By JENNIFER GAVIN
Composer and conductor John Adams read from his autobiography “Hallelujah Junction” at the Library of Congress May 14, surprising the standing-room audience with the fact that he once “hated” opera (he now writes them) and in turn being surprised by a copy of a snarky letter he wrote, as a college student, to Leonard Bernstein—now in the Library’s Bernstein collection.
The composer of the operas “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic,” in Washington to conduct two weekends of National Symphony concerts featuring some of his orchestral and vocal works (two of those concerts will be Friday, May 21, and Saturday, May 22, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall), took the audience of about 75 people on a trip through his childhood in New England as the son of a Big Band clarinetist and a band singer. His reading was sponsored by the Library of Congress’ Music Division.
He described his family’s brief residence in Woodstock, Vt., where he was introduced to classical music by neighbors and family friends; an urge to write music at a very young age, inspired by classroom tales of the early life of Mozart, an experience that left him “bitterly let down”; and his father’s patient instruction, which made the younger Adams into an accomplished clarinet player.
Among other opportunities, he became the youngest member of a community symphony that played most of its concerts for an audience of psychiatric-hospital patients. He described the amateur musicians’ experience in that ensemble as “a weekly confrontation with their instruments” and noted that “occasionally, a patient would also be allowed to join the orchestra—with predictably unpredictable results.”
Adams also described the life-changing arrival in his family home of a Magnavox stereo phonograph in 1957.
“The sudden availability of recorded music crowded out just about everything,” he said. Vacuuming up a long-playing album a week, getting exposure to everything from Bach and Gershwin to “the serene and late clarinet music of Mozart,” he often found himself as a child “conducting” in front of the stereo—an experience he has learned he shares with famed Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
Adams acknowledged being “bratty and impatient” in high school and being swept up in a wave of young-turk rejection of the great American composers of the 20th century during his college years, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, at Harvard.
“We wouldn’t go near somebody like Leonard Bernstein, who we considered to be just a hopeless sellout,” Adams said. At that point he produced a copy of a letter he had written to Bernstein in 1966—provided as a surprise for him by Loras John Schissel of the Library’s Music Division—asking why the composer of “Chichester Psalms,” which the student had recently heard, “must turn his back on the future … has not Mahler received enough homage?”
Bernstein’s classy reply included these lines: “One writes what one hears within one, not without … the only meaningful thing is the creative act. The rest of the chips will fall where they may.”
Adams said he struck his musical turning point in life when he walked out of a Harvard undergraduate course on 12-tone music theory and heard a Jimi Hendrix song pouring out of an open dorm window.
“I said, ‘There’s something wrong with this picture,’” said Adams, who described his situation at the time as “a sort of cosmic case of cognitive dissonance.” He realized he wanted to embrace and incorporate elements of his own culture—from Miles Davis to Jack Kerouac, from Henry Miller to Bob Dylan—into his music.
He hit the road for California with his young wife in 1971, a trip he described as “totemic.” (He composed “The Dharma at Big Sur” in 2003 “as homage to this moment of arrival.”)
Early in his life there, he taught while also composing; flirted with homemade electronic synthesizer instruments, including one he dubbed “The Studebaker”; and began to write for the voice, including opera.
Adams, 63, has seen his cutting-edge music gradually absorbed into the mainstream—to the point where he is conducting his own works at the Kennedy Center and seeing his operas performed at the Met in New York.
Not bad for a kid who, by his own admission, “wasn’t allowed into the public-school violin class.”
Jennifer Gavin is the senior public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.