The composer Milton Babbitt, one of the mandarins of atonalism, once wrote an article called “Who Cares if You Listen?” It argued that the absence of a large audience for modern classical music really didn’t matter much, because most people were incapable of understanding it anyway. In some quarters of the modern music world commercial success is still a black mark, and no one there is more suspect (and more secretly envied, probably) than John Adams, who, along with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, is one of the few contemporary composers who have actually managed to attract a popular following.

Mr. Adams is best known for his so-called CNN operas: “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic.” But he has also written chamber works, symphonic pieces, oratorios and the deeply affecting “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. His music combines the Minimalism of Mr. Glass and Mr. Reich — small figurations repeated over and over — with Romantic harmony and tonality.

The results, as the subtitle of his new memoir, “Hallelujah Junction,” suggests, sound particularly American. His music is both lush and austere, grand and precise. To make an analogy to two poets whose work he has set to music, it’s Walt Whitman on the one hand and Emily Dickinson on the other.

How Mr. Adams, who is now 61, arrived at this particular harmonic language is largely the subject of his absorbing book, which at times reads like a quest narrative that travels through the whole landscape of 20th-century music. His favorite records as a child were the “1812” Overture and an album called “Bozo the Clown Conducts Favorite Circus Marches.” He listened to jazz and classical music in his dorm at Harvard, but also hour upon hour of Hendrix and the Beatles.

As a young composer, he wandered for years in the desert of atonalism and then, following the example of John Cage, he detoured through the wilderness of music based on an aesthetic of randomness and anarchy. In California in the ’70s he built a synthesizer and began playing electronic music at “happenings.” He liked to use ambient sounds, and once recorded the buzz of flies hovering over dog feces.

His breakthrough, his conversion moment, came in the spring of 1976 while driving through the Sierra foothills and listening to Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” He was struck, he says, by the music’s expressive depth of feeling, its “sincerity.”

“This was not just music about desire,” he writes. “It was desire itself.” It would take him several more years to find the proper vocabulary to express his own desires, but he knew at once, he says, that atonality, far from being the promised land that Schoenberg and Babbitt had predicted, was a dead end.

Mr. Adams is not related to the Boston Adamses. His grandfather was a Swede, who changed the family name from Adamson. His mother was of Irish Catholic descent. But like his music, his book depicts an experience that is profoundly American — the story of the dreamy, artistic young man from the provinces who loses his way for a while and then makes good — and it begins with a New England childhood that is like something from a Capra movie. His father played jazz clarinet, and his mother sang with big bands, though neither was ever able to make a living at music. Mr. Adams grew up outside Concord, N.H., in a house with no central heat and only rudimentary plumbing. He was a musical prodigy, inventing a Sibelius-like alter ego for himself named Bruce Craigmore, who lived alone in an imaginary cabin and wrote world-famous music, and in elementary school he was a good enough clarinetist to play in adult orchestras. One was sponsored by the local mental hospital, where during concerts an inmate sometimes stood up and improvised.

Mr. Adams attended Harvard on scholarship and while there smoked pot, dropped acid and protested the Vietnam War. He beat the draft by jacking up his pulse and blood pressure with NoDoze and sinus spray. After moving to California he even had a sort of Beat period, hanging around bookstores in Berkeley and swilling cheap wine.

His autobiography talks movingly, and sometimes quite funnily, about being depressed, solitary and creatively blocked before he found a way out of aimlessness and self-doubt. He brings to the book the Wagnerian “sincerity” he so admired, but without Wagnerian self-importance.

Mr. Adams writes so well that it’s a little dismaying for someone who clings to the notion that writing, like composing, is a calling developed over years, and not a hobby picked up in middle age. It’s a relief to see him (or his copy editor) let a few amateurisms slip by. And as good as his prose is, you wish the book could have come wired with a soundtrack illustrating his points and sampling some of his hits. Even readers who know Mr. Adams’s music would welcome turning the page and hearing a snippet of, say, “Hallelujah Junction,” a piece for two pianos that gives the book its title, or “Grand Pianola Music,” which is so outrageously over the top that it simultaneously takes your breath away and makes you laugh out loud.

Charles McGrath
New York Times