Born 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. Addresses: Home-- Berkeley, CA. Record company-- Elektra/Nonesuch, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
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.
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 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 honor's thesis--a remarkable event particularly in light of the roster of distinguished composers who had earned degrees there.
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 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, who, with the exception of Ashley, were not based in California but whose 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-seventies, 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 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 1980's Harmonium --a piece for huge chorus and orchestra set to texts by early 17th-century English poet John Donne and 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson--wrote, and continues to write, primarily for large performing forces.
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."
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 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.... 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 you're doing it. Adams succeeds with triumphant exuberance--and so 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. 1987's Nixon in China 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.
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 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."
Despite disagreement among critics and the public about his work, Adams's 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 composer's words prophetic.
by Joyce Harrison
John Adams's Career
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.
John Adams's Awards
Julius Stratton Prize, Friends of Switzerland, 1969; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1982; Grammy Award, 1987, for Nixon in China.
- Selective Works
- 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.
- 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.
- Matter of Heart (film score), 1982.
- Nixon in China (opera), 1987.
- The Death of Klinghoffer (opera), 1991.
- Baker's 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.
- 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.