John Adams tries to find the words

Times Staff Writer

WHEN John Adams, the celebrated composer who is to his adopted California as Sibelius is to Finland, decided to write a memoir of his life and music, he realized there was virtually no model for his project.

“Most composers,” he said over lunch at an upscale Italian cafe near his home here, “are composers because that’s the way they want to communicate with the world. Even those who can write well, they don’t want to express themselves in words.”

The few existing examples didn’t inspire him. “Most of them were really awful. I was painfully aware of the fact that the few composers who set out to write something wrote a boring then-I-did-this, then-I-did-that thing. The only one I thought was tasty and interesting was [Hector] Berlioz, but unfortunately the Berlioz is only good for the first 50 pages.”


That sense of having to start at the beginning to forge one’s own language is appropriate for an artist like Adams, 61, who fought his way from a comfortable but provincial small-town upbringing to a personal synthesis of American minimalism and European romanticism that has made him among the world’s most performed living composers.

“I feel that my life story is about finding a way to be an American in what’s essentially a European art form,” said Adams, who was wearing a rumpled tweed jacket over a plaid shirt, of his new memoir, “Hallelujah Junction.”

“There were some models, like Ives and Copland and Leonard Bernstein, John Cage. But we still struggle -- for recognition, but also to find our own voice.” The outlines of Adams’ history are well-known: Young New Englander drives his Volkswagen to the Bay Area during the flowering of the avant-garde, grows a beard and forges a personal style. Success -- in the form of his 1987 breakthrough, “Nixon in China”; his 2002 Pulitzer-winning “On the Transmigration of Souls”; and his 2005 Robert Oppenheimer-inspired opera “Doctor Atomic,” which had its Metropolitan Opera debut on Monday -- ensues.

“He could have gone any number of places, but he made a move to divorce himself from many of the assumptions he’s grown up with,” Alex Ross, author of “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” said. “He moved toward minimalism in California. And there’s a sense of spaciousness to his music, of traveling over vast distances, with landmarks slowly appearing and disappearing from view.”

But “Hallelujah Junction,” that rare classical music book aimed at a general audience, shows just how indirect and zigzagged Adams’ path has been. Kirkus Reviews described it as “[l]ike the author’s music: carefully considered, deliberate and often exciting, gathering together many disparate elements of American life.”

The book is full of memorable images: Adams’ parents meet at Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens, a lakeside dance hall, during what he calls “the era of the clarinet in American music”; a teenage Adams performs show tunes and Sousa marches at a mental hospital; a 20ish Adams spends late nights with a soldering gun and circuit boards, building the “Studebaker,” a homemade synthesizer about as graceful as the infamous automobile.


“I really tried to be honest and write about the good things and the bad things,” he said. “I can’t think of anything more tiresome than to read a memoir in which the author is a hero -- like your basic political autobiography. ‘I never did anything wrong -- it’s all somebody else’s fault.’ ”

Adams’ life is no unending catalog of triumphs. He quotes a scorching review of his conducting in the Harvard Crimson (“the slurred inner voices in the Mozart, the gaping holes in the Beethoven . . . “), describes one of history’s least romantic drug trips and recalls his early days in Berkeley, where “I began my professional life at $4 an hour, cleaning kitchens and toilets and chasing dope dealers from the hallways and foyers” of a building on Telegraph Avenue.

He’s toughest on the ruling musical powers of his day -- disciples of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone music -- whose grip he struggled to transcend.

“One of the things I tried to evoke in the book,” he said, “was that the ‘60s and ‘70s was a period of enormous orthodoxy and hotly debated positions. In the ‘70s, the European avant-garde was very persuasive, very prestigious” for its “cerebral approach to music.”

Adams’ goal, which evolved gradually, was to bring to his music a sense of space, a return to tonal harmony, an intelligible “feeling” he wasn’t hearing in other new work. He writes of composers dressing like NASA technicians, trying to outdo one another with overwrought manifestoes. “What they were trying to model themselves after was less scientists but mathematical theoreticians. That was the caldron from which I emerged.”

For a way out, Adams turned to popular music -- Brian Wilson, the Beatles, the Gershwins, John Coltrane. One of the book’s most striking scenes describes a Harvard composition student, trying to set a piece of despairing German poetry to Schoenberg’s arcane harmonic formula. “Then,” Adams writes, “imagine this same student emerging from his somber seminar, walking across the campus, and hearing from some dorm window the screaming, slashing, bending, soaring, lawless guitar of Jimi Hendrix.”

In much the same way, Adams looked to literature, not classical music, as a model for “Hallelujah Junction’s” tone. As a composer, he’s adapted poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and his book includes quotes from Allen Ginsberg’s “After Dead Souls” and Denis Johnson’s California novel “Already Dead.”

Indeed, it was the memoirs of Gabriel Garcia Marquez that helped orient Adams. “I thought they were humble and funny and fantastically personal and colorful,” he said of “Living to Tell the Tale,” which he read in Spanish. “And so I said, ‘Well, I think I’ll give it a try.’ ”

At the same time, he shares the omnivorous curiosity of many writers of long-form prose: The Hendrix scene is one of many that offers a glimpse of a world outside classical music, trying to push its way in.

Adams knows this makes him different than many classical musicians, who are raised as hothouse flowers, taking an almost monastic vow. “It’s like becoming a tennis star,” he said. “It’s so hard to play at that level that you have to start at a very early age.” Adams recently read the memoirs of his friend, the violinist Gidon Kremer. “It’s kind of a sad book: It’s melancholy, because he feels robbed of a certain aspect of his childhood. Because all he did was practice.”

For all the ups and downs, the missteps and losses of confidence, “sad” is a word it would be hard to apply to “Hallelujah Junction,” which is driven by an American optimism. Adams jokes that the early sections, which take place in a Norman Rockwell-like New England, seem like they’re in black and white. The book bursts into color -- “a paradise of deep greens and shimmering blues” -- when, in 1972, he arrives in California.

And though he thinks many tendencies -- thrift, work ethic -- associated with New England are simply myths, he’s serious about a California regional style. It’s a style that’s working its way into a new orchestral piece, which he can’t talk about, and possibly another project. “I’m always looking to write another opera or stage piece,” he said. “I can smell it, but can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“I’m consciously trying to create a California sensibility in my music,” he said, referring to pieces like “The Dharma at Big Sur,” which opened Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and was inspired by West Coast composers Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, and “Naive and Sentimental Music,” which emulates the sweep of the California landscape.

Adams continues: “I’m not trying to be like Bartok and Tolstoy and absolutely focus on some kind of folk quality. But there’s a way I can absorb aspects of my life, whether it’s the geography of California or the spiritual awareness that comes from the Orient, or connections to Native American culture. I think I’ve become more conscious of it.”