sun 14/07/2024

Filming John Adams | reviews, news & interviews

Filming John Adams

Filming John Adams

The director of a new Adams documentary on the American composer's fusion of sex and the spirit

The rocky beach at Big Sur, California, in a still from the documentary

When I first approached John Adams with the idea of making a documentary about him, he gently but firmly turned me down: he had unequivocally bad memories of a film made a few years back, an uncomfortable ride with a director who thought nothing of editing a sequence in which John spoke about one piece, while a completely different one was being played to illustrate his comments. When John had objected, the director in question had dismissively refused to make any changes.

I had come to John via other films, as often happens: a documentary about Bill Viola, The Eye of the Heart (2003) had led to meeting Peter Sellars who was collaborating with the video artist on a major production of Tristan and Isolde. In the film I subsequently made about Peter, I interviewed John, who described with some humour his relationship with the maverick director: “he is the sperm and I am the egg. He comes in with all the ideas, and then is off again, leaving me to do all the heavy lifting”. The fertilization he describes led first to Nixon in China, and then to the other operas and oratorios they worked on together: The Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic, El Niño, Flowering Tree and the latest - which will receive its European premiere at the Barbican next weekend - The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

The sexual and the spiritual have met in a number of his key works

The idea of an erotic relationship – as one of the foundations of the creative process – is important to Adams, and perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a composer who has been inspired by the raw emotion of jazz, the hypnotic repetition of minimalism and the tonal explorations of the 20th century avant-garde, as well the the drama and romanticism of European music, from Beethoven to Debussy, and Wagner to Sibelius. But one of the high points of the documentary we eventually made together, is a sequence built around his piece for electric violin and orchestra, The Dharma at Big Sur (see video below).

As John explains, the piece is inspired by the structure of the raga, with a slow meditative introduction, followed by an ecstatic climax, in which the music swells in a series of wave-like surges. The piece is accompanied by images of water crashing against rocks at a beach in Big Sur, shot in back-lit splendour, as the sun is setting, by the award-winning Californian cinematographer Jon Else. The foam fills the screen in repeated bursts. The sequence, stretched as long as possible for a reasonably fast-paced TV documentary, is followed by John talking about the way in which the sexual and the spiritual have met in a number of his key works, not least in the large-scale oratorio that is being performed at the Barbican this weekend: the story of Jesus retold by the women on the periphery of the familiar passion story.


There is no doubt that Adams’s take on these matters draws inspiration from his relationship with his wife, the photographer Deborah O’Grady. Although she is by no means a subservient significant other or a mere muse, it is obvious that their conversations have been crucial. Debbie is steeped in the ideas of Jung, and some of this has rubbed off on the man who describes himself in the film as her “soul mate”. This is an enduring marriage, and the film includes a sequence of Debbie’s large-scale photographic prints, all of desert and sierra landscapes. As she, explains, many of the photographs were taken after long road trips during which she listened to her husband’s music on the car stereo. And in turn, it is not difficult to imagine that the composer might have been inspired by the cool serenity and spiritual depth of Debbie’s images.

Landscape is central to the film – particularly the open spaces and mountains of the American West. John (pictured right) has written eloquently of the way in which this has fuelled his musical imagination. This is a visceral relationship, which gives authenticity to the juxtapositions of sound and image in the film. John does much of his writing holed up in an isolated cabin high up in the Californian Sierras, often on his own, and energized by long walks in the wilderness. 

When he first watched a rough-cut of the film, he complained that it was perhaps “too beautiful”. This was not a remark I had a problem with, for his music, and the confluence of qualities - sensual and poetic - it so deeply expresses, demands, to my mind, the presence of aesthetic splendour. The choices the gifted editor Cyril Leuthy and I made were never just illustrative: there are moments, indeed, such as the combination of the choral piece “Harmonium” with  a man-made forest fire, that might appear counter-intuitive. But they miraculously work. The joy of making such a film – even though beset by all manner of difficulties, not least the lack of sufficient funds – comes from working with great collaborators and with material as emotionally engaging as the music of America’s greatest living composer.

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