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John Adams is one of the most oft-performed and influential living American composers. One critic has described his music as "giving the impression... of an open door which lets in the fresh air in great gusts." In the second report in Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their sources of inspiration, NPR's Ketzel Levine talks with Adams about the music he's found in the written word.
Composer John Adams often finds inspirations in the written word.
As an artist, Adams appears to turn no experience away. He cites many chance encounters that have had lasting effects on his music: an album cover featuring trees and snow that, as a young boy, led him into the world of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius; the first time he heard the Duke Ellington Band perform live; his discovery of the driving rhythms and repeated notes of minimalist music.
But if not music, the art form he's found most persuasive is poetry. He calls it "strange and unknowable" — two of his favorite words. In Harmonium, a 1980 composition, Adams set three poems for chorus and orchestra: "Negative Love" by John Donne, and Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and "Wild Nights." Adams says the latter poem seemed to him like an invitation to let go.
"It seemed like a Mick Jagger lyric, or Tina Turner," Adams says. "…The idea is just that it's these ejaculations of ecstasy, of words and phrases. "
Adams' latest project, an opera centering on physicist Robert Oppenheimer, also draws on a poem — "Easter Eve 1945," by Muriel Rukeyser. He expects to complete the work, called Dr. Atomic, by the summer of 2005.