Skip to main content
Select Source:

Adams, John

John Adams

Composer

The musical style known as minimalism has been ridiculed by some critics as "going nowhere music" or "needle-stuck-in-the-groove music." Composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich have been criticized for writing what some consider repetitive and monotonous works devoid of either intellectual rigor or expression. John Adams, who could be considered a successor to Glass and Reich, has put minimalist music on a fresh path—one that has won both admirers and detractors. Over time, without giving up the minimalist roots of his style, he has forged an expanded language suitable for large, ambitious works. By the early 2000s Adams was widely regarded as one of the greatest living American composers at work in the classical sphere.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947, Adams grew up in New England. His music study was encouraged by his parents, both of whom were amateur musicians. As a youth, he studied clarinet with Felix Viscuglia, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At home, all types of music were considered equally important. "In the house where I grew up, we had Mozart and we had Benny Goodman on the record player, and I was not raised to think there was a difference between them," Adams told Nancy Malitz in the New York Times.

While at Harvard University, where he enrolled in 1965, Adams studied composition with Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, and Earl Kim, conducted the Bach Society Orchestra, and was substitute clarinetist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Opera Company. He also played clarinet for the American premiere of Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenberg's opera Moses und Aro, and in 1969 was the soloist at the world premiere of American composer Walter Piston's Clarinet Concerto at New York City's famed Carnegie Hall. Adams was the first undergraduate in the history of Harvard University to be allowed to submit a musical composition in lieu of a prose work as his honors thesis, a remarkable event particularly in light of the roster of distinguished composers who had earned degrees there.

Began Minimalist Experiments in San Francisco

Adams earned a bachelor of arts degree magna cum laude from Harvard, and completed a master of arts degree there in 1971. Then, tired of the East Coast academic music scene, which he considered outmoded and hostile, he moved to San Francisco, where he came under the influence of composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Robert Ashley. With the exception of Ashley they were not based in California, but their experimental, open techniques of composition appealed to Adams. Adams's works of the mid-1970s, including Grounding and Onyx, were composed largely for electronic media. Also in the mid-1970s, what has become known as "minimalism"—music based on repeated and shifting rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns—was coming into its own, with Californians Terry Riley and La Monte Young leading the way, followed by the younger East Coast composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Adams, roughly ten years younger than Reich and Glass, developed his own broader and more expressive style of minimalism. Earlier minimalists generally composed music for small groups, but Adams's work began to diverge from that tradition. Beginning with 1980's Harmonium, a piece for huge chorus and orchestra set to texts by early seventeenth-century English poet John Donne and nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson, he began to write primarily for large performing ensembles.

Adams's growing prominence was apparent in 1982, when Time contributor Michael Walsh wrote: "The fastest-rising minimalist composer—and potentially the most influential of all—is John Adams…. The least 'minimal' of the three [Glass, Reich, and Adams], Adams has forged a big, strong, personal style, expressed in complex forms that employ a more extensive use of dissonance than other minimalists…. His highly accessible music makes a bridge between the avant-garde and traditional concert-hall fare."

Incorporated Humor in Compositions

Though he was rapidly becoming one of the most popular classical composers of his time, some thought that Adams went too far with Grand Pianola Music, composed in 1981 and 1982, and that by incorporating all kinds of music, serious and humorous, he had created a piece that bordered on the ridiculous. Others disagreed; Gregory Sandow defended the piece in the Village Voice, asserting, "In Grand Pianola Music, [Adams] revels in sounds we've heard before—and that's his greatest victory. There's nothing wrong with recycling familiar music. Composers of the past did it a lot; they were writing in the style of their times." Sandow added that Grand Pianola Music "has been damned as vulgar by people uneasy about the age they live in."

Two of Adams's later works, both operas, likewise fell under considerable scrutiny. Nixon in China (1987) is a dramatization of President Richard M. Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in 1972. Although its creators—Adams, director Peter Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodman—considered it a satire, Nixon in China met with objection from some reviewers, partly because they believed the characters' mythic portrayal was unsuitable, given their less-than-pristine reputations.

Works Stirred Controversy

More controversial, in 1991, was The Death of Klinghoffer, an operatic retelling of the 1985 hijacking by Palestinians of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the subsequent assassination of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Some critics and operagoers were offended by what they considered a pro-Palestinian bias; others believed that the event dramatized was inappropriate for operatic treatment. Adams summed up the controversy in the New York Times Magazine: "It is so clear that we haven't taken sides, but that won't prevent people from leaping to judgment. I am sure that there will be people who think that having Palestinians sing music which is not ugly or aggressive, but which is expressive and sometimes personal and beautiful, is to glorify hideous facts. And I am sure there are some who feel that to portray this event at all is just further Zionist propaganda." The Death of Klinghoffer was revived in the early 2000s but once again encountered controversy in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Despite disagreement among critics and the public about his work, Adams's star continued to rise steadily over the 1990s. In November of 1991 his piece El Dorado was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony. Of his career, Adams was quoted as saying in Time, "[Before,] I thought that if I wrote something that was attractive there must be something wrong with it. Now I feel there are a lot of people out there actually waiting for my next piece."

For the Record …

Born on February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA; married Deborah O'Grady; children: Emily, Sam. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1969; M.A. in music composition, 1971.

Composer-in-residence, Marlboro Festival, 1970; member of composition faculty, San Francisco Conservatory, 1972–82; director and founder, 1978, of San Francisco Symphony's "New and Unusual Music" series; composer-in-residence, San Francisco Symphony, 1982–85; 10-CD Earbox career retrospective released, 1999; commissioned by New York Philharmonic Orchestra to compose On the Transmigration of Souls, 2002.

Awards: Friends of Switzerland, Julius Stratton Prize, 1969; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1982; Grammy Award for Nixon in China, 1987; Grawemeyer Prize for Violin Concerto, 1995.

Addresses: Record company—Elektra/Nonesuch, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

Continued acclaim has proven the composer's words prophetic, and has allowed him the space to turn his attention to larger, more ambitious forms that have retained the essence of the minimalist language, such as its repeated notes, transparent textures, and large blocks of sound, while carving out new space for individual expression. Adams's Violin Concerto (1993) revived the concerto genre, with its dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and won Adams the prestigious and lucrative Grawemeyer Prize. He continued to write genre-bending works like Gnarly Buttons (1996, for clarinet and ensemble) and the orchestral Naive and Sentimental Music of 1997–98, but he also began to look once again toward the large-scale challenge of writing for the stage. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, a semi-operatic work that Adams called a "songplay," served as something of a warm-up. Completed in 1995, the work was plotted around the Northridge, California, earthquake of 1994 and featured a variety of Los Angeles residents as characters.

In the midst of the general atmosphere of celebration surrounding the turn of the millennium, Adams wrote El Niño, an oratorio (a dramatic work intended for concert presentation) on the subject of the birth of Jesus. The original presentation of the work by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra featured multimedia enhancements directed by Peter Sellars, with whom Adams had worked on Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. These included a silent film shown concurrently with the music, a trio of dancers, and choreography for the vocal soloists, opera stars Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Willard White. Though not a practicing Christian, Adams told David Gates of Newsweek that "in rereading the New Testament, I've been stunned by all the miracles there." Adams also felt that the work marked a compositional advance, telling Gates that "the 'major breakthrough' in this piece is just writing naturally for the voice."

Themes of Modern Life

World events influenced the next turn in Adams's career when he was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to write a commemorative work for performance on September 19, 2002, just over a year after the terrorist attacks that leveled New York's World Trade Center and killed several thousand of the city's residents. Adams responded with On the Transmigration of Souls, a meditative work for adult and children's choruses, orchestra, and taped sounds that was, in the general estimation of critics, a superb execution of a very difficult job. The work wove evocations of the event itself together with readings of the names of survivors and quotations from a Charles Ives orchestral work of nearly a century before, The Unanswered Question. "I've tried to create what I would call a meditative space for the listener to bring one's emotions and memories, as if you would go into a cathedral," Adams told David LaGesse of U.S. News & World Report.

In 2005 Adams, working once again with Peter Sellars as director, was putting the finishing touches on a major new opera, Doctor Atomic. Slated for its premiere in the fall of that year, it dealt with the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leader in the creation of the original atomic bomb. The composer who had begun his career with the tiny musical gestures of minimalism was now tackling the largest themes of modern life in his music.

Selected discography

Shaker Loops, Philips.
Harmonium, ECM.
Grand Pianola Music, EMI/Angel.
Harmonielehre, Elektra/Nonesuch.
Nixon in China, Elektra/Nonesuch.
The Death of Klinghoffer, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992.
Earbox (10-CD box set), Nonesuch, 1999.
On the Transmigration of Souls, Nonesuch, 2004.

Chamber music

American Standard (for unspecified ensemble), 1973.
Grounding, 1975.
Onyx, 1976.
Phrygian Gates (for piano), 1977.
Shaker Loops (for string septet), 1978.
John's Book of Alleged Dances, for string quartet, 1994.
Gnarly Buttons, for clarinet and ensemble, 1996.

Orchestral music

Common Tones in Simple Time (for orchestra), 1979.
Harmonium (for large chorus and orchestra), 1980.
Grand Pianola Music (for small orchestra, two sopranos, and two pianos), 1981–82.
Harmonielehre (for large orchestra), 1984–85.
El Dorado (for orchestra), 1991.
Chamber Symphony, 1992.
Violin Concerto, 1993.
Naive and Sentimental Music, 1997–98.

Other

Matter of Heart (film score), 1982.
Nixon in China (opera), 1987.
The Death of Klinghoffer (opera), 1991.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, opera, 1995.
El Niño: A Nativity Oratorio, 1999–2000.
On the Transmigration of Souls, for chorus, children's chorus, orchestra, and tape.

Sources

Books

Slominsky, Nicholas, editor, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th edition, Schirmer, 1984.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, editors, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1986.

Periodicals

America, May 19, 2003, p. 22.

Esquire, December 1984.

New Statesman, January 14, 2002, p. 40; October 7, 2002, p. 39.

Newsweek, January 22, 2001, p. 60.

New York Times Magazine, August 25, 1991.

Opera News, December 2001, p. 70; December 2002, p. 97; August 2005, p. 22.

Time, September 20, 1982.

U.S. News & World Report, July 8, 2002, p. 53.

Village Voice, January 29, 1985.

Online

"John Adams," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 21, 2005).

Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Allan Kozinn to Grand Pianola Music, EMI/Angel.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Adams, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Adams, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/adams-john-0

"Adams, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/adams-john-0

Adams, John

John Adams

Composer

Moved to California

Debate Over Grand Pianola Music

Terrorist Event Inspired Opera

Selected compositions

Selected discography

Sources

The musical style known as minimalism has been ridiculed by some critics as going nowhere music or needle-stuck-in-the-groove music. Composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich have been criticized for writing what some consider repetitive and monotonous works devoid of either intellectual rigor or expression. John Adams, who could be considered a successor to Glass and Reich, has put minimalist music on a fresh pathone that has won both admirers and detractors.

Adams grew up in New England. His music study was encouraged by his parents, both of whom were amateur musicians. As a youth, he studied clarinet with Felix Viscuglia, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At home, all types of music were considered equally important. In the house where I grew up, we had Mozart and we had Benny Goodman on the record player, and I was not raised to think there was a difference between them, Adams told Nancy Malitz in the New York Times.

While at Harvard College, where he enrolled in 1965, Adams studied composition with Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, and Earl Kim, conducted the Bach Society Orchestra, and was substitute clarinetist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Opera Company. He also played clarinet for the American premiere of Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenbergs opera Moses und Aro and in 1969 was the soloist at the world premiere of American composer Walter Pistons Clarinet Concerto at New York Citys famed Carnegie Hall. Adams was the first undergraduate in the history of Harvard University to be allowed to submit a musical composition in lieu of a prose work as his honors thesisa remarkable event particularly in light of the roster of distinguished composers who had earned degrees there.

Moved to California

Adams received his B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard and completed his M.A. there in 1971. Then, tired of the East Coast academic music scenewhich he considered outmoded and hostilehe moved to San Francisco, where he came under the influence of composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Robert Ashley, who, with the exception of Ashley, were not based in California but whose experimental, open techniques of composition appealed to Adams. Adamss works of the mid-1970s, including Grounding and Onyx, were composed largely for electronic media. Also in the mid-seventies, what has become known as minimalismmusic based on repeated and shifting rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns

For the Record

Born February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA; married Deborah OGrady; children: Emily, Sam. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1969, M.A. in music composition, 1971.

Composer-in-residence, Marlboro Festival, 1970; member of composition faculty, San Francisco Conservatory, 1972-82; director and founder, 1978, of San Francisco Symphonys New and Unusual Music series; composer-inresidence, San Francisco Symphony, 1982-85.

Awards: Julius Stratton Prize, Friends of Switzerland, 1969; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1982; Grammy Award, 1987, for Nixon in China.

Addresses: Home Berkeley, CA. Record company Elektra/Nonesuch, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

was coming into its own, with Californians Terry Riley and La Monte Young leading the way, followed by the younger, East Coast composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Adams, roughly ten years junior to Reich and Glass, developed his own broader, and more expressive, style of minimalism; earlier minimalists generally composed music for small groups, but Adams, beginning with 1980s Harmoniuma piece for huge chorus and orchestra set to texts by early 17th-century English poet John Donne and 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinsonwrote, and continues to write, primarily for large performing forces.

Adamss growing prominence was apparent in 1982, when Time contributor Michael Walsh wrote: The fastest-rising minimalist composerand potentially the most influential of allis John Adams.... The least minimal of the three [Glass, Reich, and Adams], Adams has forged a big, strong, personal style, expressed in complex forms that employ a more extensive use of dissonance than other minimalists.... His highly accessible music makes a bridge between the avantgarde and traditional concert-hall fare.

Debate Over Grand Pianola Music

Though he was rapidly becoming one of the most popular composers of his time, some thought that Adams went too far with Grand Pianola Music, composed in 1981 and 1982, and that by incorporating all kinds of music, serious and humorous, he had created a piece that bordered on the ridiculous. Others disagreed; Gregory Sandow defended the piece in the Village Voice, asserting, In Grand Pianola Music, [Adams] revels in sounds weve heard beforeand thats his greatest victory. Theres nothing wrong with recycling familiar music. Composers of the past did it a lot; they were writing in the style of their times.... A classical composer who wants to write music that sounds like anything the classical audience has heard before is all but forced to use styles of the past, which can only be responsibly done if something in your tone suggests you know youre doing it. Adams succeeds with triumphant exuberanceand so Grand Pianola Music has been damned as vulgar by people uneasy about the age they live in.

Two of Adamss later works, both operas, likewise fell under considerable scrutiny. 1987s Nixon in China is a dramatization of President Richard M. Nixons historic visit to Beijing in 1972. Although its creatorsAdams, director Peter Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodmanconsidered it a satire, Nixon in China met with objection from some reviewers, partly because they believed the characters mythic portrayal was unsuitable given their less-than-pristine reputations.

Terrorist Event Inspired Opera

More controversial, in 1991, was The Death of Klinghoffer, an operatic retelling of the 1985 hijacking by Palestinians of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and subsequent assassination of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Some critics and operagoers were offended by what they considered a pro-Palestinian bias; others believed that the event dramatized was inappropriate for operatic treatment. Adams summed up the controversy in the New York Times Magazine: It is so clear that we havent taken sides, but that wont prevent people from leaping to judgment. I am sure that there will be people who think that having Palestinians sing music which is not ugly or aggressive, but which is expressive and sometimes personal and beautiful, is to glorify hideous facts. And I am sure there are some who feel that to portray this event at all is just further Zionist propaganda.

Despite disagreement among critics and the public about his work, Adamss star continues to rise; in November of 1991 his piece El Dorado was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony. Of his career, Adams was quoted as saying in Time, [Before,] I thought that if I wrote something that was attractive there must be something wrong with it. Now I feel there are a lot of people out there actually waiting for my next piece. Continued acclaim has proven the composers words prophetic.

Selected compositions

Chamber music

American Standard (for unspecified ensemble), 1973.

Grounding, 1975.

Onyx, 1976.

Phrygian Gates (for piano), 1977.

Shaker Loops (for string septet), 1978.

Orchestral music

Common Tones in Simple Time (for orchestra), 1979.

Harmonium (for large chorus and orchestra), 1980.

Grand Pianola Music (for small orchestra, two sopranos, and two pianos), 1981-82.

Harmonielehre (for large orchestra), 1984-85.

El Dorado (for orchestra), 1991.

Other

Matter of Heart (film score), 1982.

Nixon in China (opera), 1987.

The Death of Klinghoffer (opera), 1991.

Selected discography

Shaker Loops, Philips.

Harmonium, ECM.

Grand Pianola Music, EMI/Angel.

Harmonielehre, Elektra/Nonesuch.

Nixon in China, Elektra/Nonesuch.

The Death of Klinghoffer, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992.

Sources

Books

Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th edition, edited by Nicholas Slonimsky, Schirmer, 1984.

Marshall, Ingram D., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1986.

Periodicals

Esquire, December 1984.

New York Times Magazine, August 25, 1991.

Time, September 20, 1982.

Village Voice, January 29, 1985.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Allan Kozinn to Grand Pianola Music, EMI/Angel.

Joyce Harrison

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Adams, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Adams, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/adams-john

"Adams, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/adams-john

Adams, John

JOHN ADAMS

Born: Worcester, Massachusetts, 15 February 1947

Genre: Classical


John Adams's evocative scores and provocative projects helped make him one of the most prominent American composers of the final decades of the twentieth century. In 1991 a survey of major American orchestras by the American Symphony Orchestra League showed Adams to be the most frequently performed living American composer that year.

Adams grew up in the northeastern United States and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard University, where he studied conducting, played the clarinet, and composed. His prominent teachers included Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici, and Roger Sessions. In 1971 he moved to San Francisco, California, to teach and conduct at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (19721983) and to be composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony (19781985). It was here that some of his most important worksincluding Shaker Loops (1978, 1983), Harmonium (19801981), Harmonielehre (19841985), and Grand Pianola Music (1982)were commissioned and performed.

Adams's music fit neatly with the minimalist style of composition that was shaking off the complexities of atonality in the 1970s and 1980s and gaining something of a popular following. Minimalism reduced the complexities of harmony and melody to their most basic form, repeating chord progressions and melodic fragments and simplifying the musical language. Adams's brand of undulating minimalism always seemed to have more going on, and his writing quickly evolved into a distinctive post-modernist blend of styles. Right from the first composition, his music had an expressive bent that seemed to want to develop beyond the repetitions of the minimalist style.

These expansive musical sensibilities were channeled into provocative projects, such as his widely debated first opera based on President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China, Nixon in China. The piece was startling when it premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 1987. At a time when contemporary operaparticularly American contemporary operawas something of a rare undertaking, Adams and his A-list creative team of director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and choreographer Mark Morris tackled a contemporary subject and sparked a new genre of postmodernist music for the theater. A recording of the piece won a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Contemporary Composition, and the original production was restaged at opera houses throughout Europe and America in the 1990s.

Though not as well known as a conductor, Adams has championed his own and other contemporary composers' work from the podium. From 19871990 he was "creative chair" of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, serving as part of the orchestra's experimental creative leadership team, conducting four weeks of concerts, and overseeing the orchestra's contemporary music programs. He has also conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Concertgebouw, London Symphony, and BBC Orchestra, and has recorded his own music conducting the San Francisco Symphony.

Adams's second operaan even more controversial work than Nixon was The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera is built around the story of the 1984 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea by Palestinian terrorists, and the subsequent murder of a wheelchair-bound American tourist Leon Klinghoffer.

The opera debuted in March 1991 in Brussels, Belgium, as the Persian Gulf War was coming to a close, and the performances were picketed and condemned for the opera's subject matter. Klinghoffer employed the same creative team (Goodman/Sellars/Morris) as Nixon, but many of the reviews, both in Europe and at the American premiere in San Francisco later that year, were scathing, mostly because of the subject. A subsequent production planned by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera (one of the co-commissioners) was canceled, and the opera was not performed again during the next ten years, despite the fact that the score offers some of Adams's most lyrical and luminous music. A third stage piece, a "song" play, a kind of staged story set to music titled I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), failed to generate the kind of intense interest of Adams's previous efforts.

If the 1980s established Adams as a major voice in American music, the 1990s secured his position. As his compositional style evolved beyond the simplified musical structures of minimalism and into a new take on the expressive qualities of Romanticism, Adams's eclectic style encompassed a wide range of twentieth-century idioms and references, from Russian-born American composer Igor Stravinsky to swing music. He produced a series of chamber and orchestral works, including Violin Concerto (1994), which was commissioned by an unusual partnership between the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony, and the New York City Ballet. City Ballet director Peter Martins choreographed a dance to the work and it was presented during the 19941995 season. The Concerto won the 1995 Grawemeyer Award for Contemporary Music.

The Chamber Symphony (1993) is typical of Adams's wit: It sets up a musical duel between the rigorously intellectual style of serialism, in which each note is determined by strict formulas, and the inflated freneticism of cartoon soundtrack music. Adams also has a love of musical puzzles and odd titles, chosen sometimes just because he likes the sounds of the words, as witnessed in titles such as Slonimsky's Earbox (1996), Gnarly Buttons (1996), and Naïve and Sentimental Music (19971998).

Yet it was because of his ability to express deep sentiment that the New York Philharmonic chose Adams to write a work commemorating the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls opened the New York Philharmonic's 2002 season.

As the twenty-first century began, Adams emerged as one of the leading composers of the day, as close as anyone since the iconic quintessential American composer Aaron Copland to being considered a "national" American composer. His ability to synthesize musical styles and create music of freshness opened up a new vein of American music.

SELECTIVE DISCOGRAPHY:

Stage: Nixon in China (19851987); The Death of Klinghoffer (19901991); I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995); El Niño Nativity Oratorio (19992000). Chamber: Grand Pianola Music (1982); Chamber Symphony (1992). Orchestra: Harmonium (19801981); Shaker Loops (1983); Harmonielehre (19841985); Fearful Symmetries (1988); Violin Concerto (1993).

douglas mclennan

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Adams, John." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Adams, John." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/adams-john

"Adams, John." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/adams-john

Adams, John (American composer)

John Adams (John Coolidge Adams), 1947–, American composer, b. Worcester, Mass. A clarinetist, he studied composition at Harvard (B.A. 1969, M.A. 1971). Often regarded as the most outstanding, technically adept, and influential composer of his generation, Adams has written in numerous genres, bringing to his compositions a keen sense of the theatrical and the vernacular. His distinctive sound is a mixture of post-minimalism with an intensely emotional expansiveness and a range of expressive tonal elements reminiscent of late romanticism and early modernism. Strong and vivid, his music can exhibit both a wittily life-affirming sense of fun and a decidedly contemporary aura of grief and horror.

Adams is best known for operas on topical themes, including Nixon in China (1987), about the president's 1972 visit; The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), based on a 1985 terrorist hijacking and murder; and Doctor Atomic (2005), dealing with J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the atomic bomb. Among his many other works are Shaker Loops (1978, rev. 1983) for strings, Harmonielehre (1985), Fearful Symmetries (1988), the "song-play" I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), El Dorado (1993), a violin concerto (1993), Lollapalooza (1995), Gnarly Buttons (1996) for clarinet and orchestra, and the symphonic Naive and Sentimental Music (1999). His 21st-century pieces include the monumental nativity oratorio El Niño (2000); On the Transmigration of Souls (2002; Pulitzer Prize), a meditative soundscape in memory of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, for orchestra, chorus, and various sound effects; A Flowering Tree, a lyrical opera based on a South Indian folk tale; and the dissonance-filled Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), a modernist interpretation of the last days of Jesus written for orchestra, soloists, and chorus.

See his memoir (2008); T. May, ed., The John Adams Reader (2006).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Adams, John (American composer)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Adams, John (American composer)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/adams-john-american-composer

"Adams, John (American composer)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/adams-john-american-composer

Adams, John (Coolidge)

Adams, John (Coolidge) (b Worcester, Mass., 1947). Amer. composer, conductor, and clarinettist. Head, comp. dept., S. Francisco Cons. 1972–82. Comp.-in-res., S. Francisco SO 1979–85. One of composers known as minimalists, but his style has broadened and he has deliberately forged an eclectic idiom which borrows from most of the major 20th-cent. composers and from jazz. Comps.:OPERAS: Nixon in China (1984–7); The Death of Klinghoffer (1990–1); I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, mus. th. (1994–5).ORCH.: Common Tones in Simple Time (1980); Shaker Loops, str. (1983); Harmonielehre (1984–5); Tromba lontana (1986); Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986); The Chairman Dances (1987); Fearful Symmetries (1988); Eros Piano, pf., orch. or chamber orch. (1989); El Dorado (1991); Chamber Symphony (1991); vn. conc. (1993).VOICE(S) & ORCH. OR ENS.: Christian Zeal and Activity, spkr. on tape., ens. (1973); Grounding, 3 solo vv., instr., elec. (1975); Harmonium, ch., orch. (1980); Grand Pianola Music, 2 sop., 2 pf., small orch. (1981–2); The Wound Dresser, bar., orch. or chamber orch. (1988).CHAMBER MUSIC: pf. quintet (1970); American Standard, unspecified ens. (1973).PIANO: Ragamarole (1973); China Gates (1977); Phrygian Gates (1977).TAPE ONLY: Onyx (1975); Light Over Water (1983).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Adams, John (Coolidge)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Adams, John (Coolidge)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/adams-john-coolidge

"Adams, John (Coolidge)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/adams-john-coolidge