John Adams' background, rise, and development to perhaps the foremost American classical composer alive is well examined in this autobiography. A fan of his compositions from the outset and having seen many of their performances sometimes with Adams conducting, I find additional resonance with his rich and lively descriptions of nearby locales, characters, musics, and events, since I, just two years his senior, had lived under similar and often the same musical and socio-cultural influences in the Bay Area. Adams' takes on John Cage, early electronica, and Miminalism's Steve Reich and Philip Glass are keen, full of peer insights. Adams acknowledges that he discovered his voice, his own unique compositional style, at age 30 after a long series of avant-garde experimentation. His influences besides classical composers, including Wagner and Ives, were psychedelic rock (e.g., Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrex, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead) as well as jazz greats (e.g., Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Eric Dolphy, and John Coltrane). Adams is a Boomer composer who lived the alternative and experimental musical life. In 1981, his choral symphony "Harmonium" premiered at the inaugural of Davis Symphony Hall of the San Francisco Symphony. It launched him, providing an international reputation and a major record label, Nonesuch. (Later, his "Dharma at Big Sur" celebrated the opening of Disney Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.) His second punch was "Grand Pianola Music", whose conceptual source was an LSD memory of his attending a Rudolf Serkin concert of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto; the keyboard of Serkin's Steinway seemed to be continually expanding.
The early years of Adams' upbringing, training, surviving with odd jobs, and becoming established were the most interesting for me, as it illustrates the social forces and dispositions that make the person. The later and current years are the increasing successes of an international musical leader, and the parade of orchestras, conducting, travels, and assorted musical stars are as we expect, although much of the details of creating a composition and performance are particularly worthy. I found his perspectives on music, musicians, and the actual work and struggle of composing always edifying. Reading the autobiographies and biographies of composers have a historical and analytical purpose, but this nontechnical book is contemporary in every way, making it attractive to the general reader, not just the musicologist or classical music fan. Adams is only in his early 60s and far from retirement. There will probably be a future updated account of life long after we revel in his forthcoming compositions.