John Adams

Born 1947

John Adams

Composer • Conductor


John Adams is a Pulitzer prize winning composer, considered a maverick with eclectic impulses inherited from Charles Ives yet he has strong connections to the so-called minimalist composers a generation before, such as, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. He comes from an extremely musical background: his parents were jazz musicians, and he was surrounded by great opportunities to access music from a young age. Upon hearing his third grade teacher read aloud a children's biography of Mozart he internally decided to be a composer. He has enjoyed great success in his career and has achieved, across many genres, that which is very elusive to the contemporary classical composer: repeatability of performance.

John Coolidge Adams was born in Worchester, Massachusetts. His father was a clarinet player and gave Adams clarinet instruction from a young age. He went on to study clarinet further with Felix Viscuglia who was clarinettist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By the age of 10 he started theory lessons, going on to hear his first piece for orchestra performed at age 14 by the members of the local community orchestra.

He entered Harvard University in 1965, taking composition instruction from Leon Kircher, Earl Kim, Roger Sessions, Harold Shapero and David del Tredici. While at the university he was active as both a clarinettist and a conductor, even performing the solo in Walter Piston’s clarinet concerto.

Following this he undertook a journey West which involved him, a Volkswagen Beetle and many stops along the route through Canada and North America. This journey took him to California where he took a post at the San Francisco Conservatory in 1972 for 10 years. He conducted the conservatory’s New Music Ensemble providing a platform for his own works and for commissioning others in the scene. During his time at the conservatory he also worked in the electronic music studio there were he helped to build an analogue synth. Through his work in this ensemble and cross-collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra he developed a name for himself, being granted the title of composer in residence of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1982 until 1985. Early works  for the SFSO such as 'Harmonium' and 'Harmonielehre' brought his name to the public at a national level.

In 1983 John Adams’ career took a major step forward when he was approached by opera director Peter Sellars to write an opera. The result was 'Nixon in China' , Adam's first massive success. The premiere was given by the Houston Grand Opera in October 1987. It was performed over 70 times in the years directly following and it received both an Emmy and a Grammy award. Adams again worked with Sellars on two more works for stage, 'The Death of Klinghoffer' and 'I was Looking at the Ceiling', in 1991 and 1995 respectively.  

'The Death of Klinghoffer' was, and is to this day, a highly controversial opera as it concerns the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The San Francisco performance was picketed and it has not been staged in the USA since 1992. It is banned in Israel.

During the San Francisco period before the 'Death of Nixon' he was still quite active with other projects. Other works resulting from this activity were, 'Phrygian Gates' for piano 1977, 'Shaker Loops' for string septet 1978, ' Harmonium'for orchestra and chorus 1980-81, 'Harmonielehre' for orchestra 1984-85,'A Short Ride in a Fast Machine', for orchestra, 1986.

Adams also has had a very successful career as a conductor which has included working with theNew York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Symphony, theLos Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Halle Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, the Deutsches-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Ensemble Modern with whom he toured a programme of his work. These collaborations have given him platforms for his own works but he has also programmed the work of others often including diverse American composers from Charles Ives to Frank Zappa. In 1999 the label Nonsuch released 'The John Adams Earbox' which is a 10-CD compilation of his music up to the that time.

Adams was commissioned to write a commemorative piece following the events of 11 September 2001 by the New York Philharmonic. Resulting from this was the work, 'The Transmigration of Souls'. This work was widely acclaimed and received a Pulitzer prize in 2003. Since this piece he has been busy with many other works, notable ones from this period were 'The Dharma at Big Sur' concerto for electric violin and orchestra 2003, 'My Father Knew Charles Ives' for orchestra and in 2005, again with Sellars, 'Doctor Atomic', an opera exploring the subject of the Manhattan Project, the team of scientists responsible for building the world’s first atomic weapons. On his inspiration for Transmigration of Souls: "I had no desire to create a musical 'narrative' or description.... However, something I had seen on an amateur video taken minutes after the first plane had hit the first tower stuck in my mind: it was an image of millions and millions of pieces of paper floating out of the windows of the burning skyscraper and creating a virtual blizzard of white paper slowly drifting down to earth....all of this suggested a kind of density of texture that I wanted to capture in the music, but in an almost freeze-frame slow motion.

Adams has received many awards and recognitions such as the Pulitzer Prize (2003), the Nemmers Prize in Music Composition (2004), the Harvard Arts Medal (2007), the Centennial Medal of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the California Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, the Royal Philharmonic Award (1994) for his Chamber Symphony, the Grawemeyer Award (1995) for his Violin Concerto and the title Composer of the Year by 'Musical America' (1997). He has an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. In 1995 he was made a Chevalier of the Institute of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture, and in 1997 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and was composer in Residence at Carnegie Hall and Artist in Association with theBBC Symphony Orchestra. 

The musical style of John Adams is rooted in an experience of minimalism yet he rejects that label, preferring to describe his work as post-minimal. It is true that his work has much more of an idea of the Neo-Romantic in it than the likes of Terry Riley, Reich and Glass, with many elements of climax in a Romantic sense. The defining stylistic moment for him was the time which he is quoted as describing, 'I had to choose for Cage or Boulez'. As a young composer entering the academic scene he was faced with the academic aesthetic in the USA at the time which was decidedly serialist. The remnants of Schoenberg's legacy and the continued teachings of the likes of Milton Babbitt were a common thread throughout American musical life at the time.  

Adams had no interest in serialism as an aesthetic or a technique. He described the memory of the childrens’ biography of Mozart as informing and solidifying this choice which he felt had absolutely nothing to do with the largely academic serialism he encountered.

Notable works which are very indicative of his style include; 'Nixon in China'. This is his earliest opera in 3 Acts, it deals with president Nixon's trip to communist China in 1972. It is scored for orchestra, augmented by saxophones and synthesizers. The music is heavily influenced by the minimal style. Where Adams begins to differ, however, is with more complex forms, related to Western classical tradition as is his use of tonal centres. The music retains a sense of the raw energy which minimalistic processes are renowned for.

'Grand Pianola Music' 1982 and 'Fearful Symmetries' 1988 are examples of what Adams calls his 'trickster' pieces. These include another hallmark of his style which is the inclusion of elements from popular culture such as the fox-trots and big band music he was exposed to in his youth.

Despite the controversy 'The Death of Klinghoffer' is considered to be a masterful, sensitive setting of a delicate subject. The setting of the libretto is truly effortless in this opera and he shows a great skill and sensitivity to the contextualising of text. The work is highly influenced by the Passions of J.S. Bach and the work is completely unbiased and reverent. 

From the 1990s onwards he began to use more concentrated harmonic and melodic modes. His music became more chromatic and the rhythmic surface energy became more ferocious against a backdrop of complex, asymmetrical forms. Notable works as examples of this include his 'Chamber Symphony' 1992, 'Violin Concerto' 1993 and 'Naive and Sentimental Music' 1997-98.

The Violin Concerto is a striking display of virtuosity which became a prominent feature of Adams’ work. The orchestra provides a backdrop to 35 minutes of nearly constant melodic playing by the soloist. This has led to more and more difficult and demanding scores leading him to work closely with some of the best and most skilled groups such as the Schoenberg Ensemble, Kronos Quartet and Ensemble Modern.

John Adam's has, like the others associated with minimal music, attracted much criticism over the years. Critics of this movement deride the output as naive and sentimental, regressive and facile. One person who is clearly not bothered by such labels is Adams himself, as suggested by the wry title of his later work 'Naive and Sentimental Music', which is a tongue-in-cheek response to an essay directing criticism at him. His successful career, impressive output and wide scope of influence has already ensured him a place in the memory of tomorrows musicians .

Header image courtesy of Bay Citizen Long image by Margaretta Mitchell Square image (a scene from Adams' opera Nixon in China) by Ken Howard