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I have a hard time imagining that anybody who enjoyed Alex Ross‘ excellent history of 20th Century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, wouldn’t also get something out of Hallelujah Junction, the entertaining, occasionally punchy, memoirs of composer John Adams. The two books complement each other well—-Ross forcefully argues that music history was a chaotic mix of ideas, not a straightforward march from Stravinsky to Serialism to Minimalism, and throughout his book Adams offers a similar defense of the same notion. (Ross is credited in the acknowledgments, too.)
Plenty of listeners tend to think of Adams primarily as a Minimalist—-he matured as a composer in San Francisco in the 70s, studying the same experimentalists that Terry Riley and Steve Reich did—-but he knows his Wagner and Webern, and he’s not afraid to take a few whacks at some of his contemporaries. Philip Glass, for instance, gets a mild spanking: “[I]n general I have had the feeling that he rarely troubles himself much with delving into new possibilities or combinations for the many different instruments that he writes for.” His harshest critiques, though, are reserved for the many critics who came out during the performances of his 1991 opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, The Death of Klinghoffer. Adams has little patience for folks who appreciated how “evenhanded” he was in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“I did not keep a running account of how much ‘noble’ or ‘beautiful’ music was accorded to the hijackers as opposed to how much was given to the hostages or to the Jews”), and he fires both barrels at Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin, who wrote an article in the New York Times after 9/11 that Klinghoffer should never be performed again. Adams’ neat trick is to let Taruskin’s own words undercut his argument, befitting a composer with a fine understanding of subtlety and counterpoint. That’s not to say that Hallelujah Junction was written to settle scores, just that it’s a spirited work from an artist who obviously bears a few scars from being called upon to defend every new idea he has.
Adams reads tonight, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW. Call (202) 364-1919 for more info.