Saturday, October 08, 2005

NPR's atomic coverage

Two radio stories on John Adams' new opera Doctor Atomic appeared yesterday, and both are available online. The Performance Today story features audio clips and commentary by the composer and by Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker:
The sound of the orchestra in Doctor Atomic is simply in itself one of the most amazing things that I've encountered since I've been a critic. He's moved to some level in terms of his orchestration... It just goes all over the map from extremely dissonant language - which, in general in his career John Adams has been known for backing away from...he's the composer who stepped away from twelve-tone music and atonality and dissonance and rediscovered romanticism and a new kind of tonality. Here he siezes hold of all that "scary modern music style," if you want to call it that, but he uses it in a very particular way and it's constantly juxtaposed with its extreme opposite, some simple and ravishingly lyrical writing with the orchestra often sounding like Debussy, like impressionist music, as well as some dark, glowering chords and textures which are right out of Wagner. And I think this is not just a piece about the atomic bomb but it's really about 20th-century music in a way, all being pulled together and reflected upon.
-Alex Ross, speaking with Fred Child on Performance Today
The sound clips heard in the story are short but intriguing, with a violent energy that reminds me of moments in Harmonielehre. Meanwhile, Robert Siegel's All Things Considered piece is a longer interview with John Adams:
RS: Then there are parts of the libretto that are literally prosaic - they are taken from documented dialogue, if not I guess some government documents as well -

Some actually declassified government documents. Peter Sellers is fond of saying "This is the first time a composer has set a declassified government document!"

And you had to write to that or - how does that work? I hate to ask you the perennial question but -

JA: Music or words?

Yes, exactly - what do you do when you think that well, there's going to be a declassified government document about what happened at Los Alamos now?

As the Italians say, it is always prima la parola - I need the words, and the words are what generate the musical images. I would say that the wonderful thing about writing for the stage is that it stretches me as a composer. You know, I think the big challenge for me was of course the end - I knew that I couldn't compete with George Lucas when it came to putting an explosion of that nature on the stage. In the end I called Richard Rhodes and I asked him, "Would it have been possible to see this bomb from 200 miles away, from Los Alamos where Kitty Oppenheimer was," and I got the message back that they would have known that dawn was coming from the wrong direction, so in the end, at the very last moment, we suddenly retreat 200 miles and you experience the bomb from a great distance, but it's still very, very upsetting and profoundly disturbing in the theater.
He also has some fascinating things to say about opera's relevance to audiences today:
JA: Well, I think opera is in danger of marginalizing itself as a really important and decisive element on the cultural radar screen. I think if opera is actually going to be a part of our lives and if operas are going to express what it means to be alive right now as an American in 2005 with the kinds of anxieties and consciousness that we carry around with us, I think it has to deal with contemporary topics. I think that the atomic bomb in particular is an intensely important theme because the moment that bomb went off we switched - the human species changed from being part of all the other species that were living on this planet to the medium or the instrument through which the Earth potentially could be destroyed.
I love that a modern composer like Adams is able to make a thoughtful, eloquent statement drawing people's attention to the dangers we face today, and not just the seemingly narrow concerns of his art form. Those dangers are largely within ourselves, not from any external source, and I know of few artists who can depict internal conflicts with the intensity and immediacy of John Adams.


Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

cheers to one of the best living composers today! are you familiar with his "Naive and Sentimental Music?" Awesome, awesome piece.

Matt Heller said...

I've heard some of the LA Philharmonic recording of that piece, which is beautiful - I would love to get to know it better.

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

I heard LA perform it live, and it was one of the most exciting performances I have ever been to. That orch can play new music like nobody's business...

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

Tonight I talked to a friend of mine (a composer) who went to the San Fran performance of Dr. Atomic. His most exciting moment was seeing Simon Rattle in the men's room. Apparently, of the opera, he thought that the parts that seemed the most "Adamsian" were the most successful, but altogether it seemed like he was trying to hard to avoid being "Adamsian." I guess it was a lot like El Nino, and the libretto (govt documents) was not the best to set to music. But that's only his opinion.

Matt Heller said...

That's too bad. I suppose it would have been difficult to satisfy all the expectations that built up around the opera. I wasn't the only person, I think, hoping that Doctor Atomic (like its subject) might explode out into the world and change everything forever. In a much nicer way, of course.