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It is common practice to compare a composers prose with his music. Milton Babbitt essays are just as thorny as his music. Subordinate clauses intermingle together until the true meaning of his sentences are lost. Morton Feldman composed music of amazing quiet and solitude, yet he was notoriously loud and extroverted in person. And somehow his writings allows these two personalities to coexist, so that his absurd and clever humor somehow touches you deeply. John Cages writings are almost more important than his music. Elliott Carter speaks and writes with immense practicality, even though he writes some of the most impractically difficult music around. In short, a composers own words can tell you a lot or nothing at all. I was anxious to read John Adams memoir for these reasons.I am a devout follower of John Adams career ever since I picked up Harmonium in the late 90s. Here was music that appealed to both sides of my brain, and it contained something that was distinctly American. It was new music, but yet it seemed so obviously derivative. Part of me suspected that Adams is a genius, but another part thought the music was inevitable. Someone was bound to meld the modern and minimalist. But Adams did it in a way only an American could, and for that he deserves his place as composer laureate.Adams starts with the usual stories of childhood. They are typically American. He has the immigrant grandfather, the mother from the broken home, the parents who met at a dance, and the bohemian search for the American dream. These stories are told with color and insight. Who would have thought that Adams plopped down next to Duke Ellington in the middle of a dance set? He tells us that he learned orchestral warhorses by air conducting and he is unashamed of being a clarinet prodigy.His time at Harvard is equally interesting. He expresses the often heard struggle of being trapped in a modernist world, yet yearning to compose accessible music. He even tells us of his adventures in taking acid (he seems to remember the details of his trips almost too well). But these stories seem typical of any composer of the time. He led certain student ensembles and conducted certain operas. Sometimes a particular piece of music would teach him something. Even a mediocre composer can tell you stories like these. Between the lines, however, there is a sense that he was up to something. He seemed to be leading the best student orchestras and conducting the hardest music. Adams was determined to become great. When he explains his experiments with tape and early synthesizers, he lets us know that he was a singular figure.The most famous moment of Adams career is his trek across the continent. Even the shortest biography of Adams must include that he was trained on the east and, unsatisfied, made the journey in his beat up VW to the west in search of artistic freedom. For a composer who has weaved the coastal artistic dogmas so well, how could anything seem more appropriate? But it was Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise who first let us on to the reality of this journey. Adams, unemployed and having read Cages Silence, decided to go to California not to change the world, but to leave his own. Ironically this great American sojourn westward was made via Canada. Adams seemed as likely to become a washup as the next great composer.These transformative years of Adams life are what really interested me. We get to understand why he gave up modernism, why he took up minimalism, and then why he ultimately become unsatisfied. He gives us most of the details. He describes writing his early experimental music and his first mature pieces Phrygian Gates, Wavemaker and Shaker Loops. But by this time he already sounds like Adams. I am left disappointed. Where did this voice come from?The rest of the chapters are typical composer fair, sort of extended liner notes. Some of the them are more interesting than others, particularly his chapter of The Death of Klinghoffer. This opera eluded me prior to reading his comments; I had been unaware of the great poetry present in the work. No doubt different chapters may speak to others in this way. He goes into specific detail about Harmonielehre, Nixon, the Violin Concerto, the Chamber Symphony, El Nino, Doctor Atomic and his latest opera, A Flowering Tree. Some of these pieces get full chapters. Other pieces, most curiously Hallelujah Junction, are left out completely. Adams mentions Slonimsky and his earbox concept in passing, but we will never know about Slonimskys Earbox.Reading, it is obvious that Adams, the jetset composer/conductor, wrote these chapters in short bursts. Chapters are self-contained and seldom refer to each other. Often Adams repeats himself, telling us the same story twice. This usually works against the book, except in the case of one of the later chapters. Adams writes a full chapter on his use of electronics, and he speaks will real authority, as a composer who has taken advantage of the medium. I never quite understood why he was so obsessed with synthesizers until now.So Adams, as one of the most loved living composers, has done us a real service with a memior. Before this there wasnt a real biography of his life (so far), except for the patchwork of Thomas Mays book. I am glad to have read it, and I will admit that my appreciation for him has only grown.

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