Dr. Atomic: Trying to Understand Art in the Atomic Age
By varying degrees of difference, few of us are actually alike, no matter how much we may share or how similarly we may see our lives, our plights, or affectations. When I first began listening to opera as a child, I thought of how alone I was in this obsession. As I grew older and began studying music, I thought, “how wonderful” to be able to share this obsession with so many like-minded music lovers.” As I grow older still, I realize, outside of the music itself, how precious little I often have in common with many other opera, symphony, and recital attendees. I understand that we all come to music, to the opera especially, because of our own reasons and these may or may not be shared by others – either many or few.
I was overwhelmed the first time I heard Doctor Atomic several years ago. As soon as a performance became available on pirate DVD, I snatched it up, and played it. And played it. I grew as familiar as I could with the libretto, Adams’ settings of it, the orchestral music and electronic sounds – coming to believe it to be one of this composer’s greatest works. Adams is a composer whose work I liked immediately: everything I heard of early on – Shaker Loops, Grand Pianola Music, etc., got me me thinking, made me smile. None of it, however, left me remotely prepared for the piece which would grab me as almost no other late 20th century work had previously done: the massively constructed “Harmonielehre” (1984) in a recording led by the composer himself. The first time I heard those opening chords I, literally, fell out of my chair and onto my knees. I remember the moment as though it happened an hour ago.
Harmonielehre – this work, alone, made me reevaluate my already positive assessments of contemporary music - especially Adams’, as well as the role it was taking and would play in my life. It soon seemed everything composed was simply the next thing in a logical, natural progression – in his expression, the flow of his creativity - I was finding a composer who seemed to be writing the soundtrack to my own life. Frightening. Beautiful.
I understand and even appreciate how many do not care for Adams’ music. But, as there tends to be whenever personalities are involved (i.e., “always”) there seems also to be some malevolent feelings directed against the composer himself, these bizarrely fixed and fueled fictional agendas perpetuated against him for . . . reasons I never fully comprehend. Sometimes the backlash against his music seems to stem from those who find him “an intellectual” – an almost damnable offense in a 21st century America obsessed with redneck and low-folk inspired humor and sensibilities and one prejudice needing to make a long-overdue retreat.
Still, if one is able to listen to interviews with or read any of many excellent articles on the man one would likely discover a more truthful representation of WHO John Adams is. It is therefore when I see charges like “self-indulgent” – “narcissistic” – “too academic” I can tend to get a bit testy. While this is true generally, it is particularly so with works which speak to me emotionally and which hit, then linger with me my noting the residual impact they leave on my life. We are all well aware of the strength of negative reviews and opinions – and how more fun they are to read than positive ones - with its instant “caught with your pants down” or ‘”gotcha!” quality that provides one with a fleeting instant of superiority to (though rarely sympathy for) the person we're examining under the microscope.
Few of us have the inclination, time, or even desire to understand all of what goes into a composition of ANY sort: painting, opera or a meal of great complexity, seeing only the end result which, of course, is all we’re meant to (if the painter, composer or chef is doing his job). Still, this does not prevent us from attempting to fragment the thing, to – even with incomplete, or worse, incorrect information – try to make more of it than it is – analyzing it using our own spec sheets as to what should have happened when, what disaster could have been averted, improved upon, etc., etc.
Entering as yet another variable into the complexity of the equation is also the eternal question of whether a composer is writing for "us" or is writing for himself. (There is no one correct answer to this . . . and there won’t be a quiz.)
With all of this as preamble, how then do we fairly assess and critique Mr. Adams’ opus three years now before the public? Critics and audiences alike have wrestled with not only the difficult theme of his Manhattan Project project, but the very manner by which it was constructed: with elements of electronic etude, symphonic sturm und drang, ancient and modern philosophies, declassified government documents, dance, ballet, and a libretto about as far away from “standard issue dramaturgy” as Philip Glass’s Bhagavad Gita-inspired “Satyagraha.”
(Adams and Sellars also draw from the Indian epic for “Dr. Atomic”). Poetry – especially in the guise of “sonnets” (the word itself sounding affected to many audiences, particularly American ones), is not what one expects in plays, lyrics, songs – and barely in arias.
We tend to like our opera clear cut and natural yet what could possibly be “less natural” then the very idea of setting speechified text to music in the first place? And yet, by including these ancient texts and sonnets Adams and Sellars have drawn a line – a link between past and future – a distinct connect of language and imagery at once both familiar and foreign. It may be intellectual in its construct, and even its execution, but NOT in its result which is immediate and heartfelt. That is, to me, the essence of art – to take what is not and construct from it an “is.” (If ANYONE is still following me here, bless you!)
I don’t think Adams ever wants his work to be easy on his audience. He is ever probing, inquisitive, suggestive, menacing, thoughtful, arbitrary and indirect. His operas lay open every possibility for exploration of their dramas – usually with an objectivity not easily found in most of the cut-and-dry scenarios most of us tend like in our opera. In almost all of Adams’ work, every character emerges both as hero and monster - we see them completely. Understandably for some such ambiguity of character is disturbing in that they find themselves unable to relate to the characters they’re trying to understand, to feel emotions for. Who is the villain? Who, the hero? All of us.
I’ve heard many confused statements following opening night, people wondering whether Oppenheim and Co. are being portrayed as heroes or villains; whether Adams' opera is glorifying the bomb; even if the subject matter is appropriate for a musical/dramatic treatment in purely “operatic” terms. These questions perplex me for if the answer to any of them is “yes” – or “no” – then we’ve essentially limited ourselves, placed boundaries and cut offs as to what is or isn’t - can or cannot be "art." Adams’ works – not just his operas – constantly and gloriously smash through these boundaries, extending the perimeters of what was and what can be. This is not to say he is alone in this endeavor, but there is no denying the man is at the forefront of it as far as American music is concerned.
The man has devoted his life to studying, discovering and understanding both himself, his species and the world we inhabit. I don’t know how well he’s succeeded or believes he has but, during the process, Adams’ work has shined a light on the best and worst of us offering up a reflection of all which makes us distinctly human and imperfect; creatures capable of creating and destroying, of being our own gods and monsters.
And so, with all of this filling and spilling from my head, I again listened to Doctor Atomic, wrapping myself up in the warm and tight complexities of its magnificent score, feeling it become more and more familiar – and realize I am no closer to understanding or figuring what its about any more than I was several years ago. This is the ultimate beauty and triumph of art – not my ability to grow and understand it, but by how it continually defeats, confuses and evades me no matter how strong my attempt to grasp it is. Little wonder then that it is Donne’s sonnet that has affected me most of all - even more than the detonation of the bomb itself. In the restlessness and confusion of Donne’s words, we see and feel the link Adams creates from it, connecting a modern score to a 400 year old text and in so doing, shows us that no less is our desire for sublation and knowledge, no greater is our understanding, and no less is our urgency - our need to understand.
“Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly' I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, 'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you' enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”