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. Addresses: 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. 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."
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.
by Joyce Harrison and James M. Manheim
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; 10-CD Earbox career retrospective released, 1999; commissioned by New York Philharmonic Orchestra to compose On the Transmigration of Souls, 2002.
John Adams's 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- "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.