Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 7, 2009

Wonders are Many

Filed under: Film,music,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Now available from Netflix, the documentary “Wonders Are Many” is a behind the scenes look at John Adams’s opera “Doctor Atomic”, which premiered at the San Francisco opera house on October 1, 2005. It allows both Adams and director Peter Sellars to explain their various artistic decisions as well as providing background on the Los Alamos project and its chief administrator Robert Oppenheimer, the “doctor atomic” upon whom the opera is based.

John Adams

John Adams has been grouped with Philip Glass and Steve Reich as a leading minimalist composer, although I find his music to be a bit more complex and traditional in some ways. Adams is somewhat younger than Glass and Reich and his music has been described as post-minimalist. What distinguishes Adams from other composers is his focus on politics. His first opera, written in 1987, was “Nixon Goes to China”. It was described as “coy and insubstantial” in the New York Times but was most notable, in my opinion, for its music.

It was his next opera, however, that drew so much controversy that he was widely described as “anti-Semitic”. The 1991 “The Death of Klinghoffer” was viewed as impermissibly tolerant of Palestinian terror, although-as was the case with the first opera-the primary motivation would be more about moral drama rather than agitation. In December 2001, Richard Taruskin wrote an article in the New York Times defending the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to remove choruses from the opera from a scheduled recital:

Announcing that it preferred “to err on the side of being sensitive,” the management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra recently canceled its scheduled performances of choruses from “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the notoriously controversial opera — masterminded by the director Peter Sellars, with a libretto by the poet Alice Goodman and a score by John Adams — that re-enacts and comments on the murder of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the fall of 1985.

For thus showing forbearance and discretion, the Boston Symphony has taken some pies in the face. In an exceptionally vulgar rant that appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, the arts columnist David Wiegand, enraged at what he perceived as a slight to Mr. Adams (a Bay Area luminary), wrote, “There is something deeply wrong when a nation galvanizes its forces, its men and women, its determination and its resolve, to preserve the right of the yahoos at the Boston Symphony Orchestra to decide to spare its listeners something that might challenge them or make them think.” What nation had done this? And why shouldn’t people be spared reminders of recent personal pain when they attend a concert?

The libretto of “Doctor Atomic” draws heavily from declassified U.S. government documents, as well as communications by scientists, government officials, and military personnel involved in the project. During rehearsals we see Adams trying to coach the singers into drawing the maximum impact from what often sounds like pages from a physics or engineering textbook. The chorus sings:

We surround the plutonium core
from thirty two points
spaced equally around its surface,
the thirty-two points
are the centers of the
twenty triangular faces
of an icosahedron
interwoven with the
twelve pentagonal faces
of a dodecahedron.
We squeeze the sphere.
Bring the atoms closer.
Til the subcritical mass
goes supercritical.
We disturb the stable nucleus.

John Adams’s long-time collaborator Peter Sellars is seen rehearsing the performers until the very day the opera debuts. Sellars is a fascinating character who with his cartoonish haircut and floral-print shirts looks like a character that Martin Short would have a good time imitating. Sellars is nobody to laugh at, however, when it comes the intersection of art and politics.

Peter Sellars

Musing on Oppenheimer’s tragedy, Sellars believes that he was seduced by the power elite in top government and military circles to do their bidding even when he probably knew that he was involved in a major war crime. Sellars says that he understands how that happens, having been a frequent guest at the White House in earlier years, something he tells the camera that he gave up on long ago.

In an address given to Australian television in 1999, Sellars talked about Cultural Activism in the New Century:

The main thing of course is this question of how do we deal with people, things, aspects of life that do object to us, people who actually want to kill you, people who have a very different idea of what the right next thing to do in life would be, people who in short are not like us. People who you know we tell ourselves they’re terrorists, they’re this, they’re that, we have our names for why we won’t deal with them. But here they are, they’re not going anywhere, and maybe we’re the ones that need to go somewhere. This question of how it is we take in that thing which is most opposed to us and who we are, who we think we might be, and that who we might be, who we think we might be part is maybe a conclusion we reached prematurely, maybe there is more to come in our lives, and maybe too early on we accepted a certain identity, and maybe life has something larger in store.

Are we open to that, or are we closed to that? Every day the entire world is knocking trying to change your life and say wait a minute, you have no clue yet. And if you’re living well the challenges get more and more frightening.

What I’m really interested in is theatre and artistic practice as a way forward in a period where shall we say the major international issue is security, where the banking system was set up on the basis of security, where a whole series of things were told national security requirement, and of course the surprise is there is no security. The Bank of Australia has demonstrated that very profoundly. Life isn’t about security at all, something else has been prepared for us.

I attended this last week here in Adelaide a very powerful show about the working class and whether we’re afraid of it or not. And of course I took that very personally because coming to direct the Adelaide Festival where it says on every number-plate, ‘South Australia the Festival State’, and you say ok we have a cultural obligation to participate in the lives of everyone with a bumper. What role are we playing in the lives of working class people? What role are we playing in the lives of working class people who are for example out of work? Human productivity is a cultural question before it’s an economic one. What does it mean that people are motivated and empowered to create, to shape their environment, to shape their destiny instead of simply respond to conditions that are imposed?

At what point does one engage at the root of a problem what it means when we say depression? Depression is an economic term, it’s a very powerful term at the end of this century. I come from a country that has the best economy it has ever had in its history. The American economy dominates 50 per cent of the world economy, and these are the good times. Now how is it that in the good times just about once a week there is a massacre in an American city. Just about once a week now. Your kids are trying to kill each other. And you can drop bombs anywhere you like all over the world because you have no official enemies left who can tell you to stop except your own kids, except the person next door who takes out a sawn-off shotgun. A culture of violence, it is so deep.

“Doctor Atomic” is now available on DVD, alas only in Blu-Ray, something that I suppose I will invest in after a while. For those of you who own Blu-Ray gear, I urge you to pick up the opera which sells for about 40 dollars. And if you are interested in art and politics, you should definitely rent the documentary “Wonders are Many” from Netflix. That presumably includes everybody who reads this blog.

6 Comments »

  1. A quick search at the Pirate Bay shows someone has already ripped it from Dutch TV:

    http://thepiratebay.org/torrent/3949918/John_Adams_-_Doctor_Atomic_-_Amsterdam_(2007)_tvrip_NL_subs

    Comment by BobH — April 7, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

  2. From a strictly musical perspective it would be more accurate to locate Adams in the tradition of Aaron Copeland or Leonard Bernstein, rather than as a contemporary of Reich or Glass. Like the former he incorporates disparate sources including Americana into his compositions, and although he uses minimalist technique to great effect, his music is nore directional and contains emotionally satisfying crescendos influenced by romanticism. His music is somewhat Mahlerian in that respect. I like him because you can tell he listens to rock and jazz. I think he once said his parents were jazz musicians. He likes music that is complex yet sounds pleasing to the ear and has said that he considers tonality to be a force of nature.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — April 7, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  3. I was lucky enough to see the recent London performance of Doctor Atomic. As a drama I strongly preferred it to Nixon in China. As this type of music grows on me, I will be haunted by it until I buy the soundtrack.

    Comment by John A — April 8, 2009 @ 12:37 am

  4. Alex Ross’s book “The Rest Is Noise” and his website http://www.therestisnoise.com are great sources for the recent (20-21 century) history of classical music and criticism of contemporary composition and performance. See his 2001 New Yorker piece on John Adams at http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/04/john_adams.html

    Comment by Fred Murphy — April 9, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  5. […] story of Doctor Atomic concerns the two weeks leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb, the top-secret United […]

    Pingback by Dear Kitty. Some blog :: Opera on nuclear scientist Oppenheimer, by John Adams :: April :: 2008 — April 20, 2009 @ 10:37 pm

  6. […] story of Doctor Atomic concerns the two weeks leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb, the top-secret United […]

    Pingback by Opera on nuclear scientist Oppenheimer, by John Adams | dearkitty1 — December 10, 2011 @ 5:07 pm


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