Dangerous Music?

If a soundtrack were to be commissioned for the present impeachment spectacle it would have to come from the pen of John Adams—not the Founding Father, but the preeminent American composer of the same name.

It can be no coincidence that this John Adams’s music has flourished during Trump Time. The title character of his first opera, Nixon in China, premiered in 1989, also faced impeachment. The work’s most famous numbers could as easily be given to an operatic version of the current president, none more fittingly than the opening aria “News” delivered soon after Nixon has descended from Air Force One. After greeting Premier Chou En-lai with a crass quotation of the Star Spangled Banner muscled into Adam’s throbbing orchestral strains, the American president is overtaken by the manic realization that he is the object of world attention. “News”—fake or real—becomes the frenetic mantra of the addled Commander-in-Chief. Baritone James Maddalena created the role of the volatile Nixon (one of our most musical presidents) with uncanny likeness of countenance and bearing. The singing voice, too, is self-obsessed and weirdly riveting. The palm-out hands busy to either side of the body are pure Trump.

An ardent critic of the current president, whom he has called a sociopath, Adams has made clear that he will not compose a Trump opera. His Nixon in China seems to be filling that role with a surge of productions since the Trump’s election. By the time the Hannover Stadttheater presents the opera this spring there will have been four stagings of the work in Germany alone since 2017. Another production, shared by Scottish Opera, the Royal Danish Opera, and the Teatro Real Madrid will open in the middle of February in Glasgow, moving to Edinburgh later in the month. The Europeans hate Trump and love Nixon.

Adams’s second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer (1992), remains as timely as its predecessor, but far less popular; in Germany, for example, there has been no production since 2006. In this country the 2014 Metropolitan Opera Production was an artistic and critical success, but predictably met with virulent protest. The opera dramatizes the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship, Achille Lauro, and the killing of one of its American Jewish passengers, Leon Klinghoffer. Many believed the work sympathized with, even condoned, the Palestinian terrorists who carried out the attack, and that it trafficked in anti-Semitic clichés. It seems unlikely that even Trump’s current Middle East plan will spark a boom for this controversial opera.

The most trenchant and indefatigable of the work’s opponents is the greatest music historian of the last several decades, Richard Taruskin. His broadly philosophical and at the same time very specific musical critique of the opera entitled “The Danger of Music” was first published in the New York Times three months after 9/11 and reprinted as the title chapter of an essential 2009 collection of his journalistic writings. Soon after the attacks on the American Homeland were carried out the Boston Symphony cancelled a previously-scheduled performance of choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer; Taruskin applauded this decision for its sensitivity. His New York Times essay incensed many, including the composer himself. But the author did not budge from his position that art should—or at least, can—at times of crisis and trauma offer security and comfort rather than challenge and unsettle.

Three acts of violence are grappled with in Taruskin’s oft-quoted—and even more often misquoted—review of the opera: the terror attacks of 9/11; the killing of Leon Klinghoffer on board the Achille Lauro; and the death of Princess Diana in an automobile crash in a Paris underpass in 1997. Taruskin took Adams to task for objecting to the Boston decision when the composer hadn’t challenged a cancellation of his orchestral work Short Ride in a Fast Machine that had been scheduled in Britain soon after Diana’s death. The specter of that crash has recently been conjured again with Prince Harry’s recent withdrawal from his official duties; he did not want to subject his own family, and especially his wife Meghan Markle, to the same publicity siege, though one doubts if resigning his royal position will free him from such scrutiny.

In calling out Adams for objecting to the cancellation of excerpts from Klinghoffer but not to the same treatment of Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Taruskin may have been right—but for the wrong reasons. Short Ride, an exhilarating brass fanfare written in 1986, presents a thrillingly glib view of joyriding and, by extension, of one subset of that activity—racing to escape paparazzi. Is Adams’ high-speed romp a morally dangerous work? One would be unlikely to claim as much after hearing such kinetically seductive performances as that capping a recent recording (Decca, 2019) by the Montreal Symphony under Kent Nagano, long one of the leading champions of Adams’ music, including Klinghoffer. The composer conceived of Short Ride after being taken for a spin in a friend’s sports car: white-knuckled fun, in Adams’s words.

Being terrified is not the same as being terrorized.

Like the most effective ghosts, terrorism is everywhere and nowhere: while its acts rightly evoke outrage, the numbers of fatalities in Europe and the Americas are relatively small, as the Guardian’s American “data editor” Mona Chalabi demonstrated in an article that appeared in the aftermath of the New York truck attacks of October 31st, 2017 (the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Lutheran Reformation, if one needs to be reminded of the long trajectory of religious violence, and the blood and terror that followed from Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses.) The overwhelming majority of terror fatalities come in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa: of the world-wide 26,328 deaths tallied by the Global Terrorism Database for 2017, 124 occurred in North America—less than half a percent of the reported total. These numbers do not take into account the toll wrought by anti-terrorism actions on people, schools and hospitals.

To brandish statistics often amounts to relativizing death; it’s a morally dubious and often self-serving exercise. The death tolls from the disparate events referred to by Taruskin varied widely: one on the cruise ship hijacking of 1985; three in the Paris tunnel of 1997; and 2,977 in New York, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania in 2001. As reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 42,196 people died on the American roadways in 2001. Since the attacks of September 11th some 700,000 people have been killed on American roads. The second leading cause of those deaths (with the number of pedestrians and cyclists accounting for about ten percent of these) is speeding. Such willfully dangerous behavior is neither morally nor ideologically neutral in its mortal embrace of the values of speed and greed and its disdain for fellow humans and for the natural world. Cancellers and self-moderators of potentially hurtful music will have to agree that there is likely to be someone in any audience touched by, or grieving over, the road death of someone they know. To pull such pieces from a program only when royals and/or celebrities die is callous. How long will the period of mourning be for Kobe Bryant in which performances of Wagner’s Ring with its Ride of the Valkyries (made famous in the helicopter scene in the film Apocalypse Now) are suspended? The logic of “self-control” quickly spins out of control.

Klinghoffer continues to elicit protest. The untroubled popularity of Short Ride remains robust, even as the piece celebrates a much greater threat.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com