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Title: Sketches of Grief: Genesis, Compositional Practice, and Revision in the Operas of John Adams
Authors: Miller Cotter, Alice
Advisors: Morrison, Simon
Contributors: Music Department
Keywords: American Opera
Doctor Atomic
John Adams
Nixon in China
The Death of Klinghoffer
Subjects: Music
Issue Date: 2016
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: Relying on hitherto unknown materials from John Adams’s private archive, this dissertation explores the compositional and revision histories of Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), and Doctor Atomic (2005). It focuses on Adams’s creative processes, which, sources show, were determined by the conceptual and ethical problems he and his collaborators, Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman, aimed to solve. Among these challenges included finding a means to articulate and reflect upon subjects of devastating magnitude, such as human rights abuses in Nixon, terrorism in Klinghoffer, and the events leading up to and aftermath of Hiroshima in Atomic. As a result, the musical strategies used to tell these stories shifted over the span of each opera’s creation. Musical sketches, detailed correspondence, and the original manuscript scores offer insight into not only Adams’s compositional practice, but also into how art can—and cannot—respond to tragedy. The study also examines the centrality of revision to Adams’s creative enterprise. To this day, Adams revises the opera scores in relation to pressures ranging from the logistical to the ethical and political. As a result of its contentious subject, Klinghoffer saw three compositional overhauls over twenty years, representing the most acute example in Adams’s operatic output, if not the entire American repertory, of the marked role that critical voices, politics, and even catastrophe can play in the remaking of a score through time. Atomic and Nixon, too, have undergone revisions since their respective premieres. The operas thus can only be understood as products of revision, exhibiting processes of growth and change alongside the ongoing conflicts to which the works refer. Revision here is not necessarily corrective but rather a vital aspect of Adams’s compositional practice. Each draft is a combined singularity, part of an aesthetic that denies empirical constructions of time, just as the minimalist aesthetic is concerned with the immediate moment. The relationship between the opera scores and ongoing events thus entails a nuanced definition of the minimalist experience, one that acknowledges a larger communal process—a lively, collaborative, and public dialogue—at play in the evolution of these works.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Music

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