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FIVE THINGS You (probably!) didn't know about john adams


As NYO prepares to perform John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, which reflects on the iconic moment in history - the test of the first atomic bomb - NYO Cellist Thomas Nettle shares five interesting facts about the legendary composer.


1. Things didn’t start well for Adams. Having lived in New England all his life, aged 23 he decided he needed a change of scenery, and left with his first wife, for California. Adams had intended to stay for only a year at most, but in fact lives there still to this day. It was a journey of over 3,000 miles, which he and his then wife would be driving in an old VW Beetle. Rather embarrassingly, the car broke down not long at all into journey, and they were forced to return back to New England, have the car repaired, and, once again, say goodbye to everyone that they new. Finally, Adams was on his way to the place which, I would argue, allowed him to find his voice as a composer.


2. It would appear that Adams spent quite a lot of time in the 1980’s in bed, asleep, as three of his dreams from within a fairly close time frame resulted in two major works from this period. One of these works was his orchestral epic Harmonielehre - the first of these dreams depicted an oil tanker taking off over the San Francisco bay, and the second, his daughter flying through space with the German mystic Meister Eckhart; these are the inspiration behind the first and third movements respectively. The second piece from this period to be inspired by slumber is Grand Pianola Music, which came about as a result of a dream depicting two enormously long grand pianos riding down a highway - fittingly, therefore, the work is scored for two solo pianos, as well as wind, brass, percussion, and two singers.


3. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Adams has also composed a musical, or ‘song-play’ as he describes it, I Was Looking At The Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. Composed in 1995, and taking the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles as the inspiration behind the story, it deals with very difficult issues, such as problems with the Immigration and Justice systems in the USA, something quite uncommon in a typical musical. Although certainly not one of Adams’s most popular or most performed works, I believe it is in fact an exceptionally well composed score, and some of the songs within are some of his best writing.


4. Adams’ second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, deals with the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, by four Palestinians, in which one Jew, Leon Klinghoffer was shot. Highly controversial for its depiction of the Jews exiling the Palestinians in the opening scene, sparking allegations of antisemitism for supposedly sympathising with the Palestinians, the reaction to the subject matter caused the UK premier to be set back ten years, despite Adams and his collaborators repeatedly claiming they were simply giving equal voice to both sides of the argument.


5. Perhaps Adams’s most difficult work, for the musicians, is his Chamber Symphony, composed in 1992 for an ensemble of 15 musicians. The music takes two very unlikely sources of inspiration, the first is the Chamber Symphony #1 of Arnold Schoenberg, and the second, cartoon music, not the new ones, but ‘Good old fashioned’, as John Adams puts it. 


Thomas Nettle, 16, Cello, NYO


You can catch NYO's performance of John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony in its State of Flux tour which tours Warwick Arts Centre (4 January), Barbican, London (5 January), and the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (7 January). Click here for tickets.

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