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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Composer John Adams' biography is as lively as his music

John Adams' "Hallelujah Junction" — a lively ride through an American composer's life.

Seattle Times book critic

Coming up

"Doctor Atomic"

The Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams' opera will be broadcast live in HD at 10 a.m. Saturday at several movie theaters, including Pacific Place, Seattle; Alderwood 7, Lynnwood; Bella Bottega, Redmond; Auburn 17, Auburn; Century Theatres, Federal Way; AMC Kent Station, Kent; Capital Mall, Olympia; and Rose Theater, Port Townsend. Tickets are $18-$22. For complete information, go to or call 800-MET-OPERA (800-638-6737).

"Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life"

by John Adams

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 340 pp., $26

"Shaker Loops" ... "Hoodoo Zephyr" ... "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" — the titles alone of John Adams' musical compositions suggest he'd make a lively, witty prose writer.

That proves to be the case in his new memoir, "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life."

Adams is the most varied and unpredictable of the composers to emerge from the minimalist school of music. (Other notable practitioners include Steve Reich and Philip Glass.) He's the one open to the widest range of influences — from Charles Ives symphonies and Benny Goodman jazz to cartoon soundtracks and electronic music.

He's also unusual in drawing on politically fraught public events as an inspiration for his operas: "Nixon in China," "The Death of Klinghoffer" and the recent "Doctor Atomic." (The latter, which is about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first atom-bomb test, will be broadcast live by the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday in movie theaters around country, including Seattle.) His work commemorating the 9/11 attacks, "On the Transmigration of Souls" — a commission he undertook with great trepidation — was a 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner.

Music ran in the Adams family. His father was a big-band clarinetist; his mother performed in musicals in Concord, N.H., where the family lived. Adams developed musical obsessions early on: "A Leopold Stokowski recording of Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture' and an album called 'Bozo the Clown Conducts Favorite Circus Marches' had my undivided attention for several months." By the age of 13, he knew he wanted to be a composer — but the road getting there was rockier than he anticipated.

One difficulty was Adams' own temperament. His father was his first teacher. "Instructing me," Adams recalls, "must have been like riding a bucking bronco. I was impatient, restless, argumentative, and precocious." Still, he progressed quickly.

Adams' levelheaded assessment of his hotheaded early years makes for droll reading. At one point, enrolled in the music program at Harvard University, he wrote Leonard Bernstein, criticizing the composer's recent "Chichester Psalms" and concluding his letter, "What about Boulez?" (Pierre Boulez was the cutting-edge European composer-conductor of the day.) Bernstein replied within a week: "He said quite simply that he had to do what he had to do."

The irony was that Adams wasn't sure himself how much he liked the atonal works of Boulez. "I felt caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand was the hair shirt and bed of nails of the serialists, and on the other the gushy emotionalism of Bernstein's 'Kaddish' Symphony or Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto."

At the same time that Harvard's teachers were pushing the notion that classical music was "progressing" toward ever greater atonality (and ever-diminishing listenability), Adams and his contemporaries were tuning into the rock music of the late 1960s, especially the more adventurous work of the Beatles. Harvard's academic "hair shirt" eventually sent Adams fleeing to California, where he landed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. There he became director of the school's New Music concerts — and a performer around town himself, on a bulky homemade synthesizer. He and his friends, he fondly recalls, "made avant-garde music in every imaginable location throughout the city: in underground culverts, in an arboretum in Golden Gate Park ... in dank vacant storefronts and bookstore lofts."

His 1970s encounters with minimalism inspired his first mature works, and he's eloquent on the example that Reich, Glass and Terry Riley provided: "They embraced pulsation and repetition with an almost childlike glee. To me, it felt like the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience."

Adams' hypnotic "Phrygian Gates" (for solo piano) and "Shaker Loops" (for string ensemble) were the first fruits of his maturity, and could accurately be described as "minimalist." But as early as 1982, with "Grand Pianola Music" — a sort of dueling-pianos concerto inspired by Adams' LSD visions of an "ever-expanding Steinway" — the composer proved he could muster up a rollicking, Liszt-worthy keyboard grandeur that defied classification.

From there, the book chronicles Adams' increasingly high-profile career. He's revealing on both the pleasures and the practical constraints of composing for ensembles big and small (especially when combining electric and acoustic instruments in a single piece). His assessments of his own works can be severe, but his word-portraits of their intended sonic palettes are a delight. And in recounting how he extricated himself from "the cold, dead hand of the academic avant-garde," he sheds a welcome light on how notions of what "classical music" have expanded in the past few decades.

Quibbles: Adams gives short shrift to small-scale works ("Gnarly Buttons," "El Dorado," "John's Book of Alleged Dances" and others) that are, to my ear, more antic and seductive than his operas. And a copy editor should have caught Adams' few factual gaffes. How difficult is it to ascertain that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" came out in 1967, not 1968, or that the Caribbean coast cannot possibly lie "thirty miles south of Caracas"?

Still, it's the range of Adams' musical appetites and intellectual hunger that leaves the strongest impression. This is a man who swallows whole new worlds with every fresh project he takes on — and makes his discoveries new for the rest of us.

Michael Upchurch:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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