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How Composer John Adams Summoned Gold Rush Tunes in 'Girls of the Golden West'

Turning hackneyed 19th-century melodies into musical gold.

Conductor Grant Gershon (left) and composer John Adams prepare for Girls of the Golden West at the S.F. Opera.

 

When the illustrious Berkeley-based composer John Adams began working on Girls of the Golden West, his new opera (with libretto by Peter Sellars) about the California gold rush that makes its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera on November 21, he faced an interesting musical challenge. Contemporary songs from the gold rush play a central role in the opera. Their lyrics run the gamut from funny and poignant to racist and brutal, and he didn’t want to change them. But the melodies—those were a different story.

“The tunes are terrible,” Adams says. “Music from around that period was terrible. This was a very undeveloped country, culturally…. Most of the music that was played in the gold rush era was parlor piano music,” with melodies taken from songs like “King of the Cannibal Islands.” However, the songs do have one musical virtue: rhythm. “A song the miners sing, which I think was originally set to ‘Camptown Races,’ goes, ‘A gambler’s life I do admire, doo-dah, doo-dah / The best of rum they do require,’” Adams recites, chuckling. “‘I used to wear a ruffled shirt / Now I’m covered with rags and dirt’—I’m so attracted to the rhythm of these songs.”

So Adams’s task was to write music that reflected the singsong nature of the gold rush texts—that “had that kind of catchy rhythmic swing to it”—but that was also his music. “I had to invent the form, but I do that naturally,” he says. “I just read the texts and got into it.” The experience of composing operas has made Adams keenly aware of the enormous power of music to illuminate texts and meanings. “The music does literally create the form, and it also creates the psychology,” he says. “I think people don’t really understand how profoundly a simple chord can tell you what’s going on, or what the emotional meaning of a word is. That’s the tool in the hand of the composer.” Nov. 21–Dec. 10

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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