John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

Setting Texts

FJO: You’ve written a lot of vocal music, three evening-length music theater works, the two operas and Ceiling/Sky, Harmonium for chorus and orchestra, The Wound-Dresser, and now El Niño.
JA: And I don’t know how to sing. I can’t carry a tune. It’s true!
FJO: But, there’s definitely a clearness, a crystalline quality to the vocal lines that you write that really marry the text, it really is about conveying the words of the text without hindrances. I mean, there are these periods in this century’s music and certainly in the past where you’d have these really angular lines wandering all over the map and no one could know what the words are. When I was in high school, I remember hearing a hard-core total serial setting of some of Shakespeare‘s sonnets, and I thought it showed no understanding of that text whatsoever. You know, I find your vocal music really exciting in that it does convey the words of the text. And when you’re working on a setting, like the Emily Dickinson poems you used in Harmonium, or a libretto about Leon Klinghoffer on the Achille Lauro, and now all these poems by Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz and all of these Gnostic and medieval texts concerning the Nativity, what is your approach using a text? Is the text the starting point, where does it go from there?

An excerpt from the piano reduction of JA’ The Wound-Dresser (1988-89), text by Walt Whitman
© 1989 Red Dawn Music, a division of Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: Well, you know, what I said about my not being able to sing is really true. And that may actually have some deep psychological underpinning to the way I actually approach text setting. I think, first of all, language is intensely important to me. I read a lot of poetry; I read an enormous amount of fiction. And I’m interested in language, I read German, I read French, and I read Spanish as well as English. So, the way a word is set, you know, the inflection of it and also the intelligibility of it is very important to me. I’m not a composer who uses a heck of a lot of melisma for example. I view text setting as a matter of embodying the text but also respecting it. I like to work with good texts. You know, I think that the two Alice Goodman libretti are among the best libretti ever made. You know, whether the music’s any good or not, I don’t know, but I think that…
FJO: It is!
JA: Nixon in China is one of the great librettos of all time. And, so, when I said I think I have an enormous respect for the words, and particularly with American English, I like to make the rhythm of the language flow so that one actually not only hears the words and enjoys the melody and the harmony but also appreciates the succulence of the actual rhythm of the language.
FJO: There’s a moment in Nixon that I absolutely love. It goes beyond conveying the rhythm of the text musically, it conveys the meanings of the words as well. Nixon’s big aria in the First Act about "News." At one point, he suddenly sings "It’s prime time in the U.S.A.," and there’s a sudden modulation on U.S.A. You’re in a new chordal area there, and it conveys the glee at what Nixon must have been thinking, you know, "Wow, we’re going to get some publicity out of this on prime time TV in America; what a great moment for me."
JA: I think my inspiration has largely come from popular composers, particularly composers like Richard Rodgers as well as The Beatles. You know, English is not the ultimate ideal language to set. You know, Italian is by far more desirable to set. But the thing about English is that almost all of the great popular music has been in English. Whether it’s been Billie Holiday songs or Gershwin songs or Richard Rodgers.
FJO: Even rock bands in foreign countries sing in English!

An excerpt from the aria, "News Has a Kind of Mystery" from the opera Nixon in China (1987)
Music by JA, words by Alice Goodman
© 1987 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher
RealAudio Sample

JA: So, if they can do it, why can’t a classical composer do it well? And interestingly enough, most contemporary classical composers I think do a terrible job setting English. I can’t explain why they do it, but when you hear a contemporary opera that’s set in English it’s so discordant, it’s so tone deaf. And I think that one of the problems is that the composers are thinking classically, their thinking as if they were European composers approaching the libretto, when what one really has to do is to imagine one’s a pop composer setting these texts.
FJO: It’s great that you bring up Richard Rodgers because I remember I was in a music theater composer’s workshop years back and I was told that Oscar Hammerstein II had this dictum that the words must marry the music. And in your work clearly the words marry the music. And to step away from this, though, now you’re setting texts that are not in English as well as texts that are in English. Is the approach different for Spanish than it is for English?
JA: No, I don’t think so. I think, you know, Spanish is not my first language, nor even my second language. It’s been a real voyage of discovery. I made a couple of mistakes in setting El Niño that some native speakers have caught.
FJO: And now they’re fixed.
JA: Yeah, hopefully they’re fixed! (Both laugh) But, I think that part of working in another language is just simply it’s a wonderful voyage of discovery. These poems that we chose for El Niño – I say ‘we’ because Peter Sellars was so intensely involved in helping me create the libretto – they’re mostly by women, and they’re almost all by Hispanic poets, and they have a clarity, they have an intense emotional depth to them that gives to this nativity story a color and a resonance that I think is completely new and hopefully, if I’ve done it right, will really give a new slant on this age old story.
FJO: Working with singers who are trained to sing dead composers, you know Puccini or Wagner or even Alban Berg versus singers who are trained to do Broadway musicals… You know, I worked with a singer on a piece once who wouldn’t stop rolling his Rs and I wanted to jump out the window! What do you do to guarantee that the vernacular English sensibility that you brought to it as a composer stays that way in the performance?
JA: First of all, I have been very, very fortunate in my life as a composer that I’ve had almost universally really great singers, who never rolled their Rs and wouldn’t roll their Rs even in Handel. People like James Maddalena, Sanford Sylvan, now I’m working with Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson… So, if you start off with that caliber of singer you don’t have to worry about those things, and I’m happy that we record these pieces because we get what the composer wanted right from the start.
FJO: And then you have a blueprint for future performances.
JA: Well, hopefully.

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