Overview of life
John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer with strong roots in minimalism. His best-known works include Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), a choral piece commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003), and Shaker Loops (1978), a minimalist four-movement work for strings. His well-known operas include Nixon in China (1987), which recounts Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, and Doctor Atomic (2005), which covers Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the building of the first atomic bomb.
Life & Career
John Coolidge Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947. He was raised in various New England states where he was greatly influenced by New England’s musical culture. He graduated from Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire. His father taught him how to play the clarinet, and he was a clarinetist in community ensembles. He later studied the instrument further with Felix Viscuglia, clarinetist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Adams began composing at the age of ten and first heard his music performed around the age of 13 or 14. After he matriculated at Harvard University in 1965 he studied composition under Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, and David Del Tredici. While at Harvard, he conducted the Bach Society Orchestra and was a reserve clarinetist for both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Company of Boston. He earned two degrees from Harvard University (BA 1971, MA 1972) and was among the first students to be allowed to submit a musical composition for a Harvard undergraduate thesis. His piece “American Standard” was recorded and released on Obscure Records in 1975. He taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 until 1984. He served as musical producer for a number of series for the Public Broadcasting System including the award-winning series, The Adams Chronicles in 1976 and 1977.
1977 to Nixon in China
Adams worked in the electronic music studio at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, having built his own analogue synthesizer, and as conductor of the New Music Ensemble, he had a small but dedicated pool of young and talented musicians occasionally at his disposal.
Some major works composed during this period include Wavemaker (1977), Phrygian Gates for solo piano (1977), Shaker Loops (1978) , Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), Harmonium (1980-81), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Light Over Water (1983), Harmonielehre (198485), The Chairman Dances (1985), Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), and Nixon in China (1985-87).
Shaker Loops (for string septet) (1978): A “modular” composition for three violins, one viola, two cellos, and one bass, with a conductor. It is divided into four distinct movements, each of which grows almost indiscernibly into the next. Adams worked with a group of Conservatory string players, at times composing as they rehearsed. The “period” that is, the number of beats per repeated pattern of each instrument is different, and this results in a constantly shifting texture of melody and rhythmic emphasis. This piece is a turning point in Adams’s oeuvre, as it marks a return to pure instrumental writing and a re-engagement with tonality. Adams later arranged this piece for string orchestra.
Harmonium for Large Orchestra and Chorus (1980-81): The piece starts with quietly insistent repetitions of one note D and one syllable “no”. The successful Harmonium premiere was the first performance of his music by a major mainstream organization, and established Adams as a figure in America’s musical landscape.
Grand Pianola Music (1982): Adams commented, “Dueling pianos, cooing sirens, Valhalla brass, thwacking bass drums, gospel triads, and a Niagara of cascading flat keys all learned to cohabit as I wrote the piece.” It is one of his first major works to incorporate American vernacular music within a classical symphonic tradition. Adams’s use of the repetitive patterns of minimalism within sweeping orchestral gestures is heard throughout the piece.
Light Over Water: The Genesis of Music (1983): This work was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles as the score for the collaborative work Available Light, which was choreographed by Lucinda Childs and had a set design by architect Frank Gehry. The work is a long, unbroken composition with contrasting sections whose boundaries are so subtle as to be almost imperceptible. It is a kind of symphony played by an orchestra of both electric and natural instruments and frozen into its idealized form by means of a multichannel tape recorder. Essentially electronic, the piece still exhibits orchestral techniques. Changes in the piece evolve gradually, and sudden entrances are rare. It is personal and emotive, though not necessarily romantic, and it has a dance-like feel.
Harmonielehre (1984-85): Inspired by a dream of an oil tanker taking flight out of San Francisco Bay and also by Arnold Schoenberg’s book, Harmonielehre (Theory of Harmony). This piece is also about harmony of the mind and was Adams’s way of escaping writer’s block.
The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra) (1985): This is a by-product of Nixon in China, set in the three days of President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Fanfare for Great Woods) (1986): This piece is joyfully exuberant, brilliantly scored for a large orchestra. It begins with a marking of half-notes (woodblock, soon joined by the four trumpets) and eighths (clarinets and synthesizers); the (amplified) woodblock is fortissimo and the other instruments play forte. The work uses many elements of minimalist music.
Nixon in China (1987): The opera, in three acts, is based on Richard Nixon’s visit to China on February 21-25, 1972. Main characters in the opera are: the Nixons, Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao) and Henry Kissinger. Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing was made in the hope, but by no means the certainty, that he would see chairman Mao. It was directed by Peter Sellars. This piece is John Adams’s second major composition on a text, after Harmonium (1981) for chorus and orchestra.
After Nixon in China
Adams wrote, “in almost all cultures other than the European classical one, the real meaning of the music is in between the notes. The slide, the portamento, the “blue note” all are essential to the emotional expression, whether it’s a great Indian master improvising on a raga or whether it’s Jimi Hendrix or Johnny Hodges bending a blue note right down to the floor.” Adams uses this concept in many of his influential pieces post- Nixon in China.
In October 2008, Adams told BBC Radio 3 that he had been blacklisted by the U.S. Homeland Security department and immigration services.
The Wound-Dresser (1988): John Adams’s setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, “The Wound-Dresser”, which Whitman wrote after visiting wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. The piece is scored for baritone voice, 2 flutes (or 2 piccolos), 2 oboes, clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet (or piccolo tpt), timpani, synthesizer, and strings.
The Death of Klinghoffer (1991): The opera’s story begins with the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and details the murder of a passenger named Leon Klinghoffer, a retired, physically disabled American Jew. The musical basis for The Death of Klinghoffer was the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach: grave, symbolic, narratives supported by a full chorus. A film version was made in 2003, which emphasised the work’s somber, chilling mood.
Chamber Symphony (1992): This piece was commissioned by the Gerbode Foundation of San Francisco for the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players. While Chamber Symphony bears a strong resemblance to Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op. 9 in its tonality and its instrumental arrangement, Adams’s additional instrumentation includes synthesizer, drum kit, trumpet, and trombone. The piece consists of three movements: “Mongrel Airs,” “Aria with Walking Bass” and “Roadrunner.” The piece is excited and aggressive, alluding to children’s cartoon music (as evidenced by the titles of the movements). The piece is linear, chromatic, and virtuosic.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995): A stage piece with libretto by June Jordan and staging by Peter Sellars. Adams called the piece “essentially a polyphonic love story in the style of a Shakespeare comedy.” The main characters are seven young Americans from different social and ethnic backgrounds, all living in Los Angeles. The story takes place in the aftermath of the earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994.
Hallelujah Junction (1996): This piece for two pianos employs variations of a repeated two note rhythm. The intervals between the notes remain the same through much of the piece.
On the Transmigration of Souls (2002): This piece commemorates those who lost their lives in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. It won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music as well as the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition. Adams was the first composer to have earned the latter award three times, having previously won the award for El Dorado (1998) and Nixon in China (1989).
My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003): Adams writes, “My Father Knew Charles Ives is musical autobiography, an homage and encomium to a composer whose influence on me has been huge.” In true Ives style, in all three movements the piece begins subtly with few instruments and swells to a cacophonous mass of sound. The piece ranges from utilizing mysterious harmonies in long tones to full scale march feels.
The Dharma at Big Sur (2003): A piece for solo electric six-string violin and orchestra. The piece calls for some instruments (harp, piano, samplers) to use just intonation, a tuning system in which intervals sound pure, rather than equal temperament, the common Western tuning system in which all intervals except the octave are impure. The piece was composed for the opening of Disney Hall in Los Angeles.
Doctor Atomic (2005): An opera in two acts, about Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the creation and testing of the first atomic bomb. The libretto of Doctor Atomic by Peter Sellars draws on original source material, including personal memoirs, recorded interviews, technical manuals of nuclear physics, declassified government documents, and the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita, John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, and Muriel Rukeyser. The opera takes place in June and July 1945, mainly over the last few hours before the first atomic bomb explodes at the test site in New Mexico. Characters include Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty, Edward Teller, General Leslie Groves, and Robert Wilson.
A Flowering Tree (2006): An opera in two acts, based on a folktale from the Kannada language of southern India as translated by A.K. Ramanujan. it was commissioned as part of the Vienna New Crowned Hope Festival to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. It takes as its model Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and its themes are magic, transformation and the dawning of moral awareness.
Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007): Based on music from the opera.
Fellow Traveler (2007): This piece was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by Greg G. Minshall, and was dedicated to opera and theater director Peter Sellars for his 50th birthday.
The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist although in interview he has categorised himself in typically witty fashion as a ‘post-style’ composer. While Adams employs minimalist techniques, such as repeating patterns, he is not a strict follower of the movement. Adams was born a generation after Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and his writing is more developmental and directionalized, containing climaxes and other elements of Romanticism. Comparing Shaker Loops to minimalist composer Terry Riley’s piece In C, Adams says,
rather than set up small engines of motivic materials and let them run free in a kind of random play of counterpoint, I used the fabric of continually repeating cells to forge large architectonic shapes, creating a web of activity that, even within the course of a single movement, was more detailed, more varied, and knew both light and dark, serenity and turbulence.
Many of Adams’s ideas in composition are a reaction to the philosophy of serialism and its depictions of “the composer as scientist.” The Darmstadt school of twelve tone composition was dominant during the time that Adams was receiving his college education, and he compared class to a “mausoleum where we would sit and count tone-rows in Webern.” By the time he graduated, he was disillusioned with the restrained feeling and inaccessibility of serialism.
Adams experienced a musical awakening after reading John Cage’s book Silence (1973), which he claimed “dropped into psyche like a time bomb.” Cage’s school posed fundamental questions about what music was, and regarded all types of sounds as viable sources of music. This perspective offered to Adams a liberating alternative to the rule-based techniques of serialism. At this point Adams began to experiment with electronic music, and his experiences are reflected in the writing of Phrygian Gates (1977-78), in which the constant shifting between modules in Lydian mode and Phrygian mode refers to activating electronic gates rather than architectural ones. Adams explained that working with synthesizers caused a “diatonic conversion,” a reversion to the belief that tonality was a force of nature.
Minimalism offered the final solution to Adams’s creative dilemma. Adams was attracted to its pulsating and diatonic sound, which provided an underlying rhetoric on top of which he could express what he wanted in his compositions. Although some of his pieces sound similar to those written by minimalist composers, Adams actually rejects the idea of mechanistic procedure-based or process music; what Adams took away from minimalism was tonality and/or modality, and the rhythmic energy from repetition.
Some of Adams’s compositions are an amalgamation of different styles. One example is Grand Pianola Music (1981-82), a humorous piece that purposely draws its content from musical cliches. In The Dharma at Big Sur, Adam’s draws from literary texts such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Henry Miller to illustrate the California landscape. Adams professes his love of other genres other than classical music; his parents were jazz musicians, and he has also listened to rock music, albeit only passively. Adams once claimed that originality wasn’t an urgent concern for him the way it was necessary for the minimalists, and compared his position to that of Gustav Mahler, J. S. Bach, and Johannes Brahms, who “were standing at the end of an era and were embracing all of the evolutions that occurred over the previous thirty to fifty years.”
Style and analysis
Adams, like other minimalists of his time (e.g. Philip Glass), used a steady pulse that defines and controls the music. The pulse was best known from Terry Riley’s early composition In C, and slowly more and more composers used it as a common practice. Jonathan Bernard highlighted this adoption by comparing Phrygian Gates, written in 1977, and Fearful Symmetries written eleven years later in 1988.
Violin Concerto, Mvt. III “Toccare”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Adams started to add a new character to his music, something he called “the Trickster.” The Trickster allowed Adams to use the repetitive style and rhythmic drive of minimalism, yet poke fun at it at the same time. When Adams commented on his own characterization of particular minimalist music, he stated that he went joyriding on “those Great Prairies of non-event.”
Oddly enough, his music of the 1990s slowly starts to incorporate it more and more to the point where one critic believes this slowly increasing incorporation of minimalism “represents a coming to terms with minimalism according to a decidedly tonal slant: pulse and repetition have been transmuted, by a kind of reverse-chronological alchemy, into devices of familiar from earlier eras, such as moto perpetuo and ostinato.” The third movement of the Violin Concerto, titled “Toccare”, portrays this transition.
Adams begins the movement with a repeated, scale-like eight-note melody in the violin and going into the second measure, it appears as if he will continue this, but instead of starting at the bottom again, the violin continues upward. From here, there are fewer instances of repletion and more moving up and down in a pulse like fashion. The orchestra on the other hand is more repetitive and pulse like: the left hand continually plays the high A and it is not until the 5th measure where another note is added, but the A continues to be played throughout always on the off beat. It is this pulsing A, played as an eighth note as opposed to a sixteenth note, that pokes fun at the minimalist, yet Adams still uses the pulse (i.e. alternating eighth notes between the right and left hand, creating a sixteenth note feeling) as an engine for the movement.
John Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for his 9/11 memorial piece, On the Transmigration of Souls. Response to his output as a whole has been more divided, and Adams’s works have been described as both brilliant and boring in reviews that stretch across both ends of the rating spectrum. Shaker Loops has been described as “hauntingly ethereal,” while 1999’s “Naive and Sentimental Music” has been called “an exploration of a marvelously extended spinning melody.” The New York Times called 1996’s Hallelujah Junction “a two-piano work played with appealingly sharp edges,” and 2001’s “American Berserk” “a short, volatile solo piano work.”
The most critically divisive pieces in Adams’s collection are his historical operas. While it is now easy to say that Nixon in China’s influential score spawned a new interest in opera, it was not always met with such laudatory and generous review. At first release, Nixon in China received mostly mixed if not negative press feedback. Donal Henahan, special to the New York Times, called the Houston Grand Opera world premiere of the work “worth a few giggles but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory” and “visually striking but coy and insubstantial.” James Wierzbicki for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Adams’s score as the weak point in an otherwise well-staged performance, noting the music as “inappropriately placid,” “cliche-ridden in the abstract” and ” heavily in Adams’s worn-out Minimalist clich’s.” With time, however, the opera has come to be revered as a great and influential production. Robert Hugill for Music and Vision called the production “astonishing nearly twenty years after its premier,” while City Beat’s Tom McElfresh called Nixon’s score “a character in the drama” and “too intricate, too detailed to qualify as minimalist.”
The attention surrounding The Death of Klinghoffer has been full of controversy, specifically in the New York Times reviews. After the 1991 premiere, reporter Edward Rothstein wrote that “Mr. Adams’s music has a seriously limited range.” Only a few days later, Allan Kozinn wrote an investigative report citing that Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, had “expressed their disapproval” of the opera in a statement saying “We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic.” In response to these accusations of anti-Semitism, composer and Oberlin College professor Conrad Cummings wrote a letter to the editor defending “Klinghoffer” as “the closest analogue to the experience of Bach’s audience attending his most demanding works,” and noted that, as someone of half-Jewish heritage, he “found nothing anti-Semitic about the work.” After the 2001 cancellation of performances of excerpts from “Klinghoffer” by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, debate has continued about the opera’s content and social worth. Prominent critic and noted musicologist Richard Taruskin called the work “anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-bourgeois.” Criticism continued when the production was released to DVD. In 2003, Edward Rothstein updated his stage review to a movie critique, writing “the film affirms two ideas now commonplace among radical critics of Israel: that Jews acted like Nazis, and that refugees from the Holocaust were instrumental in the founding of the state, visiting upon Palestinians the sins of others.”
2003’s The Dharma at Big Sur/ My Father Knew Charles Ives was well-received, particularly at Adams’s alma mater’s publication, the Harvard Crimson. In a four-star review, Harvard’s newspaper called the electric violin and orchestral concerto “Adams’s best composition of the past ten years.” Most recently, New York Times writer Anthony Tommasini commended Adams for his work conducting the American Composers Orchestra. The concert, which took place in April 2007 at Carnegie Hall, was a celebratory performance of Adams’s work on his sixtieth birthday. Tommasini called Adams a “skilled and dynamic conductor,” and noted that the music “was gravely beautiful yet restless.”
- (1987) Nixon in China
- (1991) The Death of Klinghoffer
- (1995) I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
- (2000) El Nico (opera-oratorio)
- (2005) Doctor Atomic
- (2006) A Flowering Tree
- (1979) Common Tones in Simple Time
- (1980) Harmonium
- (1983) Shaker Loops (version for string orchestra)
- (1985) Harmonielehre
- (1985) The Chairman Dances
- (1986) Tromba Lontana
- (1986) Short Ride in a Fast Machine
- (1988) Fearful Symmetries
- (1989) Eros Piano
- (1991) El Dorado
- (1993) Violin Concerto, winner of the 1995 Grawemeyer Award for Music composition
- (1995) Lollapalooza
- (1996) Slonimsky’s Earbox
- (1997) Century Rolls
- (1998) Naive and Sentimental Music
- (2001) Guide to Strange Places
- (2002) On the Transmigration of Souls
- (2003) My Father Knew Charles Ives
- (2003) The Dharma at Big Sur (for solo electric violin and orchestra)
- (2007) Doctor Atomic Symphony
- (2009) City Noir
- (2010) Absolute Jest
- (2013) Saxophone Concerto
- (2003/2013) The Dharma at Big Sur (version for cello and orchestra)
Voice and orchestra
- (1987) The Nixon Tapes
- (1989) The Wound-Dresser
- (1970) Piano Quintet
- (1978) Shaker Loops
- (1992) Chamber Symphony
- (1994) John’s Book of Alleged Dances
- (1995) Road Movies
- (1996) Gnarly Buttons
- (2007) Son of Chamber Symphony
- (2007) Fellow Traveler
- (2008) String Quartet
Other ensemble works
- (1973) American Standard
- (1973) Christian Zeal and Activity
- (1975) Grounding
- (1982) Grand Pianola Music
- (1996) Scratchband
- (2001) Nancy’s Fancy
- (1973) Ktaadn
- (1980) Harmonium
- (1991) Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer
- (2002) On the Transmigration of Souls
- (2011) The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Tape and electronic compositions
- (1970) Heavy Metal
- (1976) Studebaker Love Music
- (1976) Onyx
- (1983) Light Over Water
- (1993) Hoodoo Zephyr
- (1977) Phrygian Gates
- (1977) China Gates
- (1996) Hallelujah Junction
- (2001) American Berserk
- (1982) Matter of Heart
- (1999?) An American Tapestry
- (2010) I Am Love (Io sono l’amore) all existing pieces, no original compositions
- (1990) The Black Gondola (Liszt’s La Lugubre Gondola)
- (1991) Berceuse elegiaque (Busoni’s Berceuse elegiaque )
- (1993) Le Livre de Baudelaire (Debussy’s Cinq poemes de Charles Baudelaire)
- (1995) La Mufa (Piazzolla’s tango)
- (1996) Todo Buenos Aires (Piazzolla’s tango)
- (1989-93) Six Songs by Charles Ives (Ives’ songs)
Awards and recognition
Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for Nixon in China (1989)
Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Best Chamber Composition for Chamber Symphony (1994)
Grawemeyer Award in Musical Composition for Violin Concerto (1995)
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1997)
Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997)
Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for El Dorado (1998)
Pulitzer Prize for Music for On the Transmigration of Souls (2003)
Grammy Award for Best Classical Album for On the Transmigration of Souls (2005)
Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance for On the Transmigration of Souls (2005)
Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for On the Transmigration of Souls (2005)
Harvard Arts Medal (2007)
Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Northwestern University (2008)
Honorary Doctorate of Music from Harvard University (2012)
California Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts
Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts
Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters)
Many of his pieces are featured in the soundtrack of the strategy game Civilization IV, specifically when the player enters the modern era.