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The Writing Room: Composer John Adams — There’s No One Right Way to Be Creative

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Musically sophisticated readers will appreciate composer John Adams ‘ memoir, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, for its technical discussions of twentieth and twenty-first century Western music, but I’m liking Hallelujah Junction for its fine writing and its insights into the creative life and the creative process.

At one point, for example, Adams asks, “What does a composer do? From where do the images and sounds originate and how are they organized into a coherent statement?” Anxious graduate students are always asking him those questions, he says. They want to know the “right” way to compose.

Adams, known for his symphonic works and for his innovative and sometimes controversial operas including Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, El Nino and Doctor Atomic, tells his students that there is no correct way to be creative. For the methodical, logical composer, “the composing act is as conscious and aboveboard as humanly possible. Nothing is left to chance.” Other composers “are more like spontaneous improvisers or Expressionist painters, trusting implicitly their subconscious instincts.”

John Adams: Composer and Author

John Adams: Composer and Author

Nonetheless, Adams believes that all composers (and here, I think, we literary types can safely substitute the word “writers”) are fundamentally intuitive. “There is no such distinction as ‘intuitive versus rational’ for us. The difference among creative types is in how one responds to those intuitions, whether one fastidiously organizes, compartmentalizes, and schematizes, or whether one is confident enough to let instinct and an animal sense of rightness be the guide and ultimate judge.”

Both approaches have their problems, Adams notes. The organized artist risks producing work that is cold, abstract and strained, while the artist following his or her animal sense of rightness risks overindulgence and distended formal structures.

Adams sums up: “I suspect that most composers work in a state of semi-trance, a creative state that is precariously balanced between conscious, logical decision-making and the unknowable instinctual workings of the freely associating brain. I have a deep respect for my own subconscious apparatus, for that part of me that is unknowable.”

Adams compares the creative process to tending a garden. You plant the elements – in the case of music this would include the harmonies and rhythms; for writers it would be theme, setting, plot, character – then you watch them grow. After that, the trick is “knowing when to nourish and water them and when to prune and weed.”

In other words composing for Adams is as writing is for me. It’s work. I find that, once in a while I’ll get that sentence, that paragraph, that entire chapter right on the first try. But more often, I have to work it over, interact with it, nurture it, water it and, yes, prune it like mad until my personal, intuitive “animal sense” kicks in and says, yes, it’s done, it’s right.

Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life
John Adams, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 340 pages, 2009.

“Hallelujah Junction: A Nonesuch Retrospective”
John Adams, Nonesuch, two CDs

More about “Doctor Atomic” at  “John Donne — A Seventeenth-Century Priest Explodes Into the Twenty-First Century.”  



  1. […] John Adams, composer of the controversial opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” talks about the creative process at “There Are Lots of Ways to Be Creative — What’s Yours?” […]

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