John Adams: A musical explosion

John Adams has never been one to shy away from big themes. But an opera about the nuclear arms race could be his most unusual yet, he tells Tim Stein
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The Independent Culture

"It's a bit like that feeling you get when you walk into one of those medieval cathedrals," the acclaimed American composer and conductor John Adams says of On the Transmigration of Souls, the Pulitzer prize-winning piece he wrote for the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York. With its haunting, ghost-like eeriness and its layered soundscape (the victims' names are read out, mixed in with the cacophonous sounds of a bustling city), the 25-minute work is, on one hearing alone, not something you can easily forget. "I tried to conjure up this very quiet rustling of voices and sounds, all meditative and reflective," Adams says. "But, at the same time, I wanted you to feel you were in the presence of thousands of souls, people who had been in the same place before."

"It's a bit like that feeling you get when you walk into one of those medieval cathedrals," the acclaimed American composer and conductor John Adams says of On the Transmigration of Souls, the Pulitzer prize-winning piece he wrote for the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York. With its haunting, ghost-like eeriness and its layered soundscape (the victims' names are read out, mixed in with the cacophonous sounds of a bustling city), the 25-minute work is, on one hearing alone, not something you can easily forget. "I tried to conjure up this very quiet rustling of voices and sounds, all meditative and reflective," Adams says. "But, at the same time, I wanted you to feel you were in the presence of thousands of souls, people who had been in the same place before."

Though keenly aware of how traumatised his friends in New York had been and of the large numbers of voluntary and spontaneous human contributions ("giving blood and so on") made by the American people at the time, Adams was determined to avoid turning the work into a kind of elegy or requiem. Nor did he want to turn it into a "lynching emotional piece" either. "Initially, until the commission came through [from the New York Philharmonic with funding from an anonymous donor], I had no intention of writing anything and I certainly didn't want to. [In past interviews, he has said that, as with most Americans, it was more a question of not knowing how to deal with the enormous events thrust upon them.] But once I had accepted, I was very glad that I did," he says.

Not one for shirking the responsibility of a big theme (witness his two "grand" operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer), the quietly spoken, 57-year-old, California-based composer is working on his latest opera, Doctor Atomic, which, all things being well, will get its first airing at the San Francisco Opera House in 2005. Those of us lucky enough to make it to the BBC Prom on Sunday will get a sneak preview ("actually the opening scene from Act II", Adams confides), alongside the UK premiere of his Jack Kerouac-inspired The Dharma at Big Sur, a concerto-like work for electric violin written for the opening week of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new concert hall in 2003.

Like The Wound-Dresser (1988), with its Walt Whitman texts about the suffering and death of young men and boys in wartime, and his opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1990-1), which focuses on the murder of an elderly, wheelchair-bound American Jew, the central theme of Doctor Atomic is just as emotive. "Put simply, it's to do with the young scientist Robert Oppenheimer and the race to create the first atomic bomb," says Adams, his gentle voice moving up a notch or two for the first time since our interview began.

Apart from the Californian connection (Oppenheimer had a teaching appointment at the University of California), where did the original idea for the opera come from? "Actually," says Adams, his quick response almost pre-empting my question, "it came from Pamela Rosenberg, the current general director of the San Francisco opera. She wanted to commission a kind of American Faust and came to me with the Oppenheimer idea." Not wildly excited about the Faust aspect ("largely because I didn't think that Faust was an American myth"), or, indeed, the thought of being compared to the likes of Busoni, Goethe or Marlowe, Adams was nevertheless hooked on the Oppenheimer idea. "You know," he says, with refreshing honesty, "I really thought I would never write a grand opera again: it's so much damn hard work. But it just seemed, as in Nixon and Klinghoffer, such a potent theme with an incredible story that I could really sink my teeth into."

The plot aside, is there anything in particular that makes Doctor Atomic so operatic? "Oh yes, certainly," Adams says, with barely contained enthusiasm. "There is the mythological aspect for starters, the moral scruples - most of the scientists, being very young at the time, were suddenly faced with the consequences of the reality of what they had produced - and this forms the dramatic core of the opera. And there are many wonderful characters."

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947, before the family moved to New Hampshire, John Adams (he of the trademark tortoiseshell glasses and Steven Spielberg beard), seemed destined to become a composer from an early age. "In fact," he says, "I can't remember a time when I didn't want to do what I'm doing right now." His mother, though she had no formal training, had a "huge talent" both as a singer and an actress, whilst his father, who played both the clarinet and saxophone, "passed those skills on to me". Most importantly of all, he says, there was always music in the house. "Having a life in the arts and being creative was something that my parents encouraged. They weren't the kind of bourgeois family who would say, 'Yes, that's fine, but you need to get a proper job too,'" he laughs.

And what of his early musical influences? "There were a great many jazz recordings for starters, and because of my father's influence a great many clarinet pieces by Mozart. Then, by myself, I discovered Sibelius - mostly because the record sleeves had lots of pictures of pine trees on them. They reminded me of where I grew up," he confides. Then, of course, there were the "powerful experiences" with the music of Bruckner, Mahler and of late Beethoven in particular.

As a Harvard music student in the late Sixties and early Seventies, where he seriously considered taking up a conducting career, the "flowering of rock and jazz" left an abiding impression. As, no doubt, did the turbulence of the Vietnam war. "At that time, contemporary music seemed to be on its way to being an irrelevant cultural activity," says Adams. "So many 12-tone composers and theoreticians seemed to be acknowledging the fact that all the great gestures had been made, particularly in the 19th century. Then I looked around and saw how immensely popular, powerful and persuasive rock music had become, that people spoke to one another by quoting their favourite Beatles or Bob Dylan song. I felt that classical music ought not to be so poverty-stricken, with such limited expectations, and so I broke away from all of that and part of my exodus to the West Coast was to get away from that mind-set."

It was that partial breaking away that led to one of Adams's few long-term, successful musical relationships, "to a man who was not afraid of the big themes. I owe a huge amount to Peter Sellars [the eminent stage director, with whom Adams collaborated on, amongst others, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, whose worldwide productions made them two of the most-performed operas in recent history]. He saw a great deal in my personality and in my musical language," he says affectionately.

By far one of the most significant (and most performed) contemporary composers today, does Adams feel he has a heavy responsibility to bear? "You know," he says, in his typically modest but hugely articulate way, "my answer might seem a little disingenuous. I'm very doubtful of my own popularity. People say, 'Oh, you're so well known, you're so famous,' but to me it doesn't seem this way at all. Because classical music is merely a pimple on the body politic, more so here in the States than in the UK, so a classical composer today feels almost on the brink of irrelevance. If people deem me successful then I'm very grateful for it. But I'm also brutally honest about how important it really is."

Does such pessimism extend to the future of his own music? "If you had sat Elgar down and played him three minutes of Messiaen's Turangalîla or Stockhausen's Gruppen, or my own Harmonielehre, for instance, he would probably have thought the future of music was futile, that it had nothing to say. Even the difference between Mozart and Beethoven must have been shocking to audiences at the time. Imagine listening to something like the Eroica symphony for the first time. People brought up on the music of CPE Bach must have thought he was just a provocateur. However, on a good day, perhaps after I have had a particularly good experience, I would hope that 100 or 200 years from now, people may still listen to something like Nixon in China because it encapsulates an era, a sensibility, a time, a historic moment in the way that we now read Shakespeare or go to a museum and look at a Monet. However, this only happens once in a while, but when it does, that's when I feel my music might be relevant some day..."

John Adams conducts the UK premieres of 'Doctor Atomic - Easter Eve 1945' and 'The Dharma at Big Sur' at Prom 49 on Sunday. 'On the Transmigration of Souls' is out in September on Nonesuch/Warner Classics ( www.earbox.com)

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