Whether it was a virus, a cold or summertime allergies isn’t the point. I’ve been awake at night, coughing, sneezing, blowing my nose, and otherwise trying not to be a nuisance to anyone unlucky enough to be under the same roof.
The bright side is that it’s a great time for reading without distraction.
A few months ago I quoted composer John Adams’ first impressions –in his book Hallulujah Junction—of the director Peter Sellars. It was a great illustration that one shouldn’t underestimate anyone, as I’d clearly underestimated Sellars.
The TV is off. The house is silent. And so I can get back to this book that I set aside.
This time it’s being read in chronological order of course, the way I usually read. I’d been a bad boy previously, partly because I knew only a few things about Adams and wanted to explore his comments on those compositions. But when read in sequence, these events unfold with a fascinating combination of passion, lucidity & unpretentiousness. Last night I suddenly thought of Philip Glass’ Music:¸a book that contains some marvelously aphoristic passages, quotable quotes. But I don’t recall being absorbed in the book, not like this. Adams’ book is different. Adams life might be inspiring, but it’s especially his writing that is something any composer can relate to.
I am feeling very moved today, recalling the chapter (or perhaps it’s really chapters) describing the crises of his growth as a composer. I am embarrassed to admit that I can relate intimately to what he’s describing: because I didn’t go nearly as far, didn’t commit myself to the struggle the way Adams did. I too felt the conflicts, the dislike for writing serial music, or more precisely, felt revolted at the orthodoxy in the composition departments.
Forgive me for oversimplifying, but in a nutshell, Adams confronts the central challenges faced by composers in the second half of the 20th century. The way Glass explained what an apprentice composer does –an explanation that was both intriguing and creepy as I recall—was that they must try out other compositional approaches. They must find their own authentic voice in imitating others, until they find one that’s no longer an imitation but one that’s genuine and truly their own.
Please note, this isn’t from a book. It’s from an interview I did with Philip Glass for Music Magazine back in the early 1980s, on the occasion of the North American premiere of Satyagraha at Artpark in Lewiston. When he said this I was simultaneously alienated, yet recognized that it had a ring of truth to it. I was and maybe am so naïve, really. Glass described a very healthy pathway for the initiate even if it also felt a bit like putting on a monk’s robes, praying, and then pausing to see whether your prayers ascend to heaven or you burst out laughing at your own insincerity. There are so many alternative paradigms for disciplines such as acting or teaching or dancing, that posit at least two diametrically opposite approaches. Do you go from the outside in (eg the British actor) or inside out (as in the Method)?
But pardon me if I digress, talking about Glass and about myself. This is very personal to me, and I felt a shock of recognition in the way Adams wrote. Whether or not I have ever managed to be fully sincere and committed to a musical style that I would present as my own authentic voice, I was swept up in Adams’ description of his struggle with himself, with his ego and with the materials (and yes, here I am facing questions I wrestled with not so long ago). It’s not just a matter of the music, because there’s the unavoidable anxiety of influence. While Adams names many composers whose names I expected to read (the inevitable names such as Stravinsky, Webern, Ives, Cage, Stockhausen, Glass and Reich), there are many more I didn’t expect to encounter (Schumann, Wagner and Gershwin for starters). Whatever I may think of his compositional voice, it feels very sincere, every syllable fully uttered, every word proclaimed by the blood pounding through his veins. Adams went through several stages, and to me it felt as though his discovery was from the inside out, a sincere and committed series of choices. Along the way he writes a few pieces that he dismisses or at least critiques harshly. And when he really hits his stride—which is to say, composes something whose music is something from which he doesn’t pull back or repent, but instead stands behind loyally—the prose is superb, the description more dramatic than anything you’d find in one of his operas.
I still haven’t finished the book. I’m now in a chapter called “SINGING TERRORISTS” which surely will tell us about the composition of The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera coming up at the Metropolitan Opera next season.
Adams just experienced his biggest news headlines ever in the past few weeks , because the Met have cancelled their High Definition broadcast of Klinghoffer due to politics (The Met announcement and an eloquent NYTimes response). Don’t feel bad if you didn’t hear about this “big story”, as the firestorm was only in the operatic subset of social media, not the real world. As I come to the part of the book where Adams talks about Klinghoffer, I’m eager to see what the composer has to say.
The funniest thing as I glance over at the book and see that it’s not yet 9:00 o’clock, not even dark, is that I have to admit there’s a certain wistful longing for the house to again fall silent, so that I can once more be absorbed in Adams’ Hallelujah Junction.