-aggrandizing (he likens himself to Picasso and Wagner) and thin-skinned, devoting a lot of space to refuting criticisms of his premieres. (I was surprised to find that a line from a review of mine in the New York Times of his latest opera, "A Flowering Tree," inspired a couple of pages of defense, particularly since it described Sellars's production rather than Adams's music.)

But Adams unbends in his descriptions of the actual music; his writing gets a little more technical and a lot more compelling. By the end of the book, the work -- "The Death of Klinghoffer," "El Niño," "Doctor Atomic" -- has become the story. And this is as it should be. Adams may be trying to ensure his place in history, but ultimately he is a composer, not a writer. And the book's real interest, for him and for its readers, could be summed up by an alternate title: How I Did It. ·

Anne Midgette is the classical music critic for The Washington Post.

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