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John Adams (composer)

This article is about the California-based composer. For the Alaska-based composer, see John Luther Adams.

John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947) is an American composer with strong roots in minimalism.

His 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 a Pulitzer Prize in 2003), and Shaker Loops (1978), a minimalist four-movement work for strings. His 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.

The Death of Klinghoffer is an opera for which he wrote the music, based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the hijackers' murder of wheelchair-bound 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. The opera has drawn controversy, including allegations by some (including Klinghoffer's two daughters) that the opera is antisemitic and glorifies terrorism. The work's creators and others have disputed these criticisms.[1]

Life and career

Before 1977

John Coolidge Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947.[2][page needed] 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.[3]

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.[2][page needed] He earned two degrees from Harvard University (BA 1969, MA 1972). 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

Some works composed during this period include China Gates (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 (1984–85), 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 movements.

Harmonium for large orchestra and chorus (1980–81): The piece starts with quietly insistent repetitions of one note – D – and one syllable – "no".

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."[4]

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.[citation needed]

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.

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.

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

In October 2008, Adams told BBC Radio 3 that he had been blacklisted by the U.S. Homeland Security department and immigration services.[5]

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.

Chamber Symphony (1992): This piece was commissioned by the Gerbode Foundation of San Francisco for the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players.

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[6] as well as the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition.

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."

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.

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.

'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 Gospel According to the Other Mary (2011–13): An oratorio in two acts for orchestra, soloists and chorus, it premiered in May 2012 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The revised version, in the work's staged premiere, occurred in February 2013 again with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and directed by Peter Sellars.

Scheherazade.2 (2015): A dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra. The World Premiere for this work took place on March 26, 2015 at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City and was performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert, and violinist Leila Josefowicz.[7]

Musical style

The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist although in interview he has categorised himself 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 ten years 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.[8]

Many of Adams's ideas in composition are a reaction to the philosophy of serialism and its depictions of "the composer as scientist."[9] 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."[10][page needed]

Adams experienced a musical epiphany after reading John Cage's book Silence (1973), which he claimed "dropped into [his] psyche like a time bomb."[11] Cage 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.[12]

File:Phrygian Gates, mm 21-40.JPG
John Adams, Phrygian Gates, mm 21–40 (1977)

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."[13][page needed]

Style and analysis

File:Fearful symmetries.JPG
John Adams, Fearful Symmetries, mm 197–202 (1988)

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.[14]

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.[citation needed] When Adams commented on his own characterization of particular minimalist music, he stated that he went joyriding on "those Great Prairies of non-event."[15]

File:John Adams Violin Concerto, III.JPG
John Adams, Violin Concerto, III "Toccare" (1993)

Critical reception

Adams won the annual American Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003 for his 9/11 memorial piece, On the Transmigration of Souls.[6] 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 "Naïve and Sentimental Music" has been called "an exploration of a marvelously extended spinning melody."[16] 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."[17]

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 reviews. 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."[18] 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," "cliché-ridden in the abstract" and "[trafficked] heavily in Adams's worn-out Minimalist clichés."[19] 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,"[20] while City Beat's Tom McElfresh called Nixon's score "a character in the drama" and "too intricate, too detailed to qualify as minimalist."[21]

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."[22] 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."[23]

Klinghoffer controversy

The attention surrounding The Death of Klinghoffer has been full of controversy, and the opera has been alleged to be antisemitic, including by the Klinghoffer family.[24] After the 1991 premiere, reporter Edward Rothstein wrote that "Mr. Adams's music has a seriously limited range."[25]

Leon Klinghoffer's daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, after attending the opera, released 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."[26] In response to these accusations of antisemitism, 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."[27]

After the 2001 cancellation of performances of excerpts from Klinghoffer by the Boston Symphony Orchestra,[28] debate 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, critic and composer 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."[29]

First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams wrote in October 2014 that, though there were no First Amendment issues: "the killers ... chose to commit their crime. So did Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Osama bin Laden. We can expect no arias to be sung in their defense at the Metropolitan Opera, and there is no justification for any to be sung for the Klinghoffer killers."[30]

Former New York City mayor and opera fan Rudy Giuliani wrote that while the Met had a First Amendment right to present the opera, "Equally, all of us have as strong a First Amendment right to ... warn people that this work is both a distortion of history and helped, in some ways, to foster a three decade long feckless policy of creating a moral equivalency between the Palestinian Authority, a corrupt terrorist organization, and the state of Israel, a democracy ruled by law."[31] American writer and feminist Phyllis Chesler, an opera aficionado, conceded the legal and artistic right to perform the opera, but claimed that it "beatifies terrorism, both musically and in the libretto."[32]</blockquote>

In support of the production, Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater said: "It is not only permissible for the Met to do this piece – it's required for the Met to do the piece. It is a powerful and important opera."[33]

Comments related to brutality towards women

On March 26, 2015, before a performance of the New York Philharmonic Adams took to a microphone and spoke to the audience, speaking of brutality towards women around the world and how you can also "find it on Rush Limbaugh."[34][35][36]

List of works



Voice and orchestra

Chamber music

Other ensemble works

Choral works

Tape and electronic compositions


Film scores



Awards and recognition

Personal life

Adams' son is the composer Samuel Carl Adams.[42]



  1. ^ Cooper, Michael. "Klinghoffer Protesters Flock to Met Opera House". The New York Times. Retrieved October 20, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Warrack and West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
  3. ^ "CONCORD HIGH SCHOOL NOTABLES". Concord High School. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  4. ^ Adams, John. Program Note, Grand Pianola Music Full Score, Associated Music Publishers, 1982.
  5. ^ Thorpe, Vanessa. "I'm Blacklisted, says Opera Maestro: Composer John Adams Accuses US of Paranoia and Says its Security Forces are Following Him." The Observer. October 19, 2008. . Retrieved February 10, 2009.
  6. ^ a b c "Music". Retrieved September 22, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ "John Adams on Harmonium". Earbox.xom. Retrieved September 22, 2014. 
  9. ^ Thomas May, pp. 7–10.
  10. ^ Michael Broyles, Mavericks and other traditions in American music, Yale University Press, 2004; ISBN 0-300-10045-0, ISBN 978-0-300-10045-7
  11. ^ K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists, p. 175.
  12. ^ Elliott Schwartz, Daniel Godfrey Music since 1945: issues, materials, and literature, Schirmer Books, 1993, pp. 336; ISBN 0-02-873040-2, ISBN 978-0-02-873040-0
  13. ^ K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists.
  14. ^ Jonathan W. Bernard, "Minimalism, Postminimalism, and the Resurgence of Tonality in Recent American Music" Journal of American Music, Spring 2003, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 112–33.
  15. ^ Heisinger, Brent. "American Minimalism in the 1980s." American Music. Winter 1989. . Retrieved February 10, 2009.
  16. ^ "Long Ride in a Stalled Machine.". Retrieved September 22, 2014. 
  17. ^ Kozinn, Allan. "Beyond Minimalism: The Later Works of John Adams." New York Times. March 23, 2005 . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  18. ^ Henahan, Donal. "Opera: Nixon in China." The New York Times. October 24, 1987 . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  19. ^ Wierzbicki, James. "John Adams: Nixon in China." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. December 6, 1992
  20. ^ Hugill, Robert. "Ensemble: A Mythic Story: Nixon in China." Music & Vision. July 2, 2006.
  21. ^ McElfresh, Tom. "Nixon in China: John Adams' Score Highlights Marvelous Production." City Beat (Cincinnati). July 14, 2007. . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  22. ^ Lin, Eric W. "CD Review: John Adams, The Dharma at Big Sur/ My Father Knew Charles Ives. The Harvard Crimson. October 19, 2006. . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  23. ^ Tommasini, Anthony. "Doing Everything but Playing the Music." The New York Times. April 30, 2007 . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  24. ^ Edward Rothstein (1991-09-15). "Klinghoffer Sinks Into Minimal Sea". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-23. 
  25. ^ Rothstein, Edward. "Review/Opera: Seeking Symmetry Between Palestinians and Jews." The New York Times. September 7, 1991. . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  26. ^ Kozinn, Allan. "Klinghoffer Daughters Protest Opera." The New York Times. September 11, 1991 . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  27. ^ Cummings, Conrad. Letter to the Editor: "What the Opera Klinghoffer Achieves." The New York Times. September 27, 1991. . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  28. ^ National Briefing | Mid-Atlantic: Massachusetts: "Symphony Cancels Klinghoffer." The New York Times. November 2, 2001
  29. ^ Rothstein, Edward. "Images of Evil's Flowering Disagree About Its Roots." The New York Times. May 13, 2003 . Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  30. ^ Floyd Abrams (October 15, 2014). "Floyd Abrams: Klinghoffer and the 'Two Sides' of Terrorism". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 21, 2014. 
  31. ^ "Rudy Giuliani: Why I Protested The Death of Klinghoffer". The Daily Beast. Retrieved October 21, 2014. 
  32. ^ "Betrayal in the Metropolitan Opera Production of the Death of Klinghoffer". Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  33. ^ "Protests Greet Metropolitan Opera's Premiere of Klinghoffer". Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  34. ^ Jay Nordlinger (2015-03-26). "A Sick and Twisted Culture". Retrieved 2015-04-04. 
  35. ^ Anthony Tommasini (2015-03-27). "Review: John Adams Unveils 'Scheherazade.2,' an Answer to Male Brutality". Retrieved 2015-04-04. 
  36. ^ Zoe Madonna (2015-03-27). "Violinist Josefowicz Shines in a Modern Scheherazade". Retrieved 2015-04-04. 
  37. ^ "1995- John Adams". 
  38. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 1, 2011. 
  39. ^ "Current Members". American Association of Arts and Letters. Retrieved April 1, 2011. 
  40. ^ "Harvard Arts medal". Thecrimson.como. Retrieved September 22, 2014. 
  41. ^ "Eight receive honorary degrees". Harvard News Office. Retrieved May 24, 2012. 
  42. ^ MacNamara, Mark. "Samuel Adams' Big Break". 2010. San Francisco Classical Voice. Retrieved 6 September 2013. 


  • Broyles, Michael. Mavericks and Other Traditions in American music. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-300-10045-0
  • "John Adams" Butterworth, Neil, Dictionary of American Classical Composers. 2nd ed. New York and London: Rouledge, 2005. ISBN 0-415-93848-1
  • Daines, Matthew. "The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams", American Music Vol. 16, No. 3 (Autumn 1998), pp. 356–358. [review]
  • Heisinger, Brent. "American Minimalism in the 1980s", American Music Vol. 7, No. 4 (Winter 1989), pp. 430–447.
  • May, Thomas (ed.). The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Amadeus, 2006. ISBN 1-57467-132-4
  • Richardson, John. "John Adams: A Portrait and a Concert of American Music", American Music Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring 2005), pp. 131–133. [review]
  • Rimer, J. Thomas. "Nixon in China by John Adams", American Music Vol. 12, No. 3 (Autumn 1994), pp. 338–341. [review]
  • Schwartz, Elliott, and Daniel Godfrey. Music Since 1945: Issues, Materials, and Literature. New York: Schirmer Books; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993. ISBN 0-02-873040-2
  • Schwarz, K. Robert. "Process vs. Intuition in the Recent Works of Steve Reich and John Adams", American Music Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn 1990), pp. 245–273.
  • Schwarz, K. Robert. Minimalists. London: Phaidon Press Inc., 1996. ISBN 0-7148-3381-9. Reprinted 2008, ISBN 0-7148-4773-9
  • Warrack, John, and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
  • ‘Klinghoffer’: An Opera and a Protest September 22, 2014

Further reading

External links

Specific operas

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