Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Lessons from the Archive: On Creativity, Process, and the Working Life of John Adams

By Alice Miller Cotter

John Adams. Photo Credit: Margaretta Mitchell
None of us is entirely sure what lures us to the creative act—or to studying it, for that matter. For some, it’s the quiet of being alone with raw materials and shaping them into something to give back to a community. For others, it’s the unknown, the chance to navigate unexplored terrain. There’s a flurry of pressure and risk, the thrill of the search, the understanding that success is uncertain. The inner noise can be chaotic. Even the physical labor of transcribing sketch after sketch can take a toll on the hand. Once a draft is completed or a premiere carried out, the mind can rest, it seems. But just as often, the messy processes that precede the product deny perfect resolution. The noise persists, the labor of writing and re-writing continues, the creative act remains unresolved. But in this restless space of revision, the best ideas evolve.

When I arrived for the first time at John Adams’s home in the hills of Berkeley, CA, the composer greeted me with a nervous smile and introduced me to his dog, Eloise. He had spent the early part of that morning revising The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), a work whose premiere had taken place seven months prior, but one that required some re-writing for its next performance the following month. His deadline was that day. He led me to his dining room, where several large boxes labeled “Doctor Atomic” rested on the sprawling table. He had grabbed them from his storage unit in Emeryville the day before. “Let me go through to see if there’s anything personal in here,” Adams said as he opened one of the boxes. There was virtually no order to the contents. “These are the sketchbooks, and here’s Peter Sellars’s various libretto drafts. Those are probably worth looking at. Oh, this is pretty juicy. This is classified stuff from I don’t know where. Here’s my application to the Library of Congress when I was looking for recordings for the finale.” He then flipped through one of his sketchbooks and found the first sketch for what became his celebrated setting of John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God.” “I don’t know how interesting this is because it’s basically the grunt work,” Adams said, referring to his scrawl: a descending chord progression and a two-note sighing figure that repeats in a rising stepwise pattern. “Take your time. Stay as long as you like. I’ll be upstairs if you have any questions.” He then disappeared to work on the Other Mary revisions, leaving me to sink or swim in a sea of disordered documents.

As an aspiring musicologist at the start of a PhD dissertation, I was in a privileged position, faced with a trove of material that not only fulfilled the requisites of a satisfactory dissertation topic, but also seemed to contain the promise of insights about Adams and his music reachable in no other way. But I was in over my head. Beyond the immediate, if formidable, task of cataloguing and making some sense of chronology were more complicated questions about the issues at stake, assumptions to evaluate, and the basic goals of this type of research. Then there were the problems of working with a living composer. Maintaining critical distance would be the big one. Moreover, sensitivities continued to surround works like The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). What was off limits? (Adams had not said whether anything in the Doctor Atomic box was in fact “personal.” How would I identify it as such?) How much would off-limits material (if I happened to see it) inform my broader view of the composer and his process? It was slippery territory. I knew I wanted to approach it carefully, with integrity and respect.

On the surface, the objectivity of philological source studies seemed like a safe entry point into Adams’s compositional life, a way to ostensibly the complications of working with a living archive. Sketch research has always been one of the most technical and esoteric subcultures of the musicological discipline. Compositional sketches are remarkable tools for establishing chronology, reconstructing manuscripts, or identifying unfinished works. They can also help us understand the complexities of the creative process and offer support for preexisting analytical insights or stimulus for new ones. The goals of modern sketch studies, developed through painstaking work on Beethoven’s sketchbooks (perhaps the most fragmented and scattered of all compositional traces), have been reexamined over the years. Technical problems of transcription and dating can be resolved (systematic analysis of watermarks and frayed edges, for example, offer one way to assess chronology). But, as Douglas Johnson admitted in the late 1970s, basic questions will always remain about the relevance of a composer’s preliminary or discarded sketches. In what way could (or should) observations about a composer’s choices, hesitations, and discoveries inform the larger view of not only a completed work but also an individual’s creative life?

In the case of Adams, the distinction between draft and completed work is particularly blurry. Klinghoffer, for instance, has seen multiple compositional revisions since its 1991 premiere. Adams, to this day, continues to adjust his scores in response to performer feedback and other internal and external pressures. Although most of his music is in print, definitive editions have not really coalesced yet, a fact that makes critical comparison of “the drafts” and “the finished work” seem premature. (How can one privilege what the Germans call die Fassung letzter Hand—the composer’s “last word”—if the composer is still around, still mulling over changes?) The positivist orientation of sketch research, while enabling a strong technical grounding, seemed to limit, if not displace, necessary discussion of politically and emotionally charged collaborations, not to mention the immense reception histories of works like Klinghoffer. This project was going to require a mode of critical reflection and analytical rigor that could speak somehow to the technical aspects of the sketches and music, as well as to the moral, political, and collaborative imperatives of Adams’s creative enterprise. The only way to uncover that mode was through determined immersion into the materials themselves.

After a period of delicate negotiation, Adams generously granted me access to his entire archive. For the rest of my graduate career, I looked at upwards of 6,000 documents: diaries, letters, research notes, sketches, autographs, revisions, and more. The materials shed light on both the creative act in the moment, as a kind of snapshot, and a broader evolution of Adams’s working habits over time. Sketches from the 1980s, for instance, find him wrestling with his academic heritage and the limits of musical minimalism. Voluminous material for each opera documents his search for informed responses to sensitive, often contentious passages of recent history. Journals and letters reveal insight into the working relationship between Adams, director Peter Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodman, and how they together sought to recover opera’s potential to meditate on living history.

John Adams, calendar charting initial progress on Nixon in China (December 1985)
Adams rarely dated his sketches or offered explicit clues about his creative motives on the page. Our conversations about specific documents or the sequence of compositional events filled in some necessary gaps. But it is within the pages of his date-stamped journals that the most vital information about chronology and the composer’s experience emerges. For example, a hand-written calendar found in one of Adams’s notebooks shows that he began composing Nixon in China on December 6, 1985. With a rigid series of milestones to hit and less than two years until the scheduled October 1987 premiere, he immediately took up a rigorous work schedule, duly logging the number of pages drafted per day with hash marks. Anyone who has ever attempted to turn the creative process into a 9-to-5 job will likely identify with this quite literally mundane document, in which the 38-year-old composer notes every sick day and then gives himself a Christmas break. But this doggedness takes on larger musicological significance when juxtaposed with circumstantial evidence gleaned from the composer’s journals. Just before Nixon, Adams had wrestled with an eighteen-month impasse, a period of wandering and lack of focus that would ultimately lead to the compositional breakthrough of Harmonielehre (1984-85). Finishing Harmonielehre, he discovered a harmonic technique and new sound that would drive the writing of Nixon; he also learned that nothing but a fixed deadline would urge him to action. “I sat down one day and wrote Nixon in China at the top of a blank page of score,” Adams recalled in 1988 to Andrew Porter in the new-music magazine Tempo. “I figured that if I didn’t I’d never be able to write the opera.”

So what do we gain from looking over a composer’s shoulder in this way? Most obviously, it expands our sense of what a human can create, setbacks and all. Perhaps it confirms what we already know about work ethic: a period of tireless searching, with failed attempts along the way, can lead to clarity. It’s all about the process, and, judging by the hash marks, the process can be messy. For Adams, the process has been ongoing. In 2009, twenty-two years after the premiere of Nixon, he returned once again to the score to fix unplayable parts and update synthesizer patches. Doctor Atomic, in its turn, has undergone numerous changes since its 2005 premiere, and Adams intends to rewrite portions of the opera for future productions. His continuing revisions keep his works a part of an ever-evolving musical chronicle, one that, in a sense, shares the flux of contemporary history, with implications stretching from the present into the future. This provisional ethos is central to understanding Adams’s stage works. It’s also central to the nature of researching a living composer.

As the Bay breeze drifted in and out of Adams’s dining room that first day at his home, the blinds gently ticking against the frame of the open window, I stood over the stacks of material and hurriedly set to work. Moving through page after page, I made a detailed record of the contents and photographed, with Adams’s permission, select items: Goodman’s original Doctor Atomic synopsis, Act I sketches, post-premiere revisions, and pages from a notebook the composer had kept while writing On the Transmigration of Souls (2002). Later, back at Princeton, I spent my days absorbed in transcription, keeping a journal of reflections and my own hash marks recording pages transcribed. Over many months of observing the traces of an artist at work, an important, if humbling, observation gradually came into focus. Just as Adams’s scores and creative processes continue to evolve, so too must the critical modes and goals of this type of scholarship as it attempts to make sense of a musical life that, at least for now, defies closure. Of course, there is an explicit distinction between Adams’s creative pursuits and those of academic work. But what they share, namely the challenge of finding ways to assimilate living subjects into a larger frame, is equally stimulating, inviting us to listen to the music within the space of its possibilities.

Alice Miller Cotter completed her PhD in musicology at Princeton University in 2016. She currently teaches in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. 


  1. Part 1

    My first (and highly atypical) experience of the NY Metropolitan Opera was a Monday night: Oct 20, 2014 —to hear John Adams' “The Death of Klinghoffer,” based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, during which they killed one of the passengers, Leon Kilinghoffer, an American Jew. It happened to be opening night of this opera's first production at the Met (it was premiered in Belgium in 1991 and then had a few runs in other venues), and it was met by hundreds of protestors outside the hall, who even mildly disrupted the performance and earned front-page coverage by the NY Times and the NY Post, not to mention widespread notice in other mass news media.

    The protestors called the opera (and therefor the composer) "anti-semitic." The NY Post tabloid full-front-page headline was "Murder at the Met!" and page 6 article was "Terror Blight at the Opera," and the NY Times page-1 headline was "Protests Greet Met Premiere of Klinghoffer."

    In my opinion, it was no such thing. The opera portrayed the victim and his wife as gentle loving people, without hate or malice, and it portrayed the murder as irrational, hateful and senseless. Although the opera did give voice to some Palestinian grievances --mainly through the Palestinian chorus that was a faceless black mass-- it also gave voice to the zionist perspective through the Jewish chorus that was dressed in ordinary clothes and did not seem creepy like their counterparts. Every opera has its villain(s) and the villain sings his part and says what the villain would say (not "I am a villain" but rather "I am a person with grievances") but in the end the murderers were villains and the murder was horrible and the human drama was all around the victim and his wife, portrayed as beautiful people and a senseless loss.

  2. Part 2

    Why did I choose Death of Klinghoffer, of all operas to introduce me to the Metropolitan Opera? Well, a few weeks earlier I had noticed a headline in an ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Antsemitism and Policy, run by my friend Charles Small) newsletter a few weeks ago on the Death of Klinghoffer, an opera I hadn't noticed before.  I remembered it because ISGAP doesn't usually mention opera and I had become very interested in opera in recent years, buying lots of recordings and attending as many performances as I can.

    Another idea lurking in my mind was from around a year ago when I read some online discussions in which the criticism of opera was made that it has ossified, become a dead museum piece.  I knew there are contemporary opera composers but I hadn't ever heard the new stuff, since the local opera companies and the Yale School of Music (whose operas I attend) are all very traditional in their repertoires.

    I had filed away the ISGAP headline in my mind for a few weeks until I invited a concert friend Paul to come to Yale's Sprague Hall on a Monday night for a recital and he said "no I'm going to the Met Opera that night to hear the Death of Klinghoffer."  I said, only half serious because I knew nothing about the opera except the ISGAP headline, "that anti-semitic propaganda?" And he said something like "well yes I want to see what all the fuss is about."  Actually it came out later that he is a subscriber and his tickets are always on Monday so luck gave him opening night of Klinghoffer the same as it would any other Monday night production.

  3. Part 3

    I don't like most contemporary composers and often mourn the lack of respect for tradition in the new "classical" music, and I especially dislike the minimalist school that John Adams is often placed in --but I've always liked John Adams as a special case of a so-called "minimalist" composer who nonetheless is always musical and never lets the devices (repetition, stripped-down orchestration, etc) take over to make the music sterile like almost all the others in that genre seem to do (Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve reich being the worst offenders).  And I'd never heard a John Adams opera before. (By coincidence just 3 nights before his opera I heard him conduct for the first time, in Woolsey Hall, a program that included Beethoven's 4th Symphony but also a great orchestral work of his own, Absolute Jest, which I hoped to like but was ready to dislike --and which I LOVED!)

    So anyway, when Paul told me he was going to hear Klinghoffer, I asked him "what would it take for me to see Klinghoffer?" and he said "sure c'mon along" so I bought a cheap ticket online ($40, in the highest balcony, 5th level!) and we drove down for my first-ever Met Opera production.

    Police everywhere, protesters everywhere --but there was a whole other dimension to my first Met experience that was also highly atypical and exciting: we met a friend of Paul's who is an insider at the Met so he got us through all the security to the "no public access" zones and we ate dinner in the Met cafeteria, visited the orchestra pit before the musicians were there so I could see the hall from the musicians' vantage, and I got to see a lot of the backstage areas restricted to the public, and even enjoyed the VIP lounge at intermission with free coffee --a really cool way to be introduced to the Met!

  4. Part 4

    But all that is aside from the main point, which is that I "enjoyed" the opera if that could be the right word for an almost entirely unrelieved bleak show.  The music was very good, and the production overall very impressive in scale and artistry.  And as I already said, it did not strike me as anti-semitic at all, on the contrary the victim and his wife were portrayed as beautiful and gentle loving people, without malice even as he criticized the terrorists as baby-killers.  The terrorists were the villains, and thus the murder was a senseless and heinous act, as the villainous deeds in opera always are.

    So in the end I came out needing a laugh to escape the dreariness and tragedy of it, but did not see the opera as anti-Jewish. In fact rather more anti-Arab! In many ways the larger Palestinian narrative was undermined, being connected to a senseless terrorist murder. Even the Palestinian chorus was a faceless black mass, creepy and frightening, compared to the Jewish choir that looked and sounded like "ordinary" people.  Considered from the Palestinian view, if this is as much as their perspective can be portrayed in opera, it is as villains and unsympathetic menace.  I'm surprised it wasn't their partisans protesting!

    Although I have loved the music of John Adams for 20 years, I didn't know any of his operas and went in with an open mind, ready to like or not like it as the evidence came in.  And my guess is I'll better like his other operas —such as Dr. Atomic and Nixon in China-- just because this one was so very dark.

    Some operas are very dark.  I enjoyed Benjamin Britten's “Rape of Lucretia” which I saw in Sprague Hall a few years ago, despite there being zero scenes where a laugh could fit.  It was as unrelieved as “Death of Klinghoffer.”  The most salient difference is that the Roman Republic was founded a long time ago, and so the rebellion against the Etruscan Kings that follows the drama of Lucretia does not stir any passions or political interests today because there are no interests at stake.

    The truth is I appreciate the Klinghoffer opera because it showed me that at least opera is not dead, it can create controversy and stir reflection on the contemporary world.  I realize I had a highly atypical introduction to the Metropolitan Opera (I asked some audience members around me if there are always police in the audience and they said "never"), and that there were likely better operas if a wider range of emotional content is the gauge, but it was quite exhilarating to see opera provoke feelings and thoughts about real things rather than being purely the beautiful escapist diversion it so often is.

  5. Professor Fink, Just minutes ago I finished reading your 2005 article "Klinghoffer in Brooklyn Heights," a very thoughtful and thorough analysis of how changes in American and global politics, and the increasing secularization and assimilation of Jews into American society, created a new background of discomfort and anxiety that might have made the Klinghoffer opera painful and discomforting not because of distortion but rather truth in portrayal of American Jews. Obviously any portrayal cannot represent the wide range of minds and attitudes in any demographic group, and in that sense can always be called a caricature or an unbalanced portrayal, which gives opening to charges that the selection of traits portrayed betrays some sinister bias in the artists. But my reaction to all of that --to your erudite and nuanced historical analysis of earlier television and opera portrayals of Jews, to the protestors and critics, and to the much larger phenomena of people allowing movies and television (and operas and other theater) to shape their understandings of history or individuals-- is that anyone who lets artists and drama shape their understanding is a bit of a fool, or at least to the extent that they don't apply their own readings and experience and critical thought to it all. The mistake is in taking the art too seriously, and in taking popular entertainments too seriously, and in under-estimating (or under-demanding) the audience ability to think for themselves, to laugh at artists (whether or not they themselves were joking or serious), and to allow expression of views and characterizations as merely the opinions and fancies and best constructs of artists whose work can be stimulating and provocative without assuming the audience are slavishly adopting the artists' perspective.