Thursday, January 22, 2009

John Adams: Hallelujah Junction

The composer John Adams has recently published an autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008). The title is taken from one of Adams' piano pieces, which was named after a truck stop on the border of Nevada and California (curiously, the piece doesn't appear in Hallelujah Junction's index).

The title seems to allude to a moment of epiphany Adams experienced while driving in the Sierra Nevada mountains (near Hallelujah Junction?) and listening to the final opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung. He perceived that Wagner's music can have such tremendous emotional impact because of its ravishing melodies, shifting harmonies, and exploration of the tonal colors of the orchestra (and of human voices). He realized in that moment that atonality, strict serialism, and Cageian experiments with random processes are limited in their expressivity, and represented (for him, in any case) a creative dead end.

I'm not actually the hugest fan of Adams' music. But even so I found the book to be very engaging, especially, perhaps, in Adams' discussion of his New England upbringing and his struggles to find his own compositional voice after moving to California in the 1970s. He goes on to discuss the gestation and development of many of his best-known pieces, including Shaker Loops (1978), Harmonium (1981), and the operas Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), and Doctor Atomic (2005).

Here's a taste of Adams' mature style, Short Ride In A Fast Machine (1986), performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Sir Mark Elder:

To my ears, this sounds a bit too much like a mix of Steve Reich (the pulse and cross-rhythms), Philip Glass (the arpeggios) and Aaron Copland (the brass fanfare that kicks in at about the 3:10 mark).

Adams clearly intends his book to be read by a general audience--there's little abstruse music terminology--and his narrative voice is very appealing: down-to-earth, plainspoken, and generous to most of his colleagues and collaborators (though the director Robert Wilson and the late poet and activist June Jordan come in for some fairly sharp criticism, as do post-Schoenberg serial and atonal composers). Adams is also amusingly blunt in assessing the failures of some of his own pieces.

However, something odd intrudes towards the end of the book during the discussion of the creation of Doctor Atomic. Librettist Alice Goodman (who had written the words for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer) withdrew from the project; Adams writes that she stopped participating because she was "newly ordained as an Anglican minister with her own parish in the English midlands and overwhelmed with her church responsibilities" (p. 276).

Alice Goodman herself has given an account of her withdrawal, though, that is very different. In a profile piece on Doctor Atomic by Tom Service that was published in the Guardian UK (29 September 2005), she was quoted as saying, "I found that the structure John and Peter had got together with me was really anti-semitic, with Oppenheimer as the good blue-eyed Jew and Edward Teller as the bad limping one with the greasy hair, and a host of virtuous native Americans pitted against the refugee physicists out in the New Mexico desert. I couldn't see how it could be anything but deeply offensive." Adams was clearly aware of her accusation, because he's quoted by Service as responding that "her preposterous reason for not being able to deliver a libretto strikes me as speaking more about her own private preoccupations than about the reality of the Oppenheimer story." Of course, her objection wasn't to "the reality of the Oppenheimer story," but to its representation in the opera.

Although I haven't seen the opera, Goodman's accusation sounds pretty far-fetched and hyper-politically-correct to me. Teller was a pretty despicable person: we basically have him to thank for the arms race, he claimed sole credit for work to which other scientists made major contributions, and he betrayed his colleague Oppenheimer in Congressional hearings by agreeing with the absurd proposition that he was a security risk (perhaps not coincidentally, leaving the way clear for Teller to assume the leading role in creating nuclear policy). It seems justifiable to portray a reprehensible character as, well, reprehensible--otherwise, you risk sanitizing a complex and messy history.

But leaving aside the question of whether her objection had any basis or was simply "more about her private preoccupations," not a hint of this heated exchange makes it into Hallelujah Junction. Even if Goodman later thought better of her claim and patched things up with Adams, it's strange that Adams makes no mention of the controversy, and substitutes instead an entirely different, neutral explanation of her withdrawal.

Unfortunately, Adams' treatment of this incident calls into question his credibility in the rest of the book. Of course, an autobiography necessarily represents the perspective of its author. However, this strikes me as something more--a deliberate evasion of what was likely a painful moment of conflict. It's especially puzzling because Adams treats the accusations of anti-semitism hurled at The Death of Klinghoffer fully and openly.

Daniel Mendelsohn has written a review of the recent re-mounting of Doctor Atomic in New York for the New York Review of Books. Curiously, although Mendelsohn discusses Hallelujah Junction and mentions the "well-known tensions between composer and librettist (hardly the first on record), which resulted in an eventual break," he doesn't say anything about Adams' elision of Goodman's "anti-semitic" remarks. Neither, to my knowledge, has any other reviewer.

Adams' resorting to partial truths in his discussion of Goodman's withdrawal shouldn't deter you from reading this highly entertaining and reflective account of his life and works. However, it should put you on your guard that perhaps Hallelujah Junction is less frank than it pretends to be.

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