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Music Memories: John Adams

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
John Adams, American composer works on his composition.
Photo: Margaretta Mitchell

John Adams was born on February 15, 1947. Adams is one of America’s most popular classical composers, best known for his operas and orchestral music.

Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and grew up in various New England towns. He began composing at the age of ten and studied composition at Harvard.

After receiving his master’s degree in 1972, Adams moved to San Francisco, where he taught composition and directed the New Music Ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a position he held until 1984. The first recording of an Adams composition was in 1975 when his American Standard was recorded. The piece is quite different from Adams’ later style; it has significant elements of chance, such that no two performances are ever quite the same, and is written to be played by any ensemble of instruments. Adams later withdrew the work from publication; today, only the second movement, “Christian Zeal and Activity,” is performed.

2 John Adams album covers

In 1977 and 1978, Adams wrote two piano works that he describes as making up his “opus one.” China Gates and Phrygian Gates are his “first coherent statements in a new language.” That new language was minimalism.

Minimalism was, in part, a reaction to the increasing complexity of classical music in the early 20th century. It’s generally marked by a strong rhythmic pulse, bright timbres and relatively simple harmonies, and repetition of short melodic ideas. The elements of the piece transform slowly, in small ways – a note added to a melodic cell, a slight alteration of a chord, the addition of a new instrument.

Adams continued in a similar style with Shaker Loops, a 1978 piece for string ensemble. In 1981, he premiered his first major orchestral work, Harmonium, a setting for chorus and orchestra of poems by Emily Dickinson and John Donne. The piece was given its first performance by the San Francisco Symphony, where Adams served as composer-in-residence from 1982 to 1985. His time in that job ended with the premiere of Harmonielehre (German for “study of harmony”), in which he began to expand his musical style beyond the strict confines of minimalism, with harmonies that felt more like the late 19th century.

In 1983, director Peter Sellars approached Adams about writing his first opera. Sellars’ proposed toxic was the 1972 visit by President Richard Nixon to China. Adams was reluctant at first, assuming that Sellars wanted to treat the topic satirically, and thinking that “by 1983, Nixon had become the stuff of bad, predictable comedy routines.” As it became clear that Sellars had something more serious in mind, Adams became more interested, and along with Alice Goodman, who had been brought into the project as the librettist, they began to research the trip.

The result premiered in 1987. Nixon in China was initially met with mixed critical reviews, but as more opera companies have performed it over the last thirty years, its reputation has grown, and it is now considered one of the most important American operas.

Adams, Sellars, and Goodman followed Nixon in China with another opera based in recent history—the harshest critics derided them as “CNN operas” or “docu-operas”—and this one proved even more controversial. The Death of Klinghoffer was based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists, who murdered one of the passengers, Leon Klinghoffer.

The opera immediately faced charges of anti-Semitism and pro-terrorism; Adams and his co-creators insisted that while the opera attempted to present the historical context of the Israel/Palestine conflict in an evenhanded fashion, they were clearly not supporting the terrorist events or the murder of Klinghoffer. Performances of the opera have routinely met with protests and picketing, and some of the organizations that commissioned the opera, including the Los Angeles Festival, canceled their scheduled performances. When the Metropolitan Opera first performed Klinghoffer in 2014, they cancelled the scheduled broadcasts to movie theaters.

Adams and Sellars have collaborated on three more operas. In 2005, they turned to history again for Doctor Atomic, about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb. A Flowering Tree, in 2006, departed from history for a story based on an Indian folktale. And 2017’s Girls of the Golden West tells the stories of women during the California Gold Rush.

Adams has written several other staged musical works. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky is built around the 1994 Northridge earthquake (the title comes from a newspaper interview with someone who lived through it), and Adams describes it as a “Broadway-style show,” written to be performed by musical theater singers instead of opera singers. The oratorios El Niño, a nativity story, and The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the life of Jesus from the point of view of Mary Magdalene, draw on a wide range of texts, including not only the Bible, but philosophers, social activists, and Latin American poets.

In the 1990s, Adams wrote his first concertos. His 1995 Violin Concerto was awarded the Grawemeyer Award, one of the most prestigious awards for classical composition. The title of Adams’s first piano concerto, Century Rolls, refers to player piano rolls, and Adams says that the piece is a reaction to the last century of piano music.

On the Transmigration of Souls
Adams, John

Adams received the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his choral/orchestral work On the Transmigration of Souls, which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He has described the piece as a “memory space,” a term that he prefers to “memorial” or “requiem.”

In 1999, Adams began a long relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has commissioned and premiered several of his works. Adams’ Los Angeles premieres include the orchestral works Naive and Sentimental Music and City Noir, the latter influenced by jazz and 1950s film noir. The concerto for electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur was written for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003; and Adams’ most recent major work was the piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, which debuted at Disney Hall last year.

While there are still elements of minimalism in Adams’s recent music, his style, and musical vocabulary have broadened significantly from his earliest pieces. He has described himself as a “post-style” composer and sees himself as “embracing all of the evolutions that occurred over the previous thirty to fifty years.”

In 2009, Adams was appointed Creative Chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in that role, he has been heavily involved in programming the Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concerts, which are devoted to new and modern music.

Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life
Adams, John

Adams’s memoir is called Hallelujah Junction. More of his music is available for streaming or download at Hoopla and Freegal. Note that there are several other musicians named John Adams—a folksinger, a performer of ambient music, and another classical composer who uses his full name, John Luther Adams, to distinguish himself.