Take the Left at Hallelujah Junction

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When I was a young child, my family and I owned a certain limited number of records—LPs, no less!—and the music on those records was what I listened to over and over again. I can still recall most of those records, among them So, by Peter Gabriel, Queen’s A Night at the Opera, The Beatles’ White Album, and in orchestral music, “Symphonie Fantastique” and “Herald En Italie” by Hector Berlioz with the London Symphony, a concert recording of Candide also with the London Symphony, and the one I most often played, a record of Leonard Bernstein conducting Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” with the London Symphony. I got in on the very tail end of a certain mode of discovering music—one that’s only recently been overthrown, and that managed to stick around for a hundred years.

I’m not claiming that there was anything terribly distinctive about this collection—the middle-of-the-road quality of my musical upbringing is sort of the point.  The process of acquiring musical (and cultural) competence based on what records parents purchased and left lying around the house has largely gone by the wayside. Today’s children of seven and eight are growing into a world where any sort of music at all is available at their and their parents’ fingertips. Who’s going to be nostalgic about the late-80’s German-language grunge-core rock of their youth? Or about the Romanian folk-singers their parents used to play on iPods while they prepared the kitchen to receive delivery Chinese food?

Another thing I’m not claiming: that this all-access eclecticism is a bad thing. The inherited soundtrack of childhood is coming to say both more and less about a family’s social sphere. I’d say my parent’s record collection of the ’90s said only, “white people with middle-brow tastes,” but that limited indication of social group was pretty strong.

Now, with millions of albums available at low prices with the click of a mouse, it’s almost impossible to limit one’s scope so sharply. Even if you’re the sort of dunce that sticks to a strict diet of Andre Rieu schlock and champagne music, something is bound to get past your defenses. Something will certainly remind you of, say, that street musician you heard in New Orleans. Or else something will just catch your fancy, and then with a click you’ll have it playing on your stereo in high fidelity, just as though, say, a klezmer band were sitting there in your living room singing in perfect Yiddish.

Perhaps I’m describing a minor revolution within the great revolution brought about by recorded music itself. The invention of recorded music separated music from performance, and now the “digital revolution” is rapidly eroding the remaining boundaries of class, geography, and ethnicity.

It’s from the opposite end of this secondary revolution that John Adams’ description of his own childhood musical exposure comes, as chronicled in his book Hallelujah Junction, and it seems like something out of a long-perished Elysium. Adams charmingly and straightforwardly recounts the story of the dance hall his grandfather ran on the shore of a lake, and his run-ins with Duke Ellington at that hall (Adams once shared a piano bench with the Duke). His father played jazz clarinet and taught Adams how to play. His mother sang and did amateur musical theatre, and Adams performed in a few musicals by her side.  His favorite records were “The 1812 Overture” and “Bozo the Clown Conducts Favorite Circus Marches.”

At Harvard, Adams subbed on clarinet in the Boston Symphony, became the first student ever to submit a musical composition as a senior thesis, and immersed himself in atonal, twelve-tone, and early electronic and “process” music, while at the same time listening to the popular music of the era. Upon reaching a creative dead end in the academic music establishment of the East Coast, Adams took off in his car. He drove west to California with no job prospects and landed a position unloading shipping containers in San Francisco. In California he found an avant-garde scene little talked about and apparently little known on the East Coast, and it was there that he discovered the minimalism that became the nucleus of his mature style.

Adams’ musical odyssey, once you know its outline, is imprinted all over his musical output. “My Father Knew Charles Ives” is so titled based on Adams’ observation of the many similarities between the lives of the two men: “Like Ives, I grew up in rural New England, in Woodstock, Vermont and East Concord, New Hampshire. The young Charlie Ives received his first musical training from his bandmaster father, George Edward Ives. My first lessons on the clarinet were with my father, and together we played in marching bands during the summers and in community orchestras during the winter months.” Visit Adams’ homepage at Earbox.com for an essay explaining further parallels.

Adams’ more recent pieces have become steadily more rooted in various places and periods, in particular in a sort of heroic vision of California. Adams claims that his grand symphony “Harmonielehre,” of 1985, was inspired by a dream of an oil tanker in San Francisco Bay turning on end and shooting into the air like a Saturn rocket. Adams’ latest premiere, City Noir (with the LA Philharmonic, for Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural gala concert), completes a “California Trilogy” that also includes “The Dharma at Big Sur,” and “El Dorado.”

Adams is, no contest, the most popular composer working today, and I think the reason is that he has found a way to speak for and to his audience and about the places where they live. He is a beloved figure in California and more broadly the US for the same reason that Sibelius was beloved in Finland and Smetana in Bohemia: he, and they, have identified parts of the national and local character and environs and dramatized them, on stage and in the concert hall. Adams has often succeeded in capturing the zeitgeist, which, contra Milton Babbitt, does not automatically make Adams a sell-out or a no-talent hack. Nixon in China was dismissed by some critics, when it premiered, as a musically inferior “CNN opera,” but I was captivated by the piece before I really knew anything about Nixon or his trip to China, and it is my suspicion that the opera will continue to be performed when the events it depicts are nothing more than a historical footnote.

Some of Adams’ critically and popularly less successful efforts (A Flowering Tree, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky) have reached for Crash-style Hollywood-movie multi-culturalism, and though the music is at the familiar quality level, dramatically the action lacks conviction. There are plenty of people out there now “mixing” and “mashing up” and in general creating bricolage. It is Adams’ celebration of specific places and specific times (not necessarily his times or his places; see The Wound Dresser and On The Transmigration of Souls) that makes his music and drama difficult to resist. Adams has forged a large audience out of the balkanized warring precincts of the classical music scene, and has even managed to reach beyond that scene. Hallelujah Junction straightforwardly and unpretentiously explains how he did it. With any luck, he won’t be the last to manage it.

Sam Jack ’11 (sjack@fas) sings hallelujah, hallelujah!