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Music Lessons From A Master: 'Hallelujah Junction'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Hallelujah Junction is about epiphany and struggle.

In short, it's an artist's story. Composer John Adams is one of America's leading avant-garde composers, and as he proves in this compelling memoir, possibly one of the loveliest human beings you're likely to encounter between the covers of a book.

You may know Adams from his ripped-from-the history-books operas such as Nixon In China and The Death of Klinghoffer. He won the Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls, his moving musical tribute to the victims of Sept. 11. Adams was a child prodigy, a dreamy kid who grew up listening to classical music and who played the clarinet in adult orchestras while still in grade school. But he also loved Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.

In Hallelujah Junction, Adams writes about a moment in the mid-1970s when he was driving around the mountains of northern California in his Karmen Ghia listening to Wagner's Gotterdammerung. The music was in many ways the antithesis of what contemporary composers were aiming for at the time, but Adams found himself overwhelmed by its force of expression. This music, he wrote, "was not ... about desire. It was desire itself."

Adams turned from the atonality and sometimes cold intellectualism favored by John Cage and Milton Babbitt toward lush harmony and totality. But it was not easy. Adams struggled for years to define his own sonic vocabulary. His new book makes that journey engrossing. Hallelujah Junction is a generous map of Adams' artistic process and, according to The New York Times, "among the most readably incisive autobiographies of major musical figures."

Hallelujah Junction takes its name from an actual place, a truck stop on U.S. 395 near the border between Nevada and California. It's also the name of one of Adams' recent compositions, a piece written for two pianos. Adams has joked that the name "was a case of a good title needing a piece," but the composer has a joyful knack for fitting what he finds into expressions of luminosity — in words and music alike.

This reading of Hallelujah Junction took place in November 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.