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Doctor Atomic or: How John Adams Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sound Design

by Ryan Ebright –

In his autobiography, John Adams mused that his 2005 opera, Doctor Atomic, challenges directors and conductors owing to its ‘abstracted treatment’ of time and space. This abstraction also challenges scholars. In this article, I bring the cross-disciplinary field of sound studies into the opera house to demonstrate that Adams’s obfuscation of operatic space–time is achieved primarily through the use of a spatialised electroacoustic sound design. Drawing on archival materials and new interviews with director Peter Sellars and sound designer Mark Grey, I outline the dramaturgical, epistemological and hermeneutic ramifications of sound design for opera studies and advocate for disciplinary engagement with the spatial dimensions of electroacoustic music generally, and within opera specifically.

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