Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life

Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life

by John Adams

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John Adams is one of the most respected and loved of contemporary composers, and "he has won his eminence fair and square: he has aimed high, he has addressed life as it is lived now, and he has found a language that makes sense to a wide audience" (Alex Ross, The New Yorker). Now, in Hallelujah Junction, he incisively relates his life story, from

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John Adams is one of the most respected and loved of contemporary composers, and "he has won his eminence fair and square: he has aimed high, he has addressed life as it is lived now, and he has found a language that makes sense to a wide audience" (Alex Ross, The New Yorker). Now, in Hallelujah Junction, he incisively relates his life story, from his childhood to his early studies in classical composition amid the musical and social ferment of the 1960s, from his landmark minimalist innovations to his controversial "docu-operas." Adams offers a no-holds-barred portrait of the rich musical scene of 1970s California, and of his contemporaries and colleagues, including John Cage, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. He describes the process of writing, rehearsing, and performing his renowned works, as well as both the pleasures and the challenges of writing serious music in a country and a time largely preoccupied with pop culture.

Hallelujah Junction is a thoughtful and original memoir that will appeal to both longtime Adams fans and newcomers to contemporary music. Not since Leonard Bernstein's Findings has an eminent composer so candidly and accessibly explored his life and work. This searching self-portrait offers not only a glimpse into the work and world of one of our leading artists, but also an intimate look at one of the most exciting chapters in contemporary culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“What a wonderful book! Entertaining, touching and revealing. Like Berlioz's memoirs, it gives us a glimpse into the life and times of a great composer. Not to be missed.” —Emanuel Ax

“John Adams's memoir is elegant, hilarious, humble, sophisticated, touching, and enormously enlightening about a whole era. It is a remarkable demystification of what it means to be a composer. Adams is a philosopher/craftsman, attempting to reflect and render the truth as he observes and feels it, in all its complexity and its simplicity. His book is a testimony that is equally emotional and intellectual, refreshing and comprehensible to anyone who has ever built or created something with care and attention, whether it be a piece of music, a table, a business, or a family.” —Derek Bermel

Hallelujah Junction is one of the best and most important composer autobiographies next to those of Berlioz and Wagner. A fascinating picture of John Adams the man unfolds with the same directness, precision, and passion as his music. What impresses me most is the sense of absolute honesty in the narrative: a quality exceedingly rare in composers' writings about themselves and their work.” —Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

“John Adams's memoir is exuberant, opinionated, and vastly informative. Like a renegade tour guide, he takes us on several trips at once. In recounting his own story, he shows us the inner workings of his own creative process and simultaneously illuminates the recent history of music-making. His learned, witty, self-mocking voice is both subjective and objective, telling us all about him and all about the music around us. Amazingly, you can almost hear it.” —John Lithgow

“Charming and illuminating . . . Hallelujah Junction stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures.” —David Hajdu, The New York Times Book Review

“Thoughtful, amusing, analytical . . . Hallelujah Junction offers the voice of America straight from the horse's mouth, and to read something so intelligent, reasoned and caring sure feels good these days.” —Los Angeles Times

“In the classical-music world, Adams is seen as a sort of late-career Picasso: a star, a standby, a one-man manufactory of brilliant, audience-friendly work. Hallelujah Junction doesn't overturn these perceptions, but it adds a surprising hue of restlessness and uncertainty to the portrait. One of America's most accessible living composers turns out to be one of the hardest to pin down.” —Slate

David Hajdu
This book, Adams's first (and, let's hope, not his last), is a cogent account of its author's escape from the world of audience-alienating "process" music absorbed with its own making and his arrival at a place where intellectual adventurism and robust emotion coexist—a pilgrimage from the Land Without Feelings to Hallelujah Junction…Although the sojourner scheme is a cliche among books by creative artists, politicians and pretty much everyone else, Adams plays it lightly. There is no more self-aggrandizement in this wry, smart and forthright memoir than there is in the venturesome but elegiac music of Adams's maturity. Indeed, Hallelujah Junction stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures.
—The New York Times Book Review
Charles McGrath
…[an] absorbing book…[Adams's] autobiography talks movingly, and sometimes quite funnily, about being depressed, solitary and creatively blocked before he found a way out of aimlessness and self-doubt. He brings to the book the Wagnerian "sincerity" he so admired, but without Wagnerian self-importance. Mr. Adams writes so well that it's a little dismaying for someone who clings to the notion that writing, like composing, is a calling developed over years, and not a hobby picked up in middle age. It's a relief to see him (or his copy editor) let a few amateurisms slip by. And as good as his prose is, you wish the book could have come wired with a soundtrack illustrating his points and sampling some of his hits.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Best known for his groundbreaking musical works Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, Adams helped shape the landscape of contemporary classical music. Combining the narrative power of opera, the atonal themes of 20th-century classical music, the spooky modulations of jazz and the complex rhythms of the Beatles and the Band, Adams created a new music that could express the fractiousness of the political scene of the 1960s and 1970s. In this entertaining memoir, Adams deftly chronicles his life and times, providing along the way an incisive exploration of the creative process. A precocious musician, Adams began playing clarinet in the third grade, and, after hearing his teacher read Mozart's biography, tried his hand at composing music. During his undergraduate years at Harvard, he threw himself into performing and conducting when his own inadequacies as a composer began to dawn on him. By his final year at Harvard, however, the chaos of the late 1960s and the creative turbulence of the music scene drove him back to composing. After two years in graduate school, Adams set out for California, where he taught numerous composition classes and private clarinet lessons while working on his own music and with a who's who of the music world, from Cage and Leonard Bernstein to Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Adams's searingly introspective autobiography reveals the workings of a brilliant musical mind responsible for some of contemporary America's most inventive and original music. (Oct.)

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Library Journal

Celebrated American composer and conductor Adams's memoir chronicles his life from his upbringing as a talented clarinetist in rural New England to his countercultural coming-of-age as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1960s to his embrace of the musical life and vibrant scene of the Bay Area. Adams writes candidly of his compositions and those of his contemporaries in language accessible to the lay reader. Adams-through his engaging orchestral works, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls and his several landmark "docu-operas" like Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic (opening at the New York Metropolitan Opera this October)-has emerged as one of the most admired of all living composers. His book proceeds chronologically, but Adams frequently pauses to reflect on the nature of composing and the state of contemporary music. As one of the most inclusive of contemporary composers-his palette covers pop, jazz, and myriad global idioms-he shares his unique perspective on the multiple traditions that inform his musical language. Adams writes articulately about his life and works and the larger social context from which they emerge. Highly recommended for all collections.-Larry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA

Kirkus Reviews
Colorful memoir of both success and failure by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Adams. As a boy in 1950s New Hampshire, the author played the clarinet and dreamed of becoming a great composer. He didn't realize until it was too late that he would have been better off learning the piano: "I have had to live with only the most rudimentary, self-taught mode of hunt-and-peck [but] I suspect my lifelong frustrations with the piano go hand in hand with the birth of many of my best musical ideas." The book is at its richest when the author recollects his encounters with other composers, especially during his formative years at Harvard during the '60s. He's not necessarily critical of his musical peers and heroes, but rather portrays himself as a fellow traveler in search of his own unique voice. Adams's professed love for popular music and his extreme reservations about the rigidity of the compositional methods associated with serialism that were dominant in the '60s reveal the complexity of a musical era too often stereotyped as monolithically academic. Equally insightful are self-critical passages in which the author details his discovery of personal limitations and sections that delineate his ambivalence toward some transitory compositional fashions and styles, particularly in San Francisco during the '70s and '80s. Adams lucidly and honestly records his reactions to the public reception of his operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and the recent Doctor Atomic, providing indispensible background for a more complete appreciation of these works. Occasionally, he lapses into self-righteous-or at least self-indulgent-solipsism, and his explications of music history are dry and seeminglyirrelevant. But readers will enjoy the candor and completeness of the book, which serves as a gateway to an accomplished body of work. Like the author's music: carefully considered, deliberate and often exciting, gathering together many disparate elements of American life.

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

John Adams was born in Massachusetts in 1947. He is the composer of such acclaimed works as Harmonielehre, Nixon in China, Naive and Sentimental Music, El Niño, and On the Transmigration of Souls, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. He lives in Berkeley, California.

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