Poetry News

Composer John Adams: "The text generates the musical ideas"

By Harriet Staff

SFist interviews the Bay Area composer John Adams on the San Francisco Symphony's performance of his oratorio El Niño ten years after its debut with Peter Sellars directing. The present staging, directed by Kevin Newbury, is stripped down and doesn't contain the videos or dancers of a Sellars production, but the Latin American poetry and texts that formed the libretto of the original Adams/Sellars version are intact. On his blog (where you can also sample audio and video of El Niño), Adams writes:

I determined that I would set the most important of these poems not in English translations, but rather in their original language. The final version of the libretto thus became a multi-lingual mix, so richly evocative of our present-day life in California. Poems by Sor Juana and Rosario Castellanos formed the expressive core. I set other poems in English translations by the great Chileans Gabriela Mistral and Vicente Huidobro and by the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío. The emotional and sensory power of these Latin American poets is abundant. The poems are always about the spirit, about the deepest matters of our existence, but they are cast in webs of imagery that is unlike anything I’ve read in North American or European texts. Huidobro’s “Dawn Air," for example, is an encomium to “the Queen of Heaven," drawing on his “Creationist” techniques of seemingly incongruous juxtapositions that evoke a dreamlike, psychedelic awareness.

Discussing the difficulties that a composer faces working from source texts verbatim, even in one's native language, Adams delves into how even the less artistic struggles like publishing rights have a tremendous impact on the final piece.

I did not speak Spanish very well when I made this piece. I'm much better at Spanish now. Pues, it's a word in English, you'd say 'since'. "Since" I'm talking to you..."since" I have to go home. We put it in very quickly. Pues is like that. I started the aria with a big long melisma on Pues, a big leap on the word Pues, thereby accentuating it in a way that runs counter to the way Spanish people speak. So I consider it an error in prosody. You know, composers do that, even in their own language. I think my goal in setting text is to make the text flow exactly as it flows when it's spoken...

...In the case of a piece like this, the text generates the musical ideas. I would not have started any of these pieces, any of the arias without the text. It's frequently the case that while I compose the piece, my publisher is trying to get the licensing. And it's scary because if there ever were a situation were an office says "no, I don't want my text set to music," I'd have to just start all over again. There is no way I can keep the music and plug in a different text.