Emotions through Musical Elements in “Red Alert”

doctor atomic image

A world premiere of a new opera in October 2005 in San Francisco had a very relatable and touchy story line for audience members. John Adams’ Doctor Atomic has the plot of the making of the world’s first atomic bomb. Even though years had passed since the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, the issue is still a heavy conversation for many Americans. The opera takes place at the “Trinity” test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico where scientists and army personnel are creating the bomb and would later be testing it. The music in the opera supports and highlights the story being told, containing mysterious harmonies, rhythmic challenges and a variety of sonority effects. Much of the music depicts the emotions of the people at the bomb testing site. In particular, the “Red Alert”, an instrumental section in Act II, Scene 4, depicts a moment of chaos at the test site as well as the anxiety, wonder, and uneasiness of those involved in the testing. 

The instrumentation of “Red Alert” contains full orchestra with piccolo doubled, and the use of a piccolo trumpet. The percussion parts are typical, except for the use of a bow on the suspended cymbal and tam tam, which creates a very ominous and eerie sound, perfect for the event about to take place. This instrumentation creates a very energetic and shrill sound. The texture starts of rather thin, only using mainly upper woodwinds, minus clarinets, upper brass, upper strings and percussion. As the piece progresses, the texture is thickened, with every instrument in the orchestra playing. The texture is thinned out at the very end, only leaving bass drum, tam tam and low strings playing. This change in texture with instrumentation, to me, represents chaos. The bomb is about to be tested in 5 minutes, and people are scurrying to get to their trenches, and once there, they wait. The dynamics are also used to represent this chaotic moment. The first 7 measures are the only measures that contain anything less than a forte throughout the whole piece. The strings start at a forte dynamic and continue to stay at this dynamic, only growing louder. Trumpets start at mezzo-piano while the piccolos start at a piano, both growing to a forte, and then return to their original dynamic. These are the softest dynamics, minus a few percussion swells, the piece has. 

Rhythmically, Adams writes lots of syncopation with eighth notes and quarters notes. The upper woodwinds and strings have lots of eight note runs togther. Even though that may sound easy, Adams then places accents, making the feel of a 6/8 versus a ¾, or a hemiola effect. This makes it very hard to find a sense of time. This happens twice within “Red Alert”. The sense of “losing time” is related to the story of “losing time” to perfect the bomb and having to test it no matter what can go wrong. The articulation is also used to lose the sense of time and creates an uneasiness feeling. Throughout this section, there are displaced accents, creating syncopation and no clear pulse. The score states “very short”, “all notes equally short” and “always equally short”, for articulation. The use of rooftop accents and regular accents used throughout the piece, create a hard and energetic sound, which I associate to the adrenaline and anxiety that must be running through everyone present at the test site, and possible with the audience too.

There were two interesting moments that caught my attention. Towards the middle of the section, the trumpets have long notes, something that isn’t present in any of the other parts. These long notes are repeated three times in a row, and this happens again later in the piece. Amongst the running eighth notes and syncopated rhythms, the long notes represent the alarms going off at the site as a reminder that the time has come to test the first atomic bomb. The second moment that caught my attention was a 2/4 bar of silence. Why would there be a totally silent bar? Was Adams trying to depict the last sense of peace before the world’s deadliest creation would be a reality? Is it a sense of realization? I think these last two questions were what Adams was trying to get at. With all the chaos going on, in the music and the story line, no one really had a chance to realize the history being made and wonder how much of an impact it would have on the world. It was a moment to take a breath, and say “Here we go, this is it.”

The music for “The Red Alert” was well composed and created the perfect sense of chaos, anxiety, wonder and uneasiness. All these feelings are real and apparent to the audience members and are heightened by the musical elements used. Adams’ successfully creates an atmosphere that the audience can experience and relate the story line through the music.

Caitlyn Collette


Adams, John, and peter Sellers. Doctor Atomic. Boosey & Hawkes

May, Thomas. “A Flowering Tree: The Composer, The Music.” Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 2, no. 1 (2008): 41-48. doi:10.1525/jung.2008.2.1.41.

Miller, Malcolm. “Amsterdam, Nederlands Opera: ‘Doctor Atomic’ and ‘Wagner Dream’.” Tempo 61, no. 242 (2007): 45-48. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/4500559.


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