Sun, Oct 19, 2008 - Page 14 News List

SUNDAY PROFILE: Atomic anomie

How do you compose for a post-Sept. 11 age? John Adams reveals how Bush’s America, new technology and LSD have influenced him

By Guy Dammann  /  THE GUARDIAN , NEW YORK


John Adams is working on a new piece, but he can’t describe it, he says, because it’s not going well. “Starting is always hell. Right now, I’m the most unpleasant person to be around: grumpy, uncommunicative, selfish. I have a vague idea of what I want it to be, but it’s just not working out. Worst of all, my wife won’t listen any more.”

Hearing Adams admit to self-doubt is something of a surprise. Now 61, the composer cemented his international reputation more than 20 years ago with Nixon in China, his opera about the former US president’s extraordinary meetings with Mao Zedong (毛澤東). Next week, Dr Atomic, his 2005 opera about the testing of the first atomic bomb, receives its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. This month also sees the publication of Adams’ autobiography, Hallelujah Junction.

In music and in life, Adams chose a difficult route. From his early experimental compositions for homemade synthesizer to the minimalism of Grand Pianola Music (1982), from the chromatic Chamber Symphony (1994) to the Orientalism of his most recent opera, A Flowering Tree (2006), he has yet to settle into any kind of comfort zone. He arrived at Harvard in 1966 to study music, but knew he wanted to compose and abandoned his studies for a factory job in San Francisco. What was he running from? “I came of age,” he says, “when the operative model for a composer was a pseudo-scientist. If you read the early essays of [Pierre] Boulez and Milton Babbit, you’d get the impression music is all about finding the correct formula to suppress all individuality and emotion.”

But then, this was the 1960s; the tide of counterculture was rising fast, and while composers such as Babbit and Boulez were busy theorizing, the rest of the country was discovering the Beatles and John Coltrane. And LSD. Did Adams take acid? Yes, he says. Did it change the way he composed?

“It can certainly amplify and alter one’s perceptions,” he says. “The experience was powerful and amazing, and certainly changed the way I thought about things at the time. On the few occasions I was high, I did have these very powerful flashes of understanding about musical structure, and also about the usual holy-holy stuff. Although I wouldn’t say LSD changed the way I compose music, the culture of seeking mind-expanding experiences is something we miss now more than ever. The mindset of [US President] George [W.] Bush’s America is more closed than ever before. We’re all hunkered down, living in the shadow of our fears, most of them imaginary.”

It’s not hard to guess Adams’ politics. “We’re on the cusp of what could be real, reinvigorating change,” he says of the presidential election. “Or of sliding further into the repressive, reactionary, mind-numbing fear.” He believes that what he calls “contemporary serious music” has a role to play in changing mindsets; exactly what kind of a role became clear to him after Sept. 11. He was in London at the time, rehearsing for a film version of The Death of Klinghoffer, his controversial opera about the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by the Palestine Liberation Front.

He had also planned to attend a performance of one of his racier forays into minimalism, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), at the Last Night of the Proms, but the program was changed in the wake of the attacks. Adams’ sparse, stately Tromba Lontana was performed instead, alongside Beethoven’s rousing Ninth Symphony.

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