Etel Adnan

Written in response to a request in September 2007 from Sara Sehnaoui, Amers Editions, Beyrouth, Lebanon for something on my relationship with Etel Adnan

I’ll start my notes on Etel in a circumlocutory sort of way, and I hope you will forgive this….

I started to write my first opera, Medea, in the summer of 1981 for a production by Bob Wilson planned for La Fenice in Venice in September 1982. When I first started writing this opera, Bob began another project, this time for an enormous opera called The CIVIL WarS, which was designed to be part of the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival of 1984. It was to be an opera in 5 acts and 15 scenes, with sections commissioned by 5 different countries, from 5 different composers. Each of these would be an entire opera in itself and would last around 3 hours, and would be produced and performed in the host country ahead of the 1984 Olympics. The entire work was to be put together, in a modular sort of way, in Los Angeles. I worked with him from the very beginning, sketching a structure for this work at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. I was to be one of the five composers and was to be ultimately commissioned by France. My part of the opera, though, was started very late indeed – at the beginning of 1984 (!). And work on Medea was taking place during this whole process.

For a number of reasons the planned 1982 premiere of Medea in Venice was cancelled and the opera was eventually performed at the Opéra de Lyon in October 1984, followed by performances in Paris in November. And it was in February 1984 that work actually began on the French section of The CIVIL WarS. For two weeks we worked in the monastery of La Sainte Baume in the mountains inland from Marseille. I met Etel Adnan for the first time in La Sainte Baume where she was to be the writer, the librettist, for my section of the opera. The work there was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Effectively we had two weeks to make an opera out of nothing. Bob had his imagery, his sequence of drawings which form a kind of storyboard, he had various characters in mind – some drawn from real life (like Dr Mudd, the physician who gave treatment Abraham Lincoln’s assassin), some from fiction (often from Jules Verne) - but this told us nothing about what they would say, or what would be sung. Etel’s task was to provide text; mine was to set these words to music. But in only two weeks!

Etel and I got on very well and became very good friends. In fact I found myself in her company most of the time, and also that of Delphine Seyrig, who I always sat next to at lunch and dinner and who, like Etel, came from the Lebanon. I was in one part of the building writing music while rehearsals were going on nearby and I would send along pieces as I wrote them. Much of this is now lost but there was one piece that caused an enormous upset and forced Bob Wilson to rethink the nature of the work. Among the texts that Etel gave me was her poem “La Reine de la Mer”. I wrote music to this text and sent it back to the rehearsal rooms. It produced a conflict between the actors and Bob, in that he always wanted them to deliver words in a neutral way (like a news reader, as he would put it) whereas they felt unable to remain unmoved by this poem, and my setting of it, and refused to do what he asked of them.

There was a long crisis meeting between Bob, Etel, myself and others - and Bob rethought what he was doing. One thing he did was to bring in an additional writer, Heiner Müller from East Germany – a very different writer, and person, from Etel and someone whom I disliked from the start. I found his writing uninteresting, cold and mechanical. And I found him to be without any human warmth or grace – and it wasn’t just the permanent presence of cigars and vodka (at any time of day or night)…

The whole project eventually collapsed and had to be abandoned but I kept my setting of Etel’s poem and included it in a cantata called Effarene (the name of a Jules Verne character in a little known short story), which had its premiere four weeks after we left La Sante Baume. It’s a very beautiful poem and I am particularly fond of my setting (and I am usually very self-deprecating about these things!).

After all the stress and strain of working with Bob, Etel and I stayed in touch. I saw here again in 1986 when I did a live radio interview in San Francisco with John Adams f or KPFA Radio and I talked about our work together. Whenever I have visited the Bay Area I have always found time to visit Etel and Simone, to have lunch or dinner. Whenever I am in Paris I always see if they are there too.

In terms of work, the next thing I did with Etel was to set the fifth of her love poems from her collection The Indian Never Had a Horse for a group called the Composers’ Ensemble in 1992 with soprano Mary Wiegold. Later I was approached to write more songs and for the BBC’s year long festival in 1995 called “The Fairest isle” and for this I set two more poems from the set – the first two. These were recorded by the BBC with my ensemble and the soprano Sarah Leonard. The following year I decided to do a complete song cycle by setting the remaining poems and having a group of 8 songs, which I called The Adnan Songbook. These were given their first performance at the Almeida Festival in June 1996 with the stunning Canadian soprano Valdine Anderson, who later sang in my opera Doctor Ox’s Experiment at the English National Opera in 1998, and with whom I recorded The Adnan Songbook in 1997, for release in 1998. Both Etel and Simone were in the audience for that premiere and the performance was sensationally good.

I found Etel’s poetry very easy to set – or rather that it fell comfortably into the musical language. Not all eight poems were as easy as each other – number 5 and numbers 1 and 2 had been done earlier. In fact the one I set last, the third, I found the hardest. These have been songs that have been performed around the world with many different singers. Valdine Anderson sang them several times both with me and in an orchestral version with the CBC Radio Orchestra in Vancouver. Her successor with my ensemble, the Swedish soprano Anna Maria Friman, has sung them many times in many different countries. I have done performances with a Finnish soprano in Norway, and with an Australian soprano in Melbourne. And there is a completely natural flow with the music and with its interaction with the poems.

Not long afterwards, in 1997, I had a project for the Tate Gallery St Ives in England for an installation in a tiny chapel on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. For this I wrote a piece called The Island Chapel that sets two poems by Etel. I copy here the programme note that I wrote about the piece.

“The Island Chapel was written specifically for performance in St. Nicholas Chapel, St. Ives. The piece involves a response to a number of different stimuli. In the first place there is the chapel itself, a simple, tiny building perched in isolation and overlooking the sea on three sides. The "Island" itself is strictly a peninsula (something James Joyce defined as "a disappointed island") and on the fourth side it looks back towards the town.
A second stimulus is the relationship between the chapel and the Tate Gallery across the bay, and this piece is written in relation to the paintings of James Hugonin which are in the exhibition there (The Quality of Light) with two much smaller pictures being located in the chapel itself. On the Northumbrian coast, there is a similar physical and spiritual connection between the location of James Hugonin's studio and the island of Lindisfarne. I have written music before in response to James's work and to the context of his exhibitions. For this piece I visited St. Ives specifically to spend some time privately in the chapel when the two small pictures from James's Lindisfarne series were being installed.
The music, for contralto voice, cello and electric keyboard, is designed for performance to a small invited audience in this intimate, semi-private space and to be recorded for replay in the gallery itself. The text uses two self-contained poems Crossing no.3 and Crossing no.4 from an extended poem The Manifestations of the Voyage by the Lebanese poet Etel Adnan whose poetry I have set on a number of occasions. I wished to avoid any direct reference to the chapel or to the paintings, but rather to find through metaphor and allusion a poetic equivalent.
Just as James' work demonstrates through abstraction an affinity with real spaces, both physical and spiritual so the music has an intimate relationship with the chapel's poignant solitude, the imagery of the Adnan poems and the musical sensibilities of the performers - Melanie Pappenheim (voice), Sophie Harris (cello), Gavin Bryars (keyboard).”

Etel and I often exchange information and ideas. I send her my new recordings and live recordings, and she sends me her new writings. We have discussed the possibility of an operatic collaboration, and this may even happen if we find the right subject and treatment. My warm relationship with her and Simone extends to members of my family – my eldest daughter Ziella is a close friend of Etel and has spent a good deal of time with Etel and Simone both in Paris and Sausalito, and my wife Anya has met with her many times, and has discussed ideas for films and other projects.

For me, Etel is a great, great writer and an artist of the highest quality and greatest integrity. She is also a wonderful human being whose company I enjoy and whose friendship I cherish. I am proud to call her my friend.