The John Adams Reader

Essential Writings on an American Composer

Thomas May

Amadeus Press, 2006. $27.95

ISBN 1-57467-132-4

'Milton Babbitt speaks of his love for show tunes, but writes compositions that have no relationship to this love,' complained John Adams. 'I wanted to create a music, very much like Charles Ives, that reflected my genetic fabric and my genotype.'

Well, Adams succeeded, to become the most frequently performed living American composer in classical music. Surprising, then, to learn that Thomas May's John Adams Reader is the first full-length book in English to be devoted to him. But it's an exceptional book; the wait was worthwhile, and the dust jacket blurb is correct to claim that this is: 'A window on the development of classical and art music in our time and the various cultural factors that shape it'.

Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony, says: 'In my musical world, Adams has become as important as Bach, Mozart, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky.' High acclaim - but such praise wasn't always plentiful. In 1978, Donald Henehan, in the New York Times, wrote that Adam's first opera, Nixon in China, 'does for the arpeggio what McDonald's did for the hamburger, grinding out one simple idea into eternity.' And, though the critical view later shifted diametrically, Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars came in for a critical drubbing in the wake of European performances of The Death of Klinghoffer. To the credit of Thomas May that political controversy is revisited in the chapter devoted to Goodman, where the critical views of Opera magazine, and of critic Andrew Clark, are reported and discussed.

Adams' own essays are not here, which is a loss, for he writes well. However, revealing interviews with Adams are included, alongside essays by Ingram Marshall, Michael Steinberg, the excellent Alex Ross, Sarah Cahill, and Alan Rich. Thomas May's own essays include an informative interview with Peter Sellars, on working with Adams.

There are no musical examples, no photographs, and only an index of names. Proofing is thorough, except that '1971' appears as '1871' on page 271, a couple of words are omitted on page 115, and 'Phrygian' is misspelt on page 274. But don't allow such inconsequential blemishes to deter you from reading this essential book. As Alex Ross concludes after interviewing Adams: 'I had just spent the morning with a man who was never going to die.'

First published in Classical Music magazine, 8th June 2007. Used by kind permission.
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