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Hallelujah Junction, By John Adams
Musical memoirs written with a calm, Californian confidence
Tuesday 11 November 2008
John Adams's Hallelujah Junction radiates a calm, Californian confidence, letting its ideas unfold at a gentle pace.
I'm actually describing the piano piece that the American composer wrote in 1977, but I could be talking equally well about this memoir. Adams's unique touch finds its literary analogue in a style of rare precision. Excoriated as the fast-food king of classical music, and hailed as the rescuer of that art from serialist pseudo-science, he here emerges as a storyteller.
For Adams, composition has always been a form of self-creation. His overriding concern as a student was to protect his voice from influences that might have stifled it. He turned down invitations to "take the veil" in academe, and to collaborate with avant-garde prima-donnas like Robert Wilson.
His early musical identity was formed by his clarinettist father and singer mother, and by conducting sessions with the record-player in the parlour. But other factors were the cultural landscapes through which he moved, from small-town New England to West Coast counter-culture. With Kerouac and Ginsberg as his heroes, and John Cage his mentor, he explored the let-it-all-hang-out scene, while subjecting the music of Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix and Beethoven to detailed harmonic analysis.
His ego prevented him from succumbing to any of the prevailing orthodoxies and he gravitated to a life of solitude. Listening to Wagner while driving through the Californian hills one day, he had a revelation: while Wagner's unchained harmonies represented pure expressivity, atonalism meant expressive impoverishment.
His whole life, he observes here, has been dominated by the collision between acoustic and electronically produced sound. Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson are among the dramatis personae, with Peter Sellars – director of Adams's operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer – pre-eminent. With Sellars, Adams has made history: the furore surrounding his alleged partisanship in Klinghoffer was followed by a production of this Palestinian-Jewish debate-piece coinciding with September 11. One of Adams's purposes in writing this engaging book is to clarify his intentions, and in this he has admirably succeeded.
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