By Julia Flynn Siler
In the summer of 1983, John Adams agreed to write the music for a new opera called “Nixon in China.” But Mr. Adams, then in his mid-30s and with a young family to support, soon drifted into what he called “a first- class funk” — a seemingly intractable creative block. For 18 months, he was unable to break his dry spell, despite locking himself in his studio and undergoing psychoanalysis.
A dream finally helped him to break out of this period of “creative lockdown.” One night, he envisioned a supertanker blasting out of the San Francisco Bay and soaring up into the sky. That image gave him the inspiration to write the powerful, pounding E-minor chords that launched a 40-minute symphony, “Harmonielehre,” which then opened the way for him to compose the much-acclaimed “Nixon in China.”
Mr. Adams, 63, is one of America’s leading composers. With roots planted in classical music and minimalism, his operas also include “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic.” By choosing topical subjects and using expressive tonal harmonies, his work has seemed suspiciously accessible to some fellow modern composers, such as New York-based Charles Wuorinen.
Mr. Adams’ work, which includes 22 orchestral pieces, has also earned him awards and praise. “On the Transmigration of Souls,” which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate those killed on 9/11, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
Mr. Adams spends long stretches in relative solitude, declining public engagements, when he is composing. He writes the final version of his scores by hand, using the Turquoise brand of 5B drafting pencils he’s used for the past two decades, which he joked “makes me a dinosaur.” But he’ll also sometimes compose on his Mac G5 computer or even by plunking out melodies on the small Yamaha upright piano in his studio — which he said he doesn’t play well.
As well as composing he sometimes conducts his own music. He said that helps him experience the music viscerally in a way that reading it from the heavy 24-staff Judy Green manuscript paper he uses for his final drafts cannot.
A puckish, Harvard-educated New Englander who moved to California in his 20s, Mr. Adams lives in a pink stucco home in north Berkeley, Calif., with his wife, photographer Deborah O’Grady, and begins each morning by taking his German shorthaired pointer, Eloise, out for at least an hour-long walk in Tilden Park. “I’m a 9-to-5 guy,” he said. He climbs the stairs to his light-filled second-floor home office by 9 a.m. each morning, breaking for lunch, working through the late afternoon. As he explained, “I don’t like to work after dinner and would do so only under the most extreme emergency.”
On his blog, Hell Mouth (named after some graffiti on the wall of a building that his wife photographed), Mr. Adams recently wrote that “the charming old stories of Mozart scribbling out the overture to ‘Marriage of Figaro’ an hour before the premiere and dropping ink-wet parts onto the players’ stands may or may not be true, but they for sure are the worst possible model for any composer who hopes to get a decent performance of his or her own music.” Even so, he went on to describe, in harrowing detail, how he chained himself to his desk nearly around the clock as the first rehearsal for “Harmonielehre” was just days away, as he was running out of time.
Mr. Adams followed that piece with “Nixon in China,” which premiered in Houston and at first drew mixed reviews with its verse libretto, minimalist score and postmodern choreography. He spent two years composing it, pairing the big-band music he remembered from his grandfather’s dance hall (to suggest the idea of Richard Nixon’s imagined Middle America) with music that sounded like bad imitations of scores of Russian and French ballets. But he also drew inspiration from the histories he read of China, films of Chinese Communist ballets and garish, oversaturated photos of contemporary Communist publications.
The hardest part of any project is the beginning, Mr. Adams said: “Starting the piece is finding the DNA, which, for me, is frequently the harmony.” For “Doctor Atomic,” an opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer, who as director of the Manhattan Project oversaw the development of the first nuclear bomb, Mr. Adams spent nearly four years researching and thinking about the topic.
He began by reading Richard Rhodes’s 928-page “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and then reached out to his collaborator Peter Sellars, who wrote the libretto in part from transcripts of interviews with the famous physicist, as well as the words of Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, and Christopher Isherwood’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. Mr. Adams said he came to see the story as one of an American Faust, the doctor who sold his soul to the devil.
Mr. Adams wrote much of the music for “Doctor Atomic” in what he calls his “composing shed”: a walled-off section of a former warehouse on a property in Sonoma where he and his wife have a home. To stay warm in his section of the mostly empty 3,500-square-foot building, he uses a small space heater.
He tends to procrastinate, he confessed, particularly when he’s starting a new project. About a month ago, Mr. Adams downloaded a new piece of shareware called “Freedom,” which blocks him from checking email or surfing the Internet during work hours.
— – CODA
— For the premiere of “Nixon in China” at the Metropolitan Opera next month, Mr. Adams is still making small changes to the score — 25 years after its first performance. He carries a block of small Post-its which he can stick right on the page.
— He listens to his players: On the night of a gala premiere, a viola player jumped from the stage to ask whether a B-double sharp note was a mistake. “B-double sharp doesn’t make any sense,” said Mr. Adams. Minutes before the performance began, they changed it.
— Mr. Adams finds inspiration in his dreams, his wife’s landscapes, the poetry and nonfiction he reads and the music that his children listen to. To compose music commemorating 9/11, he recorded the sounds of the city late at night onto a mini-disc drive and turned them into a sound collage. He also watched the image captured on video of a blizzard of paper floating down from the sky”