In chapter six of his Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, John Adams argues that tonal harmony is the most powerful musical element for provoking strong emotional responses, and that atonality (as well as other twentieth century harmonic systems) have so far failed to move listeners on a deeply emotional level. This conviction is evident in his 2005 opera, Doctor Atomic, which interprets the inner turmoil and anxiety of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project about one month prior to testing day, as well as on the testing day itself. During my time with several of the work’s major scenes, I was struck by the emphasis on harmonic progression in Kitty’s aria, “Am I in your light?” (Act I, scene 2).
Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty are at home. As Oppenheimer is reading reports, Kitty asks lovingly if she is blocking his reading light. She does not ask this question entirely in earnest, however, as she proceeds to affectionately coax him away from his work. The aria expresses a sincere and deep love for her husband. Kitty is not simply being selfish with this attempt to take him away from his work. Of course she hopes to gain quality time with him, as what could be the end of the world looms over them; however, she also wants to soothe his stress. He is fretting over an unprecedented moral dilemma concerning the world’s mortality. Adams achieves musical illustration of this mood primarily through harmonic structure and progression, although several other musical elements certainly contribute.
The aria is made up of three sections which I will refer to as A, B, and C. This layout is reminiscent of da capo form solely because the moods of A and B are similarly loving and gentle, while B is much more anxious. Section C is longest, taking up nearly five pages in the score, while sections A and B are both only about two pages long. The text (written by poet Charles Baudelaire) is divided by contrast in the music as follows:
Am I in your light?
No, go on reading
(the hackneyed light of evening quarrelling with the bulbs;
the book’s bent rectangle solid on your knees)
Only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love
in a slow caress blurring the mind,
kissing your mouth awake
op’ning the body’s mouth stopping the words.
This light is thick with birds,
and evening warns us beautifully of death.
Slowly I bend over you,
slowly your breath runs rhythms through my blood
as if I said I love you
and you should raise your head…
…listening, speaking into the covert night:
Did someone say something?
Love, am I in your light? Am I?
See how love alters the living face
go spin the immortal coin through time
watch the thing flip through space:
Tick tick tick
The tempo is marked Tranquillo, and the aria is dominated by sustained added-note chord progressions in the strings, to which Adams has assigned consistent dynamic movement. Crescendo-decrescendos are prevalent in the strings, though the implication seems to be that these should not be dramatic, as that would mar the tenderness of the piece. I contend that these sustained chords in the strings initially represent the light Kitty sings of, and gradually begin to speak more to her love for Oppenheimer. The brass and woodwinds are employed very sparingly, playing perhaps one or two chords per system, until section C. The strings truly drive this piece. The harp boasts similar melodic motion to the vocal line, both of which are characterized by frequent triplets and leaps of fourths, sixths and octaves. The aria’s texture is mostly homophonic, which would make the most sense for a gentle piece.
While the aria is essentially through-composed, sections A and C do possess an overall tonal center (D flat in section A and B flat in section C). To be sure, sections A and C express Kitty’s love for Oppenheimer as she asks him to put aside his work so that they may spend the evening together. In contrast, section B is characterized by tremolos in the strings (though the chords do not progress any more frequently), and there is no clear tonal center. Any discernible keys in this section shift incredibly quickly. This interior section suggests some slight resistance from Oppenheimer, who may affectionately insist by means of facial expression or body language that he must read the reports before bed. Kitty’s declaration that “this light is thick with birds, and evening warns us beautifully of death” expresses her fear that they may not have much more time together in light of the war. The elements of section B represent not only Kitty’s worry for her husband’s stress level, but also her angst over some impending wartime destruction that could cut their lives together short.
Section C serves as a loving reminder from Kitty to Oppenheimer that life is short – especially in their world’s current state. The sustained added-note chords reemerge in the strings, illustrating the adoring nature of Kitty’s approach. The B flat pedal in the harp and woodwinds both establishes the section’s tonal center, as well as mirrors the ticking of the clock that she later references in her final words “tick, tick, tick” (or perhaps the ticking of the time on the bomb to be tested in the future). There are occasional instances of declamation, such as in mm. 70-71. Kitty asks “Did someone say something,” and the “-thing” of “something” is a half-step higher in pitch (D4) than the rest of the phrase (which remains on C4), suggesting the up-speak at the end of a question. The word “say” gets a longer beat, mirroring the natural word stress and inflection of the English language. I would also contend that on the phrase “op’ning the body’s mouth” in mm. 29-30, the large leaps on the word “mouth” indicate text painting.
Unlike many of his contemporaries (if not most), Adams maintains that harmonic progression and discernible contrast (as opposed to the mini-“structures” and repetitions of Glass and others) are essential for provoking deep and meaningful emotional responses in listeners. Kitty’s aria is an excellent example of Adams’s commitment to a modern interpretation of traditional harmony, and I would contend that the piece itself is a great argument in support of his position.
— SUSAN SMITH
Adams, John Luther. Doctor Atomic: Full Score. New York: Boosey & Hawkes, 2012.
Adams, John Luther. “Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life.” New York: Farrar, 2008.
Met Stages. “Doctor Atomic: Teacher Study Guide.” News release. Metopera.org. Accessed March 28, 2018. https://www.metopera.org/_uploaded/pdf/pressrelease/doctoratomic.pdf.