Writing music is difficult. Writing about writing music is much worse. I found that out first hand in music school, where writing papers is a gauntlet every undergrad must survive. Writing about your own music is the toughest assignment, and to see someone do it well is a treat. That’s one reason I really enjoyed this autobiography of American composer John Adams.
Adams has become a superstar in the classical world, known for a powerfully driving Minimalist-inspired sound. He uses the book to describe his musical life, parts of his creative process, and the context his music was performed in. He writes about his reaction against the dogma of some contemporary composers that any valid new music must push the boundaries of style and taste, eventually breaking them. He instead sees artistic innovation as creating “variations” of what music and society is capable of. Somewhat ironically, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003, an award typically bestowed upon the most cutting-edge and conservatory-bred musicians.
Adams has written plenty for piano, choir, and orchestra, three of my favorite musical mediums. I’ve never been a big opera buff but after reading this book I’m interested in seeing one of his. Doctor Atomic, premiered in 2005, tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, culminating in the first nuclear bomb tested in the New Mexico desert. The work explores the moral tension felt as scientists and world leaders made the terrifying decision to unleash the bomb on live targets. Adams’ other stage works Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer have also gained notoriety due to their reflections on modern politics. The descriptions of the creation of these works was captivating.
The book is worthy of a read if you’re a composer. Adams provides a relatively down-to-earth perspective on the often obtuse contemporary classical music world. As a composer I empathized with the internal struggles he described as he gradually discovered the music he needed to write. His passion for affecting people’s lives for the better through music really shows through. Adams also provides an interesting exploration of the creative process, a topic I really dig!