Music Lessons From A Master: 'Hallelujah Junction'

John Adams

John Adams is the composer of such acclaimed works as Harmonielehre, Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic and On the Transmigration of Souls, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Deborah O'Grady hide caption

itoggle caption Deborah O'Grady

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Hallelujah Junction is about epiphany and struggle.

In short, it's an artist's story. Composer John Adams is one of America's leading avant-garde composers, and as he proves in this compelling memoir, possibly one of the loveliest human beings you're likely to encounter between the covers of a book.

You may know Adams from his ripped-from-the history-books operas such as Nixon In China and The Death of Klinghoffer. He won the Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls, his moving musical tribute to the victims of Sept. 11. Adams was a child prodigy, a dreamy kid who grew up listening to classical music and who played the clarinet in adult orchestras while still in grade school. But he also loved Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.

In Hallelujah Junction, Adams writes about a moment in the mid-1970s when he was driving around the mountains of northern California in his Karmen Ghia listening to Wagner's Gotterdammerung. The music was in many ways the antithesis of what contemporary composers were aiming for at the time, but Adams found himself overwhelmed by its force of expression. This music, he wrote, "was not ... about desire. It was desire itself."

Adams turned from the atonality and sometimes cold intellectualism favored by John Cage and Milton Babbitt toward lush harmony and totality. But it was not easy. Adams struggled for years to define his own sonic vocabulary. His new book makes that journey engrossing. Hallelujah Junction is a generous map of Adams' artistic process and, according to The New York Times, "among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures."

Hallelujah Junction takes its name from an actual place, a truck stop on U.S. 395 near the border between Nevada and California. It's also the name of one of Adams' recent compositions, a piece written for two pianos. Adams has joked that the name "was a case of a good title needing a piece," but the composer has a joyful knack for fitting what he finds into expressions of luminosity — in words and music alike.

This reading of Hallelujah Junction took place in November 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'Hallelujah Junction'

John Adam's 'Hallelujah Junction'
Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life
By John Adams
Hardcover, 352 pages
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
List price: $26.00

I composed two serious pieces during my two years of graduate school. The first was a quintet for piano and strings, written in the spring of 1970. I must have put Cage aside altogether to compose this piece, because it resembled Alban Bergo more than anyone else. This composition, which was the first of mine to be well performed by capable, professional players, was a student piece in the sense that it was almost entirely derivative in style and idea. But it also possessed a powerful harmonic urgency and rhythmic drive that caught some listeners' attention when it was first performed in Cambridge in May of that year. My teacher, Leon Kirchner, liked its serious, appassionata nature, and he arranged for a second performance at the prestigious Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. I later played a tape of the piece for Aaron Copland, who gave it his undivided attention and then pronounced it a "tough listen"—meaning, I presumed, that although he could acknowledge its unities, he was nonetheless discomfited by its dissonance and unyielding emotional intensity. If I'd learned anything from John Cage, there was certainly no evidence in my Quintet for Piano and Strings, music that sounded like it could have been composed in 1910 Vienna by a young man bent on committing a murder-suicide.

The other composition from my graduate years was far more futuristic and no less apocalyptic: a fifteen-minute tape composition called Heavy Metal. The title came from a character in William Burroughs's gallery of the extraterrestrial underworld, Uranian Willy, Heavy Meal Kid. This was years before the similarly named genre of rock came into existence. For this piece, composed entirely on tape with processed prerecorded sounds, melded with the gurgling sequences of the Buchla synthesizer, I recorded a friend reading the final paragraph of Burroughs's experimental novel The Soft Machine, a paragraph full of quintessential Burroughs phrases, part sci-fi garble, part junkie street lingo. "Think police keep all boardroom reports and we are not allowed to proffer the disaster accounts . . . a long time I held the stale overcoat in the tired subway dawn . . . migrants of ape in gasoline crack of history . . ." and so on.

I placed this text in the middle of a small universe of random sounds that included everything from the rattling of kitchen pots and pans, to radio transmissions, to clanging Peking Opera gongs I'd recorded at a dinner party given by my Chinese professor. The models for Heavy Metal were several classics from the era of studio tape music: Variations IV by Cage, and the sprawling, interplanetary electronic compositions by Stockhausen, especially Telemusic and Hymnen. (This was very likely the same music that the Beatles had listened to prior to making Sgt. Pepper.) Unfortunately there was no one to teach me the etiquette of dealing with magnetic tape, so my editing and remixing was crude, resulting in a final version of Heavy Metal that suffered from hiss and frequency loss. I spliced the various segments together with a razor blade and Scotch tape. It was a funky, homemade piece, but unlike the previous year's Berg imitation, it was a genuinely original work. It sufficed for my master's thesis, although I never gave the university a copy. In the intervening years, I neglected to take care of the master tape, and it finally deteriorated from age and exposure. Heavy Metal is lost to the ages.

Excerpted from Hallelujah Junction by John Adams, published in October 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2008 by John Adams. All rights reserved.

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Composing an American Life

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