Composing an American Life
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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 indispensible background for a more complete appreciation of these works. Occasionally, he lapses into self-righteous—or at least self-indulgent—solipsism, and his explications of music history are dry and seemingly irrelevant. But 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.

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-374-28115-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2008