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Hell Mouth is a blog about music (mostly contemporary), literature (mostly good), politics (mostly pernicious) and culture (mostly American). It is written by John Adams with the help of several “friends” who live in the redwoods of coastal Northern California.

Robert Ashley in Oakland

Mar 07, 2014

The Mills students clustered around him reverentially, and all spoke in the same manner, carefully aping his hushed, ironically bemused tone. It was impossible not be drawn in, as Bob was both gentle and agreeable, and he maintained an enviable lightness of touch in all his social dealings, making you want more than anything to be part of his circle.

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Not Mahler's Problem

Jan 31, 2014

He understands why Gustav Mahler, who made his living conducting in musical capitals, retreated to a tiny cottage in the Austrian mountains when he wanted to compose. Adams has a little studio – about 15-by-20 feet – a quarter-mile from the main house on property he owns in Northern California. But Adams doesn’t overplay the similarity with Mahler.
“The difference,” Adams says, “is that he didn’t have marijuana growers for neighbors.”

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Driving Mr. Copland

Jan 20, 2013

And much to my astonishment I found myself driving down Route 280 in my dilapidated turquoise blue VW bug with its clattering engine and moldy upholstery with the idolized composer of my youth sitting, slightly nervously, in the passenger seat. I don’t recall the conversation. The car was so noisy it may have been difficult to talk much.

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Get Carter! Part II

Jan 10, 2013

“Marcel—you’re such a demanding listener!” I razz him. “Oh well, what can I expect from someone who lost his virginity while listening to the Sessions Violin Concerto on his car radio!”

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Get Carter! Part I

Jan 06, 2013

When Carter died in November at the age of 103, we were reminded that this composer, still writing music in the year 2012, had accompanied Charles Ives to concerts in the New York of the 1930’s when the Rite of Spring was still a shocker.

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All that glitters is not gold

Dec 06, 2012

Camille Paglia, who knows her Emily Dickinson and her Kafka (both artists with zero “fan base” in their lifetimes), has journeyed to the wrong continent, and what she has found glittering there is fool’s gold.

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The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Apr 13, 2012

Howling and shrieks of pain of a woman in withdrawal from a drug addiction in the jail cell next to Mary’s rend the night. The woman beats her head on the metal bars, now lashing out, then weeping. Mary cannot blot out the sound of human suffering. The chorus sings the words of the prophet Isaiah. “Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty…

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Absolute Jest

Mar 10, 2012

You have to be careful not to think too much about Beethoven’s mastery. Otherwise it’s like staring into the sun.

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The Bad Boy of Music & The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

Jan 12, 2012

Like many Hollywood stories, this one is encrusted with the usual legendary bons mots and self-serving anecdotes, but Louis B. Mayer, who had seen “Ecstasy,” would be quoted as saying, “You’re lovely, but . . . I don’t like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen.”

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Mahler: The World as Will and Idea

Jan 08, 2012

For all its professional, emotional and physical crises, Mahler’s life was exemplary for an artist who, no matter how loud the outside world might pound on the walls of his concentration, vigilantly maintained an unobstructed direct line to his creative self, keeping it uncorrupted and unblocked to the end.

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The "Son" is Father to the Man

May 30, 2011

What drew me to the Austrian composer’s eponymous Opus 9 Chamber Symphony of 1906 were its explosive energy and the staggering, acrobatic virtuosity of its instrumental writing. Schoenberg’s bounding, fast moving themes weren’t so much “stated” as they were launched like some daredevil circus performer shot out of a canon. The hyperlyricism of its melodies sounded as if all of “Tristan” had been compressed into a tiny plutonium sphere, just one neutron short of going super-critical.

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Commencement Speech

May 22, 2011

Being a composer invited into a public gathering is always an anxiety-producing experience. There is always that little homunculus sitting on your shoulder, muttering cryptic and often insulting remarks and reminding you that, no matter how much you’ve composed or now matter how grand the honor you may be receiving, “you’ll never be as good as Bach.”

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