John Adams, a Composer of Our Times

John Adams should be considered one of the great composers of our time. An American, Adams is best known for outstanding original and unusual compositions, amongst them Harmonium; Nixon in China; The Death of Klinghoffer; I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky; Doctor Atomic (about Oppenheimer) and A Flowering Tree.

For me what stands out is his interpretation of the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson was a woman who lived during the 19th century in America and was thought to have looked after her parents as they aged. She left behind over 1500 poems written in books she created, many were left on scraps of paper. Invariably she lived a very conservative and regimented life. Despite this, Dickinson wrote some of the most romantic and erotic poetry to come of out America during that time, creating her own style and language, which even after her death took many decades to be accepted.

John Adams somehow understood and stepped into her shoes and created a masterpiece in his interpretation of ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ and ‘Wild Nights’.

Energetic, surging, and at times immediate, Adams takes you into the world of Emily Dickinson’s words. Adams commented on ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ stating that “the ‘placing’ of the speaker – in a slowly moving carriage while the sights and sounds of her life gradually pass her by – created an irresistible opportunity for a slow, disembodied rhythmic continuum”.

In addition to the work of Emily Dickinson, Adams has also interpreted the work of the 17th century poet John Donne. Donne’s ‘Negative Love’ is a great rendition of the fear of losing love. Adams composition takes you slowly into the poem, a very masculine sound, unlike that which he created with Dickinson’s poetry which is immediate, fragrant and secretive, like the night. Donne’s poems have a vastness of space and require time to enter it. ‘Negative Love’ has a ‘rolling’ thunder sound echoing the openness and his love of creating imagery as a metaphor for nature. And this is what brings the two poets together, their similarities and use of known patterns whilst maintaining their own original style and metre.

Because I Could Not Stop For Death
By Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We passed before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ‘t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ head
Were toward eternity.

Wild Nights
By Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the Winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the sea!
Might I but moor – Tonight –
In Thee!

Negative Love
By John Donne

I never stoop’d so low, as they
Which on an eye, cheeke, lip, can prey
Seldome to them, which soare no higher
Than virtue of the minde to’ admire,
For sense, and understanding may
Know, what gives fuell to their fire:
My love, though silly, is more brave,
For may I misse, when ere I crave,
If I know yet, what I would have.

If that be simply perfectest
Which can by no way be exprest
But Negatives, my love is so.
To All, which all love, I say no.
If any who deciphers best,
What we know not, our selves, can know,
Let him teach mee that nothing; this
As yet my ease, and comfort is,
Though I speed not, I cannot misse.

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2 Responses to “John Adams, a Composer of Our Times”

  1. Maxx Says:

    Donne and Dickinson: two highly acclaimed (rightly so) artists that still translate today. I say artists because they both really make the reader think, which is what artists do, don’t they? Thanks for allowing us to re-remember the wonderful ideas they shared so many years ago.

  2. shakila Says:

    Dear Maxx, indeed Donne and Dickinson are timeless. To use your phrase ‘re-remember’ is what needs to constantly happen. There is a termendous amount of emphasis on the new but entering the territories of both the poets ensures moments of infinity and a renewal – Dickinson takes us there in the carriage…and I agree with you, they are artists in the true sense. Glad you liked the piece.


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