Hallelujah Junction Composing an American Life

John Adams




Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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Winner of the Northern California Book Award
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
A San Francisco Chronicle Notable Bay Area Book of the Year John Adams is one of the most respected of contemporary composers, and "he has won his eminence fair and square: he has aimed high, he has addressed life as it is lived now, and he has found a language that makes sense to a wide audience" (Alex Ross, The New Yorker). Now, in Hallelujah Junction, he incisively relates his life story, from his childhood to his early studies in classical composition amid the musical and social ferment of the 1960s, from his landmark minimalist innovations to his controversial "docu-operas." Adams offers a no-holds-barred portrait of the rich musical scene of 1970s California, and of his contemporaries and colleagues, including John Cage, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. He describes the process of writing, rehearsing, and performing his renowned works, as well as both the pleasures and the challenges of writing serious music in a country and a time largely preoccupied with pop culture. Hallelujah Junction is a thoughtful and original memoir that will appeal to both longtime Adams fans and newcomers to contemporary music. Not since Leonard Bernstein's Findings has an eminent composer so candidly and accessibly explored his life and work. This searching self-portrait offers not only a glimpse into the work and world of one of our leading artists, but also an intimate look at one of the most exciting chapters in contemporary culture


Praise for Hallelujah Junction

"Stands with books by Hector Berlioz and Louis Armstrong among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures."—David Hajdu, The New York Times Book Review

"John Adams is the voice of America . . . thoughtful, amusing, analytical—and a good writer . . . To read something so intelligent, reasoned, and caring sure feels good these days."—Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

"How Mr. Adams arrived at this particular harmonic language is largely the subject of his absorbing book, which at times reads like a quest narrative that travels through the whole landscape of twentieth-century music."—Chip McGrath, The New York Times

"No book I know of better captures the thrill of a moment of artistic freedom and innovation . . . This is a book that any aspiring artist, in any medium, should read as a kind of how-to guide to achieving artistic success without losing integrity . . . A book for anyone who wants to create something—including a self."—David Rollow, The Boston Globe

"A lively, witty prose writer . . . It's the range of Adams's musical appetites and intellectual hunger that leaves the strongest impression. This is a man who swallows whole new world with every fresh project he takes on—and makes his discoveries new for the rest of us."—Michael statements, The Seattle Times

"Engrossing . . . Like his music, Adams's voice in Hallelujah Junction is both playful and thoughtful, unafraid of making big emotional statements but obsessed with making sure those statments are precisely crafted . . . An original and inspired book."—Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times

"Adams is a pungent guide to his many literary and musical influences, and he displays humor and wisdom in responding to the pounding that his 'politically correct' works, particularly The Death of Klinghoffer, have taken."—Kevin Berger, San Francisco magazine

"John Adams makes a superb contribution to the tradition of composer-as-writer. Adams, renowned for marrying the pulsating minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass to the expansive, big-boned symphonic sound of Bruckner and Sibelius, recounts his struggle to find his musical voice with surprising honesty. He tallies his failures (which include a homemade synthesizer dubbed 'the Studebaker') and chronicles fighting his way to make pathbreaking works such as the monumental Harmonielehre for orchestra and the operas Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic."—Christopher Delaurenti, The Stranger

"What a wonderful book! Entertaining, touching and revealing. Like Berlioz’s memoirs, it gives us a glimpse into the life and times of a great composer. Not to be missed."—Emanuel Ax

"John Adams's memoir is elegant, hilarious, humble, sophisticated, touching, and enormously enlightening about a whole era. It is a remarkable demystification of what it means to be a composer. Adams is a philosopher/craftsman, attempting to reflect and render the truth as he observes and feels it, in all its complexity and its simplicity. His book is a testimony that is equally emotional and intellectual, refreshing and comprehensible to anyone who has ever built or created something with care and attention, whether it be a piece of music, a table, a business, or a family."—Derek Bermel
"Hallelujah Junction is one of the best and most important composer autobiographies next to those of Berlioz and Wagner. A fascinating picture of John Adams the man unfolds with the same directness, precision, and passion as his music. What impresses me most is the sense of absolute honesty in the narrative: a quality exceedingly rare in composers' writings about themselves and their work."—Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
"John Adams's memoir is exuberant, opinionated, and vastly informative. Like a renegade tour guide, he takes us on several trips at once. In recounting his own story, he shows us the inner workings of his own creative process and simultaneously illuminates the recent history of music-making. His learned, witty, self-mocking voice is both subjective and objective, telling us all about him and all about the music around us. Amazingly, you can almost hear it."—John Lithgow
"Colorful memoir of both success and failure by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Adams. As a boy in 1950s New Hampshire, the author played the clarinet and dreamed of becoming a great composer. He didn't realize until it was too late that he would have been better off learning the piano: 'I have had to live with only the most rudimentary, self-taught mode of hunt-and-peck [but] I suspect my lifelong frustrations with the piano go hand in hand with the birth of many of my best musical ideas.' The book is at its richest when the author recollects his encounters with other composers, especially during his formative years at Harvard during the '60s. He's not necessarily critical of his musical peers and heroes, but rather portrays himself as a fellow traveler in search of his own unique voice. Adams's professed love for popular music and his extreme reservations about the rigidity of the compositional methods associated with serialism that were dominant in the '60s reveal the complexity of a musical era too often stereotyped as monolithically academic. Equally insightful are self-critical passages in which the author details his discovery of personal limitations and sections that delineate his ambivalence toward some transitory compositional fashions and styles, particularly in San Francisco during the '70s and '80s. Adams lucidly and honestly records his reactions to the public reception of his operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and the recent Doctor Atomic, providing indispensable background for a more complete appreciation of these works . . . readers will enjoy the candor and completeness of the book, which serves as a gateway to an accomplished body of work. Like the author's music: carefully considered, deliberate and often exciting, gathering together many disparate elements of American life."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

JOHN ADAMS is the composer of some of the most successful operas in recent memory--Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic.

Read the full excerpt



  • John Adams and Ara Guzelimian on Doctor Atomic

    The week before Doctor Atomic opens at the Metropolitan Opera, composer John Adams reflects on the relationship between words and music in a conversation with Ara Guzelimian, dean of the Juilliard School. Throughout his career, Adams has drawn on literary sources ranging from the Bible to Jack Kerouac; Doctor Atomic incorporates Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita and declassified documents from the Manhattan Project. His new memoir is Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life.

  • John Adams' Short Ride - led by Jeffrey Means

    John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine performned by the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, led by Jeffrey Means.

  • Nixon In China (Opera): Act 3 Chairman Dance

    John Adams's first opera Nixon In China, produced by Peter Sellars, with libretto by Alice Goodman, about the visit of Richard Nixon to China in 1972, where he met with Mao Zedong and other Chinese officials.

  • John Adams: Grand Pianola Music (1981)

    Sepp Grotenhuis & Gerard Bouwhuis (Pianos), Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Edo de Waart

  • John Adams: Violin Concerto (2001) - Ending

    Ernst Kovacic (violin) Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Edo de Waart

  • SummerFest 2002: John Adams: A Precise Process

    One of America's most admired and frequently performed composers, John Adams also regularly conducts his work with the world's finest orchestras and ensembles. In A Precise Process, Adams leads a rehearsal of his acclaimed 1978 chamber piece, Shaker Loops, and shares his insights into the creative processes and demands of composition and performance.



  • John Adams

  • John Adams is the composer of some of the most successful operas in recent memory—Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic.