John Adams: Doctor Atomic, Act II Scene 4: Countdown review

I’m going to be something of a Millennial now and pretend that popular music didn’t exist before the invention of Spotify.

John Adams’ opera, Doctor Atomic has actually, it turns out, been a thing for over a decade but it only arrived on Spotify at the very end of June so this, to me, means that that was mankind’s first opportunity to hear it and, therefore, how I’m able to justify reviewing it now as if t’were, in fact, new.

All of which is a ridiculously flippant way of introducing a piece of music I simply had to review – regardless of when it was actually released – because of its gravity, its power and the sheer raw emotion it wrenched out of me upon listening to it on a ‘new music’ mix early in the month.

Adams, in collaboration with American theatre director Peter Sellars, composed Dr. Atomic back in 2005 as a meditation on the invention of the first atomic bomb and its detonation in the New Mexico desert on 16 July 1945.

Over the course of two and a half hours, the full opera explores the thoughts, actions and words of the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as well as those close to him (both personally and professionally) as they struggle with coming to terms with the magnitude of the situation in which they find themselves.

In an opera that is almost unwaveringly loud and chaotic (for all the reasons it clearly needs to be), this particular piece is the final act; the countdown to that fateful first explosion – a blast that would famously lead Oppenheimer to quote the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, in saying, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

And it’s mostly eerily quiet.

The sound of a church bell chiming in the distance, creeping pizzicato strings, a lone clanging cow bell before the sub-sonic boom that fills the air with electricity and static.

To describe it as being sonically akin to a score from a horror film would be to trivialize the actual atrocities it is actually attempting to depict.

As the piece closes, the Japanese voice we hear is that of a woman emerging from the dust and rubble that would follow events in Hiroshima only weeks later. She is asking for water for her injured son. When performed, often these words are delivered in complete darkness, leaving the audience to reflect on what still classifies as the most horrific and monumental human tragedies of all time.

Of course, when one hears such an overtly political record such as this, one always wonders “why now?” “What is the composer trying to say about the world as we know it by releasing this right now?”

And although this piece, composed thirteen years ago, clearly wasn’t created as a reaction to 2018 politics, in many ways it seems as though it could be, coming less than a year since the US President warned of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in reaction to North Korean nuclear threats.

It begs a moment to pause for thought. No matter what time you happen to be in.


The Overview: Recommended Music | July 2018
1. Band: ‘Song’
2. Band: ‘Song’
3. Band: ‘Song’
4. Band: ‘Song’
5. Band: ‘Song’
6. Band: ‘Song’
7. Band: ‘Song’
8. Band: ‘Song’
9. Band: ‘Song’