Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thanks To and From Composer John Adams

(Reflections on John Adams' autobiography HALLELUJAH JUNCTION, just published by Farrar.)

Twenty years ago, when I learned to love John Adams' first operatic composition NIXON IN CHINA, I was struck by the librettist Alice Goodman's statement that she had intended to represent each character in the most generous way possible, as they themselves would want to be represented.

While several of the themes emerging from Adams' autobiography take us through conflicts with others, Adams follows Goodman's example. We can read between the lines that Adams doesn't care for the music of some of the composers mentioned here, and we can guess that he had some run-ins with some collaborators. All those composers, teachers, and even an ex-wife get, at worst, the benefit of the doubt. His suggestion that Philip Glass sometimes composes on auto - pilot is balanced by his acknowledgement of borrowings from Glass and works by Glass of immense beauty and power.

Other themes in the book: Gratitude for the influences and efforts of his parents and teachers . . . gratitude for his experiences in both serial music (exemplified by Boulez, p. 32) and also the avant-garde music of the late 60s (exemplified by Cage), though he came to see both as dead ends (and he frankly admits now that a lot of that new music, lacking "shape," was "pushing the boredom envelope" 85) . . . gratitude for performers and patrons who allowed him to indulge in some failed experiments in the 70s . . . and a broad, historical view of music's "evolution" that includes a short history lesson on 20th century music (102 ff.) and a rumination on whether there's progress in any aspect of human life, much less in music itself, certainly rejecting the idea that increasing complexity is necessarily good. So there's another theme: Defending his works (though not all of them) from his critics.

I love this description of his collaborator Peter Sellars, how he speaks "in full paragraphs, punctuated by sudden peals of laughter that was . . . the result of amusement at what his words had managed to conjure" (126).

He is his own fairest critic. He acknowledges that the Houston premiere of NIXON (which I saw in 1987) probably didn't deserve much higher than a passing grade, and that KLINGHOFFER in Brooklyn (which I also saw) was just what I thought: unclear in its staging, unclear in its focus early on, and a bit long-winded in several spots. He gets most defensive on this topic, denying point by point the critics who accused him and his collaborators with favoring Palestinian terrorists because they once again allowed these characters to be presented as they themselves might want to be presented.

Since the falling-out with Alice Goodman is pretty famous, dwelt upon in another book THE JOHN ADAMS READER, I was especially interested to see how Adams treats her with respect and appreciation. He writes,

She could move from character to character and from scene to scene, alternating between diplomatic pronouncement, philosophical rumination, raunchy aside, and poignant sentiment. And she did all this in concise verse couplets, exhibiting a talent and technique that has nearly vanished from American poetical practice. (136)

His citation of lines from Pat Nixon's aria "This is Prophetic" brought tears to my eyes, as he focused my attention on an aspect of the words that I hadn't seen so clearly before. Here are the lines that he quotes, as Pat Nixon piles image of America on image in the form of a prayer :

Let lonely drivers on the road
Pull over for a bite to eat,
Let the farmer switch on the light
Over the porch, let passersby
Look in at the large family
Around the table, let them pass.

Adams comments, "It was part of Alice's genius to be able to handle images of Americans -- so routinely abused in magazine and television advertising -- in a way that recaptured their virgin essence, making them, when Pat sings them, not cliches at all but statements of a deeply felt, unconflicted belief." I'm pretty sure that Adams and I reach different conclusions about politics and religion, but it's clear that, in this book and in his art, he speaks what I believe, that humanity is deeper than all our economics and policies and creeds.

Other posts on this blog that focus on composer John Adams:
Doctor Atomic Staged Two Ways
30 Second Composer on John Adams
Musical Landscapes
Slow Motion Emotion: John Adams' Christian Zeal and Activity.

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