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John Adams Composes An American Life

He's made Richard Nixon sing. He's won a Pulitzer Prize for an orchestral work about Sept. 11. His music is a staple of the concert hall. And now, American composer John Adams has written an autobiography: Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life.

There probably isn't a major symphony orchestra in the U.S. — or abroad — that hasn't played the music of Adams. Critic Alex Ross of The New Yorker says that Adams has a distinctive sound.

"I think his music is instantly recognizable after only a few bars," Ross says. "And this is quite difficult to achieve and also to sustain, over a career of several decades, without repeating oneself."

How Adams found that voice and developed it is the subject of his new autobiography. The composer grew up in Concord, N.H., and took clarinet lessons from his father. He quickly showed great skill and, as a teenager, played with orchestras and bands around his hometown, including one that performed in the state mental hospital.

"All of our concerts were played before an audience of several hundred severely disabled mental patients," Adams says. "And it was an absolutely life-forming, imprinting experience for me, because you just have to imagine this out-of-tune community orchestra hacking away at the Schubert Unfinished Symphony and these patients in tears — just profoundly, emotionally moved by the music they were hearing. And it's a lesson I took with me for the rest of my life."

Discovering Minimalism

The kind of music that spoke directly to most audiences wasn't what was being taught in academic circles when Adams attended Harvard in the late 1960s. Atonality was all the rage, and Adams says that the music was pretty grim.

"Basically," Adams says, "the materials of music were being systematically atomized and fractured, just to see how far the envelope could be pushed. And I was uncomfortable with it; I loved rock, I loved jazz, I loved Sibelius, I loved Beethoven. And that's part of the reason I decided to leave the East Coast. And, instead of going to Europe, I went west."

Adams moved to the San Francisco Bay area and, after a period of avant-garde exploration, found himself drawn to a new style of music being created by a group of young composers — among them Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It was called minimalism.

"I felt that minimalism was a real kind of a way out of this terrible cul de sac that contemporary music had gotten itself into," Adams says. "It was a style that embraced tonality, embraced regular rhythm and pulse, but at the same time was absolutely new and fresh. I felt that I could take that language — somewhat in the same way, let's say, that Picasso took cubism and used it as a jumping-off point for an expression that was much more varied and much more dramatic."

Unlike Glass and Reich, who created ensembles to play their music, Adams found himself drawn to the orchestra. And his band was the San Francisco Symphony, where he was composer-in-residence.

"I grew up playing in orchestras, listening to orchestra music," Adams says. "I loved it. I speak the orchestra. I mean, it is my natural way of thinking musically."

On Composing Operas

Opera director Peter Sellars heard in Adams' music the kind of drama and color that would work on the operatic stage. And he had an idea that he thought would be perfect for Adams called Nixon in China.

"Nixon in China introduced the world to a great opera composer," Sellars says, adding that the work had "the kind of seriousness of that opening chorus that you feel comes out of Mussorgsky; this depth of feeling as the people wait in the pre-dawn, you know, to hear what their rulers are going to say. As well as, you know, the comic turns [of] Nixon's opening 'News' aria. Not since Rossini has this kind of comic touch just lit up the stage."

Adams' operas have tackled a range of topics, from terrorism in Death of Klinghoffer to the birth of the atom bomb in Doctor Atomic, which receives its Metropolitan Opera premiere on Oct. 13. Adams says that writing operas has forced him to stretch as a composer.

"What I love about writing for the stage is that I'm prodded to move out of myself to find a way to describe something; to find a way to describe Air Force One as it lands on the tarmac in Peking, or to musically describe the New Mexico desert in the minutes before the world's first atomic bomb is going to be detonated," Adams says.

One reason critic Alex Ross finds Adams' music so appealing is that the composer doesn't shy away from emotion.

"The emotional thing is very important, I think," Ross says. "There's no caution there. There's no sort of intellectual jockeying for position. He just seems to just put it out there and not worry about the correctness of these sounds. They just kind of well up in him, and he's just not afraid to put them down on paper."

Adams says that, from the time he was a kid, his dream was not just to compose, but to conduct orchestras. And, increasingly, he's been living that dream.

"It feeds my creative sources, it keeps me in touch with the realities of making music, and it also reminds me, in the most vivid way possible, that music is fundamentally an art of feeling," Adams says. "And the feeling that transmits from the stage to the audience is really what it's all about."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.