In John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, there are many allusions to and even direct quotes from sacred texts. This contrast with the scientific components in the opera highlights the social and moral impact that must be considered when something like the atomic bomb is being developed. In act two of the opera, “At the Sight of This,” the text is taken directly from the Bhagavad Gita, a part of sacred Hindu text of the Mahābhārata (translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood). The text describes the god, Vishnu, in his terrific and fear-inspiring presence. It is highly evocative by itself, but when paired with Adams’s music, it presents a true picture of how horrifying but awe-inspiring he is and, more accurately, how the atom bomb evokes these same feelings. The music serves the frightening poetry with grand, clear harmonies in both high and low tessituras, and powerful, pulsating, syncopated rhythms. In this way, Vishnu becomes an analogy for the bomb and people’s reaction to it.
Although the piece is grandiose, its texture is deceivingly thin. The instruments that make up the bulk of the texture are the timpani, strings, and the choir with scattered interjections of the horns and winds. Nowhere in the piece does the orchestra all play at the same time. The sections where most of the orchestra is playing are the short interjections, such as, “O, master!” or when the text specifically names Vishnu. However, it seems the instruments were chosen very carefully to present the most majestic and terrific sounds. The timpani, for example, presents driving patterns that seem to display the power of Vishnu, but also evoke the sense of fear and awe that people feel when faced with an incomprehensible power. It does not play through the entire duration of the piece, however. Once the timpani stops, the strings quickly take over with different driving 16th note patterns. In contrast to the timpani’s 16th-note patterns, which primarily start on strong beats, the patterns in the strings are much more syncopated. Instead of highlighting the power of Vishnu or the bomb, like the timpani, the strings present the nervous, uneasy response of people. Throughout the piece, there seems to be this constant contrast between the immense power of the bomb as Vishnu and people’s strong response to it. The music can be seen as both incomprehensible power, but also the overwhelming emotions of fear and unease people feel when they are presented with something with which they are not familiar.
The fact that Adams chose a Hindu god like Vishnu is symbolic because, like the atomic bomb, they are not completely aware of all the power he possesses. He could have chosen something from the Christian Bible like some sort of demonic power that also could represent the bomb’s frightening and destructive power, but he chose a god who is viewed as a protector of the earth when there is a threat of chaos or destruction. The bomb, to the Americans is both a protector and a great destroyer. Under the threat of Japanese nuclear power, it is a way to defend, but it comes at a great moral cost. Like Vishnu, the bomb is a great power, that which humans cannot accurately predict and is therefore a source of terror.
By Jacque Hale
Adams, John. Doctor Atomic. (New York: Boosey and Hawks, 2007), 479-498.
Syman, Stefanie. “The First Book of Yoga: The Bhagavad Gita.” Yoga Journal. 30 September 2007. Accessed 30 March 2018. https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/first-book-yoga.
Gudesblatt, Melanie and Allison Kieckhefer. “Doctor Atomic: Teacher Study Guide.” MetStages. 2008.