John Adams

Nixon In China

During the second intermission of the Saturday night performance of John Adams’ opera Nixon in China at the Met, I remarked to a composer in attendance that this was the first time I had seen the work staged and, even though I knew the music well from recordings and the score, it seemed as if I was hearing it for the first time. Although he was fortunate to have seen this same English National Opera production in that country, he concurred: he had the same experience there. There’s a psychological factor involved, I think, having to do with the excitement of finally seeing a work that you had hoped to someday experience. But that’s really just a small part, and to give proper credit, this first opera from the team of Adams, director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman, now almost twenty-five years old, is a stunningly great work, one of the masterpieces of the genre.

Perhaps it takes the live performance to show this because the novelty is still there, kept alive by the legacy of what came to be called CNN operas, works developed out of the facts and events of contemporary history. But Nixon in China is not like that at all, and this is clear when all the pieces come together on stage. If the goal of the piece was to document the meeting between a craven, petty failed president and one of the great villains of the twentieth century, then there is no way the opera would have the effect it does. And that effect is utterly mesmerizing and extraordinarily moving.

It works with such power because it’s an opera. That’s a useful tautology. It’s an opera from the ground up, a musical drama that integrates libretto, music and staging from the initial conception. Everything works together, everything is done for a reason. I have seen so many post-Nixon American operas that are directly extracted from events, news, life, and the best I can say is that they are forgettable. They all, from Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking to Jacob Cooper’s Timberbrit, have the same problem: Put the question, why are you an opera, to them, and they have no answer. Either the drama they strive to convey would be more appropriately supported by a different form, or they fail to do anything more than set words to music.

Adams’ music is great, but as good as the music sounds on both the original Nonesuch recording (now reissued) and the great and superior recent live CD from Naxos, the meaning of that music, it’s purpose and effect, is apparent only when combined with what’s happening on stage. The riveting complexity of the second act is an ideal example; in the second scene the Nixons witness a performance of a typical Socialist Realist opera, with a peasant girl whipped by some capitalist lackeys. Pat is horrified and intervenes, thinking that the drama is real. As the action plays out through singing and a sensational ballet by Mark Morris, the music represents both what’s happening in the opera and the performance within the opera. A tropical storm builds in this internal space, starting with a direct quote from Phillip Glass then swelling into music right out of Das Rheingold. As the rain clears, Pat has become part of the resolution of this story. It’s an incredible musical and dramatic transformation, we’ve been moved into what seems another dimension, and the opera itself has become immensely more complex and dramatic. It is the greatest feat of operatic dramaturgy I have ever witnessed, and it’s an inherent part of the composition. It is also the kind of simultaneous and multidimensional dramatic artifice that can only happen in opera.

This production and performance is the most directly involving opera I’ve witnessed. As Nixon steps out of the door of Air Force One, to hints of Parsifal, the audience at the Met applauded. James Maddalena’s wave back is part of the staging, but in that moment he seemed to be responding directly and spontaneously to us. There is also a simple, mysterious and tremendously effective bit of stagecraft during the banquet scene that concludes the first act; as the characters stood for ceremonial toasts, the house lights slowly came all the way up and we were seemingly all together in the same hall.

That is how we care about Nixon, Mao and Pat. Another reason we care is the marvelous libretto from Alice Goodman. The Anglican church’s gain has been opera’s great loss, she had no equal in this style of writing, which is so difficult. A libretto is not just a text, it’s a sung text, it needs to make it’s argument and it also needs to be musical. Her approach, poetic and actually edged more towards oratorio than opera, gives us Nixon and Mao as vain leaders, bickering over the details but enjoying the amity of their mutual status. She, Sellars and Adams set the piece in history but they don’t give us a documentary, or even a metaphor. They give us encounters, reveries, memories and misunderstandings. Nixon expresses his sincere, naïve reverence for America:

As I look down the road

I know America is good at heart

And one line later he turns inward, to his bitter, paranoid heart:

The rats begin to chew the sheets

There’s murmuring below

Now there’s ingratitude!

Combined with the music, we know who this man is, and we may not like him but we pay attention to him. That is how a libretto is wrought.

Maddalena is almost frighteningly good as a Nixon who is singing to us. His voice has become much deeper and darker than when he originated the role, and he seemed to be fighting a cold, but his sound and manner could not be more right for the character. He’s real, so we listen to him. Janis Kelly was just as real as Pat, her aria, “This is prophetic!,” in Act II was mesmerizing and her singing deeply affecting. Robert Brubaker was equally good as Mao, expressing a comparable vanity and bitterness.

It is Chou En-lai who is the moral center of the work, not because he has answers but because the character has a basic sincerity and willingness to question what is happening. The original role featured the wonderful Sanford Sylvan, but I found Russell Braun at the Met to be a better choice. His darker bass baritone sounds plainly more adult than Sylvan’s lighter and lovelier instrument, and the beauty of his singing was less in his sound, which was excellent, than the great, moving, expressive force. He sang like a man who has doubts about himself, his convictions, and the world, and yet was committed to doing his best. The thoughtful artistry of the performance was matched by Adams in the pit, conducting the score with a gentle, lyrical, searching touch that was very different than the tougher, brilliant recordings. In a form as extroverted as opera, it seems impossible to dig deep into interior experience in front of 3,000 people, but that’s what Adams and the singers did. At the end, as the Nixons drift off to sleep on the flight home, and Mao falls into post-coital somnolence, it is Chou and the orchestra who sing to us, “I am old and cannot sleep,” of regrets, and fears. The character seemed alone in the universe, singing into emptiness. He hopes, he hopes, and a lonely cello rises up, trying to reach him, followed by a violin. And then it ends. But it can’t be forgotten.

Remaining performances are Wednesday February 9, Saturday February 12 (the HD movie theater broadcast), Tuesday February 15 and Saturday February 19. Go here for tickets and more.

Worthwhile

This post from Kyle Gann. He puts into different words, and thus a useful perspective, some of the aspects of contemporary music that I have issues with. The technical detail, especially this:

I keep hearing new operas that, to my ears, all keep making the same mistake. Namely: it sounds like the composer writes the instrumental accompaniment first, and then lays the vocal line over it. The vocal lines, draped on as an afterthought in this way, lack memorability. They tend to be shapeless, often even fragmentary. They seem to follow the harmony, rather than the harmony illuminating the vocal line. I feel that the purpose of an opera, or any piece of music with a text that needs to be understood, is to amplify the words and vastly increase their power, make them vivid.

. . . to me captures the problems and the solutions exactly. I automatically tilt to the more metaphysical, which is the easy flight to safety and how it is the opposite of what composers should be doing, in my opinion. Artists starve, indeed, but they have the freedom and opportunity to be heterodox, and artists who both starve and conform seem to me to be lost. In the case of John Coolidge Adams himself, he became a nonconformist when he revived Romantic aesthetics and that has made him the artistic, social and commercial success he is today. That’s the lesson to be learned from his work, not how the notes are laid out on the page.

The Limits of Reason

Despite claims that America is a deeply religious country, we live in a secular society. The claims are not so much untrue as confusing a tribal identification with an actual embrace of beliefs, values and practices. Asserting that Jesus Christ is one’s personal savior or going to church every Sunday (or not), is sufficient to make one a “Christianist” in Andrew Sullivan’s useful coinage, but is not sufficient to make one an actual Christian, or actually religious. The same is true for believing that every word of the Bible is literally true, which is no more inherently Christian than believing that every word of “A Million Little Pieces” is literally true. In the guise of so-called Christianity, we primarily have in America the pursuit of the most secular, material and craven power; the power to control people’s bodies with the tools of the state, and the power to exploit natural resources without limit. That’s politics, not religion, and in this country religion has been cleaving itself to politics with increasing speed for the past few generations, trading eternity for what amounts to winning the news cycle. It gets one in the news, I suppose.

Of course, this is the country of Elmer Gantry and “Lonesome” Rhodes, “The Sweet Smell of Success” and DARPA, McDonald’s and mega-churches. Our Holy Trinity is celebrity, technology and money, which when combined transubstantiate into Media. This recent New York Times profile of Robert George is the pluperfect example of not only what mainstream religious organization is all about in America but also how those same people who are destroying their religions on the sacrificial altars of materialism are completely blind to their own decadence. The Catholic Church, for so long a repository of and stimulus for a tremendous legacy of intellectual and aesthetic achievement, now seeks the worst kind of establishment, ivory-tower validation from a typical Media talking-head. George is amazing and appalling; as smug and self-enthralled as any pundit, claiming “Reason” is a gift from God based in “Natural Law,” asserting that gay marriage should be prevented because it goes against Reason, and then proceeding to lay out logic which is so flawed and weak that I actually felt embarrassed for him. Natural Law as practiced by conservatives is premised on a willful ignorance of how nature is populated and organized in reality, and George’s logic boils down to gay sex being icky to him, but since he wears a three-piece suit he has to lay that out in a couple paragraphs and call that reasoning (Sullivan has a good critique here). This is Reason not as thought but as brand. And as for values, gay-marriage and abortion are forbidden, everything else, including war and charity, is negotiable.

It takes a person of, well; faith, to find religion, the type of belief that is immaterial and by its necessary nature cannot be reflected in objects of secular worship. In this culture, where does one look? Best to avoid Chesterton, who has become a convenient prop for tendentious “faith,” used to make his supporters feel smarter – he argues well from his premise, but unfortunately skips over the part about arguing for the premise at all, which even Gödel did. Augustine and Aquinas are archaic, but they do have a refreshing combination of ideas and a little bit of doubt, although Aquinas’s views on human gestation would prevent him from receiving the host these days. But again the enduring legacy of the Church is art, as even the current Pope has pointed out, and what better guide to belief than the works of faith rather than the pronouncements of men? At Christmastime, this legacy means music.

A Christmastime concert at a church in New York City means an audience of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics and non-believers (among others), because the music, though sacred, is presented as a concert for us to sit and listen to with willing concentration and appreciation, to applaud and admire. When the Tallis Scholars sang Josquin’s Mass to the Virgin at the Episcopal church of Saint Mary the Divine (reviewed here) they did so at the altar and without a hint of religious ritual or ceremony, nothing more ordinary than performers taking the stage, the conductor introducing the works and then leading the singers in concert. We hear the beauty in the construction of the music, the beauty of the voices, the beauty of the singers working together and expressing musical ideas like pitch, phrasing and dynamics. We see and hear their mouths shape the notes by means of words which, being Latin, are unknown to most of us and are regardless made unintelligible through the transformation of singing, which changes emphasis, distorts pronunciation and elongates even the shortest syllables into abstract phonemes. There is an original meaning here, it is the Catholic mass after all, but it has been subsumed several times, first by setting it to music, second by removing the music from the context of the ritual mass itself, and last by presenting it in front of a concert of people who just want to hear the notes and most likely not the message. Augustine had ambivalent feelings about music, cherishing and fearing its physical and emotional power, and the development of liturgical music had to overcome the fear that setting holy texts to song would mean the earthly, secular attractions of sound would overpower the content. Which is of course what happened, as the Scholars’ performance demonstrated. But these works are fundamentally about faith and ritual, and for good or ill the composers who made them did so in the service of their beliefs, and this is obvious in their resonant concord and incredible beauty. The stick of the scold cannot compare in power to the honey of this beauty.

This fundamental power is also clear in John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ re-setting of the Nativity story in the composers Christmas oratorio El Nino, heard at Carnegie Hall the day after and reviewed here. This is a work that is both heretical and worshipful, telling the story through bits of the Bible but also through parts of the Gnostic Gospels and both liturgical and secular Spanish poetry of the last 500 years. While this performance was a concert, the original conception includes a film by Sellars that portrays Joseph and Mary as Hispanic teenagers of uncertain immigration status travelling the highways of Southern California, seeking refuge. The Virgin herself is tattooed and pierced. The text emphasizes the veneration of the Virgin, a humane and earthy sense of familial and erotic love, the completely mystical nature of Christ and, with tremendous power, narrates the slaughter of the innocents through a poem about the massacre of students in Mexico in 1968. This is some of Adams finest music; it moves and flows, has a broad sweep and enticing details and is written with such lyrical clarity that every word sung is clearly heard. Inspired by the legacy of faith, it fulfills the idea of liturgical music, which is to marry sacred text with God’s glorious gift of creation. The Church, having edited the Bible into shape, could not possibly accept this work, yet it is one the greatest pieces of propaganda for the Catholic faith there is. They could use it, because they sure don’t make propaganda like they used to.

And that’s where this legacy of the church’s works begins, in propaganda: advertisements to attract new believers. Aesthetics have been a powerful tool for the Church to make its case, and that’s perfectly fine. Literature is based in this, Plato did it and so did Ayn Rand, although with her you can’t really tell. The Church had the wisdom and the taste to step outside the page, onto the canvas and into the ear. They still try the latter – this recording is a collection of prayers of Pope Benedict set to music. I was offered the chance to review (promote?) the recording and some pre-release tracks, but on hearing the music I could not. It’s the worst kind of Enya-ish world-music treacle, easy-electronic-listening infomercial soundtracks with the occasional vulgar melisma tossed in. I was left wondering how the Church came to enjoy the clichéd vocal sound of a woman having an orgasm and where the entirety of their sense of beauty went. They probably left in the trash in Robert George’s office.

The Time Of The Season

What’s your idea of holiday music? For a lot of people, it’s this:

That may be the worst song I’ve ever heard, be thankful I didn’t embed the album version. And before you say anything, there is no competition from Wham! They lack the completely inappropriate hard-rock bludgeon.

Or, there’s Senator Orrin Hatch’s new Hanukkah song (I do not exaggerate when I write that I am deeply embarrassed for Jeffrey Goldberg both promoting his part in its creation and offering his appreciation for the music. The combination of Hatch condescending to educate ‘secular Jews’ about their own culture and the mechanical, stupid and over-sold songwriting is nauseating, and Goldberg’s inability to listen to this in any critical way is another indication to me that I am correct when I argue that developing aesthetic judgement helps one think critically about political subjects).

In standard fare there’s the usual over-roasted, mushy chestnuts, the annual Messiahs, even the occasional gem. There’s an interesting and aesthetically fitting tradition in Japan of performing the Beethoven Ninth Symphony on New Year’s Eve. But if you’re looking both for something to celebrate the season and stay off the beaten track, there’s festivals, and by that I mean the good old-fashioned, New Media kind.

New York City public radio station WNYC bought classical music station WQXR from The New York Times this fall, and moved it up the dial to 105.9. The purchase saved the station and hopefully will make for more interesting music programming (programming and hosting positions were advertised through the fall, but, sadly and frustratingly, The Big City was never considered). One exciting change is the development of Q2, the station’s on-line broadcaster, and even more exciting is that today marks the start of a weeklong festival devoted to Steve Reich, Maximum Reich. You can listen via iTunes classical radio or through the station’s site, www.wqxr.org/q2/. The schedule is a little difficult to track; Nadia Sirota hosts everyday at midnight, 10AM and 6PM, a different recording of Music For 18 Musicians is featured daily at 10PM, interviews with Reich are presented at 2AM, noon and 8PM. In addition, there is a daily focus on different aspects of his work, although no specific times are given. Sit down, boot up, and tune in.

WKCR’s annual Bach Festival begins on the 21st and continues through the end of the year. It lasts longer and is more satisfying than the Yule Log. While it may seem like ten days of Bach is too much to endure, the experience of turning on the radio, or tuning in with your computer, over the course of the Festival is beyond rewarding. Bach’s output was as varied as it was vast, and the vitality, beauty and charm of the music are constant.

If you’re in the New York City area and want to get out of the house, try the 2009 Blip Festival, held this year at The Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn December 17-19. Music made with 8-bit computers and bent circuit deviousness, this will give you some idea of the wonderfully naive sound and infectious spirit of fun of this music:

The New York Philharmonic naming Alan Gilbert as their new music director was an enduring gift to all music loving New Yorkers, and Gilbert himself has instituted a new offering as well, the CONTACT! series promoting new music. The first of the two in the series will be performed next week, on the 17th and 19th, with Magnus Lindberg hosting and conducting. That this series exists is a truly auspicious thing and another reason to be excited about the Philharmonic. This orchestra is returning to cultural relevancy and that is nothing but a grand benefit for the city.

And lest you think me Scrooge or the Grinch, there is actual Holiday music on the horizon as well, events that, along with all the above, are on my Critic’s Calendar. This Saturday, arguably the world’s leading vocal ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, is performing Josquin’s Mass for the Virgin Mary at, appropriately, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, as part of Miller Theater’s Early Music series. Readers of this blog are well aware that Miller is a leader in presenting great works of contemporary music, but they also are leaders in the local Early Music scene, and I think that is a natural fit. Both musics tend to reveal the process by which they are made in performance and so are similarly stimulating to listeners.

The following Sunday, John Adams‘ contemporary masterpiece of the Nativity, El Nino, appears at Carnegie Hall, with the composer conducting, and Dawn Upshaw, Michelle DeYoung and Eric Owens as soloists. It’s not clear if the performance will include the Peter Sellars’ film and staging, but even without those the music is marvelous and absolutely seasonal. If you’re tired of Handel, see this.

To bring this round-up full circle, we must turn to the world beyond the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean. While locally based streaming radio is available anywhere in the world there is an internet connection, a human connection, a human gathering in the spirit of the season takes place all over the country and in Europe and Australia as well, unsilent night. This is not only local to so many, and free, but anyone with a boom box can participate in the music making. This year’s event in New York City is Saturday, the 12th, but check your local listings, gather and enjoy.

A Little Night Music

Last Thursday, Roulette once again hosted another Interpretations concert, the penultimate one of the season, this one a recital by pianist Teresa McCollough, accurately subtitled “Playing, Plucking, Pounding: New Music for Piano & Percussion.” Redundant, perhaps, considering that the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, yet it gives a great idea of what I heard.

This was an evening dedicated to the sounds that the piano can produce, especially the inherent resonant sonorities which can be so satisfying to produce and hear, and the concert was a deeply pleasurable and refreshing one. McCollough chose a program that was contemporary and broad in range and which featured some of the best idiomatic piano writing of the past few decades, as well as works which balanced a straightforward expression of an experimental approach.

Most straightforward of all was Gabriela Lena Frank‘s two pianos, two percussion arrangement of her ballet El Dia de los Muertos. This is a narrative work set in episodes, and the music ably conveys both story and setting, the opening prelude evoking the kind of western landscape of the imagination familiar from Sergio Leone movies. The work takes great delight in the kind of forceful chordal playing and rhythmic precision that was first expressed in Stravinsky’s Les Noces. It resonates joyfully. This is a recent work by a young composer, another is Noise + Mobile by Sam Pluta, a former student of McCollough’s. Pluta’s piece is for piano with electronic accompaniment, a kind of dialogue between a up-to-the-minute glitchy sound with skittering beats, and an energetic piano part that changes character halfway through the piece into something more introspective, finally drifting off into quiet. The electronics are less interesting than the piano part, which is involving and well-written, and the two don’t seem to have very much to do with each other. Perhaps running the piano through the loudspeakers would integrate the two better, but as it is the work is only a half-success.

Preceding these works in the recital’s second-half was Greed Machine, a work from Alvin Singleton that McCollough has recorded. It’s a duet for piano and vibraphone and reflects Singleton’s personal style, which is elusive, mysterious, hermetic and deeply fascinating. The piece begins with the dramatic gesture of fortissimo chords, but there is space aplenty to appreciate the ringing decay of the sound. In fact, space is a feature of the structure, which generally alternates between a musical statement and the silence in which we may contemplate it. The statements themselves are made with the slightest means; a chord, a short line of notes. Things start and seem to lose their way and, confounded, bring themselves to a halt. This is by design and the results involving, like reading Beckett and realizing there is a way to use language that is both unfamiliar in intent and yet clear in method.

The first half was a real tour-de-force in pianism, with McCollough performing John Adams‘ seminal China Gates, George Crumb‘s A Little Suite for Christmas AD 1979, and then joined by Michael Boyd for Adams’ Hallelujah Junction. China Gates is one of Adams “juvenile” pieces, like Shaker Loops and even Grand Pianola Music; works that mark his beginnings as a major composer and also ones that may be played well by student musicians. It’s a beautiful and enduring piece, with the shimmering, limpid surface familiar to pulse-pattern Minimalism but also the sense of resonant sound that has been a feature of his work. What also sets it apart is the movement of inner voices, a contrapuntal quality procedure that gives the work a quasi-Medieval flavor. The later work is just as full of resonant sound, but is far more extroverted, complex and challenging to play. The two pianos mix complex cross-rhythms in a rollicking, jazzy dialogue that has an underlying delicacy of both line and mood. There was some roughness in coordination between the two pianists, but they found the footing quickly and played with great verve and command. Along with his considerable craft, Adams has an important ability to convey both extroversion and introversion simultaneously. Hallelujah Junction gives us something that feels like de Chirico’s The Melancholy of Departure, the simultaneous excitement, sadness, apprehension and determination that comes with setting off on some new journey.

Crumb’s piece is a beautiful meditation and a lesson on just what kind of sound can be produced from the piano, in the great experimental tradition that Henry Cowell began. Like Cowell, Crumb is presenting clear ideas in an unfamiliar way. This series of miniatures explores the shimmering overtones that sustained chords can produce, and demonstrates the variety of timbres that can be achieved by damping strings with the hand, plucking and stroking others. It’s is technically accomplished but not a technical work, rather it is exceedingly expressive in the sense that this language of timbres and overtones is the type of delicate, fleeting and nuanced language the can express contemplation of the Giotto frescoes in the Cappella di Scorvegni in Padova. This was perhaps the most impressive performance of the evening; McCollough played the keyboard music of all the pieces with great command, dedication and assured, expressive pianistic skill. The quality she brought to the Little Suite was great taste, a superb ear. The piano string is a cold, tightly wound piece of metal, and any person can pluck it or strike it, unlike the piano keys, with equal sonic results. McCollough is an excellent musician, and with that, she brings the extra measure, which is plucking or striking that string at the moment when it most matters. And the moment when it most matters is that exact moment that her musicianship, thinking and taste has brought the music, and us, to meet.

How Composers Learn, Part 2

[updated with video, “Batter My Heart,” Peter Seller’s production] They read, and they write, and not music. They read books about all sorts of things other than music. They gather material, experience, knowledge, ideas. They react to these things. And they write.

Composers are, generally, excellent prose writers. This isn’t a surprise when one considers that the way to learn to write well is to read and write – read good writing, and write and rewrite your own. Composers already work towards clarity and precision in a difficult and abstract language, so writing in their own vernacular usually comes fluidly. The goal in both music and prose is clarity and precision of expression, exactitude. Composers get a lot of practice at that, moving slowly from incoherence to coherence, which is both a short-term and a long-term project. The latter covers a career, and former projects such as this, where I write in main part to bring out and stitch together some coherent voices from the riot going on in my mind.

And that’s the fundamental issue; how are ideas made to cohere, particularly complex ideas, because music, even at its seeming simplest, is a language of complexity. And nothing is more complex, not a novel, not computer code, not a credit default swap, than an opera. So John Adams has produced a great opera and a great book.

The striving for coherence also means exploring the way get from here to there, no matter how short the journey may be. For myself, and this post, the journey begins during the live HD broadcast of Dr. Atomic, last Saturday. After seeing the premiere in San Francisco, a dress rehearsal last month and now this broadcast, I am confident of my knowledge and memory of the work (this was also the first Met HD broadcast I’ve seen, and it was a great experience – excellent sound, interesting and intimate backstage views, documentary material added for the movie theater audiences. While I don’t know how well a spectacle like Aida would come across, the ability to experience Dr. Atomic close-up gave emphasis to how fine the production was, and also the overall excellence of the cast).

I was impressed with many things during this performance, beyond the almost overwhelming emotional impact the opera has. There is something powerfully exciting in being a living witness to a work that will last in the literature, and to seeing true, long-term greatness develop in an artist. Adams has gone from being an interesting associate of the American Minimalist style, to a developing Neo-Romantic composer, to a fine American contemporary composer, to a truly great national and international artist who has subtly but effectively pioneered ways to make music fresh in the 21st century. How this all happens is a mystery in some ways, but clear too. While his memoir cannot describe how his craft improves through work, it can describe how his ideas and style change, both serendipitously and willfully. He is asking important, coherent questions about the American experience, as he alluded to in a backstage interview with Susan Graham; he sees the important questions of today as being about politics, terrorism and science. I don’t think he’s wrong.

Like learning to write by reading great writers, Adams has also learned to make a new style by synthesizing those of other composers. It’s not copying or stealing, it’s more like reverse-engineering, taking something apart to see how it works and putting it back together to see if you can make your own version. This is one of the features of Dr. Atomic, which creates the musical drama through standard means – particular phrases that are matched to characters and dramatic moments – and by conveying different styles for different dramatic purposes, very much in the Romantic operatic style and especially taking after the methods of Berg. All this synthesis mates the means of other composers with Adams himself to produce something new; the bustle of activity around the Trinity project comes by way of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, intimate moments between Oppenheimer and Kitty are in the manner of Ravel’s Daphnis et Cloe, while a great deal of the slow rise in tension in the second act comes from lessons Adams has learned from his own music, especially Shaker Loops and his underrated El Dorado.

If composers learn by reading and writing, and writing conveys a sense of thought and knowledge, what to make of the contrast with people who are, astonishingly, paid to write? What to make of this:

I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist.

I make it out as someone who knows nothing about music, and can’t think or write coherently. So, no surprise that it’s by Camille Paglia. I read Sexual Personae oh those many years ago, and was struck immediately then, as now, by how she knows nothing at all about music. I don’t mean facts and figures, I mean she can’t listen, she can’t hear it. In that book, she belabored her point by claiming that jazz musicians didn’t dig Debussy because it’s too feminine, which means she’s never heard La Mer or Maiden Voyage. And now this latest drivel. I would say there is a fundamental difference between Sarah Palin and Charlie Parker, and it has to do with intelligence. Parker’s “jumps, breaks and rippling momentum” are impeccably clear and coherent, even at the superhuman speed of his thoughts, even when he was fucked up, which was frequently. My partisan dogma is that I work with language, and like to see it used coherently to convey meaning. Sarah Palin speaks in gibberish, almost randomly tossing out words. She literally makes no sense – I have no idea what she thinks because she cannot say anything that has meaning, so she practically is not thinking anything at all. But that’s okay with political writers like Paglia, or Palin’s sponsor Bill Kristol, another example of how lack of ideas and convictions leads to incoherence. I usually cannot understand what he is trying to say, although it frequently appears to be completely wrong. How’s that new century going, Bill? Strange how this incoherence leads to professional gigs, especially now that I’m unemployed again, and still trying to write whatever I write – essays, music, code – better and better. But then I come from the arts where, like science, bad ideas are left to die, while in politics, we are cursed with them seemingly forever.

“I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds”

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The story of how an opera came to be made from the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, as recounted by John Adams in his new memoir, began with a call to the composer from the San Francisco opera, asking if he’d like to do something for their series of productions based on the “Faust” story. It’s not an inappropriate metaphor, but I feel that the best way to see Oppenheimer and his story – and now having seen both the SF Opera and Metropolitan Opera productions of “Doctor Atomic” – is that he is Prometheus, empowered by the government to bring nuclear fire to mankind, and then ruined by that same government when they came to distrust his own power.

That’s a story for another day. The story in the opera covers a brief period just prior to the test of the “gadget” at the Trinity site in New Mexico, and literally ends at the moment of that explosion, just before Oppenheimer uttered that phrase (his own mistranslation – the actual text in the Bhagavad Gita is “I am Time, destroyer of worlds” – but true nonetheless). In the narrative scheme of human existence, Prometheus trumps Faust in terms of importance. The latter seeks knowledge, but his use of it is limited to his own petty humanity, while Prometheus gave us power! And Oppenheimer gave us the power to wipe mankind off the face of the earth with the fire of existence itself. In the competition over who’s god is bigger, the players are really fighting over scraps, in America the Christian God is not even in second place; Mammon has a firm hold there. The god that America worships more than any other is Prometheus, who comes to us in the form of technology.

The Manhattan Project perverted so much. The current hagiography over The Greatest Generation and The Good War has a dark hole at its center where the slaughter of civilians lies. It is properly moral to not say war is great, even if it may be necessary, and to do so by pointing out what is so awful about it, especially in contemporary times; the industrial slaughter of life, and, since before the 20th century, concentration camps and the deliberate killing of civilians. If the only justification for Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki is winning, then that says everything about the morality of war. Instead we have the dangerous idea that everything America does is right, and so the actual consideration of rightness, or even wisdom, is thought treasonous. Also, historical memory is perverted into thinking that wars end with a final, unconditional surrender, when that is the exceptional moment in history. Wars end with exhaustion and irresolution. And we have Prometheus, who tells us that technology solves all problems and makes mankind better. Could he be the Trickster god?

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Oppenheimer and Prometheus meat in Alan Moore’s Watchmen (coming someday to a theater near you), where the character of Doctor Manhattan is a direct amalgamation of the two; a physicist who is literally decomposed in an accident, and then reassembles himself as a perfect physical reflection of the unlimited power of this beautiful symbol: E=mc2. Like the bomb, he is all powerful and amoral, helping win the war in Vietnam and maintaining order more out of a sense of abstract, intellectual interest rather than any conviction.

Oppenheimer was not like that, of course, of at least not like that all the time. The Manhattan Project had a strategic goal and so was immune to moralizing, and for his part he naively felt that sharing the technological information immediately with the Soviet Union would forestall an arms race and enable international control of nuclear weapons. This balance, this tension between technical dedication, some sense of patriotism or at least defense of society, and moral reckoning is the essential nature of the opera. It is sung-through and Adams’ language is mostly semi-abstract; it is not atonal in the way of 12-tone music, but it resists tonal centers and cadences, and moves along in dreamlike fashion similar to “Pélleas et Melisande.” The music is not specifically adapted to characters, instead it brings the characters along with it towards the dramatic goal of the opera, like individuals caught helplessly in the flow of history, seeking to contribute to events around them by literally making their voices heard – the conception is much like Alban Berg, and this is the heights of Adams Romantic style. The effect is mellifluous, climaxing musically at the end of the first act, with Oppenheimer singing a wrenching setting of John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three person’d God,”which in the two very different stagings of it I’ve seen proves itself one of the great moments in operatic literature.

The staging of the Met production, directed by Penny Woolcock, is very different than Peter Sellars’ original work, more concrete and narrative yet effectively abstract in that it seeks abstract means to convey the biggest questions of the opera, the ones that cannot be literally staged; meanings of work intended to produce death and destruction, the test itself. It is the staging of this great aria that the differences between the two productions can be clearly drawn. In San Francisco, Oppenheimer literally staggers around the stage, while behind him, enclosed in a curtain, hangs the bomb. At the end of his singing, he turns and goes back to the curtain, draws it enough so we have our first peek, and slips inside. On the Met stage, the bomb appears clearly, descending from the ceiling, and the stage is cleared of all but the character, and he sings, literally, in the shadow of the gadget, and then gazes up at it, mesmerized in some way. There is a feeling of awe and terror. In Adams’ memoir, he discusses the difficulties of staging this work, but I feel that Woolcock and the Met have solved them – the production is a musical, dramatic and emotional powerhouse. “Doctor Atomic” is not just an interesting contemporary opera, it is a great opera and belongs in the standard literature. It is one of the few works of music I can think of that means to evoke our Modern conception of the sublime, which is terrifying beauty. Regard, it is beautiful, and terrifying:

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Working from memory, I detect some changes in the score from the original as well. The characterization of Kitty Oppenheimer was the weak spot originally, and that may have had a great deal to do with Adams writing the part originally for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She was a singer with exceptionally rare charisma, and Adams may have underwritten the part with her in mind. Certainly the part as sung now by Sasha Cooke is full and able to compare to the tremendous part of Oppenheimer, partly created and absolutely owned by Gerald Finley. His singing, his presence on stage, the music all present a question with no ready, easy answer, which is the only way to treat Oppenheimer and his endeavor. It was Oppenheimer’s genius that brought us the bomb, and his cultured personality that gave us the proper way to think of ourselves once we possessed it, as gods and destroyers. Those aren’t the only apt words for the Trinity test, though. One of Oppenheimer’s colleagues replied: “Now we are all sons of bitches.

Looking West

We went out into the very stormy night to hear the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM. This was the first time I’ve seen the new hometown band, and I was looking forward to that along with the pleasure of the programming; Takemitsu, Bartok and the increasingly ubiquitous John Adams, with his rhapsody for electric violin and orchestra Dharma at Big Sur.

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If BAM is the big brother to Berkeley’s Cal Performances, than the opposite holds for the BPO and the Berkeley Symphony. They are both part-time, local orchestras with aesthetic ambitions but not top-flight depth. Kent Nagano turned Berkeley into a pretty good symphony, and I think it’s possible here too. The program presented the strengths and weaknesses of the group; fine, lean strings in the Bartok Divertimento, rough brass in two Takemitsu fanfares. Michael Christie is a strength, though, with his enthusiasm and patience with the audience, and his excellent programming and understanding of the music.

The strings were dynamic and supple in Takemitu’s Three Film Scores, sandwiched by variable performances of Day Signal and Night Signal – the commitment was there, the color and intonation came and went. I find Takemitsu an intriguing composer, the only one equally the child of Debussy and Bernard Herrmann. The Bartok was excellent. This is a fibrous orchestra, which is appropriate for the music. Unlike composers who’s colors go from dark to light, Bartok goes from angst to determination, and Christie shaped the focus and dynamics of the movements with a real understanding of what to say. The molto adagio was especially gripping, whispering along and drawing in the listener with almost apologetic declamations.

The second half featured Leila Josefowicz as soloist in a rapturous performance of Adams’ wonderful work. The composer has been seemingly producing a long, personal travelogue through the last 15 years or so, starting with the Chamber Symphony, and he’s visiting the places – composers and styles – that inform his own creative life. Dharma at Big Sur is a conscious homage to Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, and also, it seems to me, a sign post on a personal journey. It’s important, I think, that the recording of Dharma is part of a set that includes My Father Knew Charles Ives, the only work I know that successfully emulates Ives style, and sets the starting point. The rhapsody announces the consciousness of being a California composer, of belonging to a school that Ives made possible but that abandoned his model of Brahms and look to gamelan music and Chinese opera. Parts of California are on the Pacific tectonic plate, physically not North America, and the viewpoint from there is across the endless expanse of the Pacific, into the future, into things that have not been done before. The view and the environment leads to work that is simultaneously explorative and contemplative, and Adams’ work is just that, especially in Josefowicz’s performance. She was delicately, achingly lyrical in the opening part, “A New Day,” and driving in the “Sri Moonshine” half. She made great use of the sound of the electric violin and the effects available to it. This is music that is comfortingly lovely but has a lot to say, and the violinist and conductor treated is with care, interest, and great musicality. The transparent, colorful textures really suit this orchestra, and I imagine their Pulcinella later this year will be stunning.