John Adams


Born: February 15, 1947; Wooster, MA, USA  
Born in Massachusetts in 1947, composer John Adams was raised in Vermont and New Hampshire. Nothing in his classic New England training or early career suggested he would become affiliated with or brilliantly expand the once controversial musical language of minimalism. At the age of 10 he began studying clarinet, music theory, and composition. He attended Harvard University, financing composition studies with Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici, Read more and Roger Sessions by appearing as a clarinetist with the Boston Symphony. He finished his master's degree at Harvard in 1971. Disillusioned with the East Coast academic scene, he took a job that year as head of the composition department at the San Francisco Conservatory, a position he held until 1981. In California he came under the influence of minimalist pioneer Steve Reich and sought out the music of the previous generation of experimentalists such as John Cage and Morton Feldman. Adams founded a series of New and Unusual Music concerts with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and from 1983 to 1985 served as its first composer-in-residence.

By that time, Adams was well on his way to becoming among the most influential and widely performed American composers since Copland. In early works, such as Phrygian Gates (1977) for piano and Common Tones in Simple Time (1979) for orchestra, Adams' musical language was most heavily influenced by the stripped-down harmonic palette and motoric pulse of minimalism. Even in these works, Adams' trademark rhythmic vigor and sense of large-scale architecture were already in evidence, and a lively humor rooted in juxtapositions of borrowed styles proved a consistent crowd-pleaser. The wild stylistic clashes of Grand Pianola Music (1982) provoked sharp critical disagreements in just the thing to benefit a young composer's career. Adams' affinity with the orchestra and his ability to fill a large canvas became fully apparent with Harmonielehre (1985), a work that fuses motoric repetitions, harmonic conciseness, and lush, textured emotionalism. Other Adams compositions of this period that continue to find places on symphony programs are the exhilarating overture Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) and the chugging, machine-like Fearful Symmetries (1988).

Adams really seized public attention with his stage works, however, and some consider his operas his most important contributions to musical literature. He tended to rip his subjects out of the headlines and of recent American history, with sometimes controversial results. The operas Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990-1991), the latter set amidst a terrorist attack, elicited both praise and controversy. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995) followed a diverse group of Angelenos in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. His large-scale song The Wound-Dresser (1988), set to Walt Whitman's war poetry, demonstrated great emotional depth and development. Through the 1990s, Adams continued to draw on increasingly diverse sources of musical inspiration, from the electronics of Hoodoo Zephyr (1992) to cartoon music in the Chamber Symphony (1992) to the old-time American music of John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994). In 1995, Adams received music composition's most lucrative honor, the Grawemeyer Prize, for his Violin Concerto. His music was frequently recorded, generally on the Nonesuch label. Adams has also been active as a conductor, championing challenging twentieth century works by composers such as Conlon Nancarrow and Frank Zappa.

In the new millennium, Adams continued to compose music addressing major national and international events. El Nińo, an oratorio on the subject of the birth of Jesus, marked the turn of the millennium itself. This multimedia work, originally presented by the San Francisco Symphony, featured a silent film and on-stage dancing in conjunction with the music, and the movement of the vocal soloists was also choreographed. Adams faced perhaps his most difficult commission in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: On the Transmigration of Souls, for adult and children's choirs, orchestra, and taped sounds, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered on September 19, 2002, and issued on the Nonesuch label the following year. With its readings of the names of survivors and of passages from the missing-persons posters that appeared around New York in the immediate wake of the attack, mixed with quotations from Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, the work, in Adams' words, sought "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." On the Transmigration of Souls earned Adams the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2003.

By the mid-2000s, Adams seemed almost an unofficial American composer laureate, and he continued to address major themes of American culture in his next major work, Doctor Atomic. An opera based on the life and career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead designer of the U.S. atomic bomb, it spawned an instrumental Doctor Atomic Symphony. Another opera, A Flowering Tree, merged ideas from Mozart's The Magic Flute, including its themes of moral transcendence, with those from a southern Indian folktale; the work was commissioned for performance in an Austrian Mozart celebration, and Adams' fame was becoming increasingly international. Adams remained active and in high demand in the late 2000s. His string quartet Fellow Traveler, in honor of his chief theatrical collaborator, director Peter Sellars, was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. Read less
American Classics - Adams: Shaker Loops, Etc / Alsop, Gunn, Et Al
Release Date: 10/19/2004   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559031   Number of Discs: 1
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American Classics - Adams: Violin Concerto, Etc / Hanslip
Release Date: 09/26/2006   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559302   Number of Discs: 1
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American Classics - John Adams: Complete Piano Music
Release Date: 02/27/2007   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8559285   Number of Discs: 1
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Adams: Nixon In China / Alsop, Orth, DeDominici, Colorado Symphony Orchestra
Release Date: 10/27/2009   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8669022-24   Number of Discs: 3
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Browse 1-25 of 130 Available Recordings
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  • 1.
    Adams: Absolute Jest & Naive and Sentimental Music / Oundjian, Royal Scottish National Orchestra
    Label: Chandos   Catalog: 5199 Release Date: 05/04/2018   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Conductor:  Peter Oundjian
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra,  Doric String Quartet
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  • 2.
    John Adams: American Berserk
    Label: Cybele Records   Catalog: CF 003 Release Date: 01/12/2018   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Axel Hess,  Liviu Neagu-Gruber,  Jens Brockmann,  Michael Hablitzel
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  • 3.
    John Adams Edition / Berliner Philharmoniker
    Label: Berlin Philharmonic   Catalog: 170141 Release Date: 11/17/2017   Number of Discs: 6
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Leila Josefowicz,  Georg Nigl,  Nathan Medley,  Daniel Bubeck  ... 
    Conductor:  John Adams,  Alan Gilbert,  Gustavo Dudamel,  Kirill Petrenko  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,  Berlin Radio Symphony Chorus
    CD: $118.99
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  • 4.
    Music for Mindfulness / Various
    Label: Verve   Catalog: 4832355 Release Date: 11/17/2017   Number of Discs: 3
    Composer:  Debbie Wiseman,  Ola Gjeilo,  Olafur Arnalds,  Luke Howard  ... 
    Performer:  Olafur Arnalds,  Alice Rickards,  Alister Barker,  Luke Howard  ... 
    Conductor:  Eric Whitacre,  Paul Mealor,  Stevie Wishart,  Nigel Short  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Music Lab Collective,  Tenebrae,  Chamber Orchestra of London  ... 
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  • 5.
    Paradigm Lost / Prism Quartet
    Label: Prism Quartet - Xas Records   Catalog: 103 Release Date: 09/22/2017   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Lee Hyla,  John Adams,  David Rakowski,  Bernard Rands  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Prism Quartet
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  • 6.
    Prelude, Fugue & Riffs / Nix, Columbus State University Wind Ensemble
    Label: Summit Records   Catalog: 704 Release Date: 08/04/2017  
    Composer:  John Mackey,  Donald Grantham,  John Adams,  Roger Zare  ... 
    Conductor:  Jamie Nix
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Columbus State University Wind Ensemble
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  • 7.
    Korngold & Adams: Violin Concertos / Gringolts, Salemkour, Rouvali, Copenhagen Philharmonic
    Label: Orchid Classics   Catalog: 100066 Release Date: 04/28/2017   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams,  Erich Wolfgang Korngold
    Performer:  Ilya Gringolts
    Conductor:  Santtu-Matias Rouvali,  Julien Salemkour
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra
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  • 8.
    Mind Music / Barlow, Jordan, Marsh, Northern Chamber Orchestra
    Label: Divine Art   Catalog: 25138 Release Date: 04/21/2017   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Felix Mendelssohn,  Richard Strauss,  John Adams,  Kevin Malone
    Performer:  Lynsey Marsh,  Elizabeth Jordan
    Conductor:  Stephen Barlow
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Northern Chamber Orchestra
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  • 9.
    Concerti III / GrauSchumacher Piano Duo
    Label: Neos   Catalog: 21703 Release Date: 02/24/2017  
    Composer:  Francis Poulenc,  Colin McPhee,  John Adams
    Conductor:  Brad Lubman
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin,  GrauSchumacher Piano Duo,  Trio Mediaeval
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  • 10.
    Harris & Adams: Violin Concertos / Waley-Cohen, Litton, BBC Symphony
    Label: Signum Classics   Catalog: 468 Release Date: 10/14/2016   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams,  Roy Harris
    Performer:  Tamsin Waley-Cohen
    Conductor:  Andrew Litton
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  • 11.
    My First Classical Albums
    Label: Naxos   Catalog: 8509003 Release Date: 10/14/2016   Number of Discs: 9
    Composer:  Gioachino Rossini,  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky,  Antonio Vivaldi,  John Adams  ... 
    Performer:  Takako Nishizaki,  Jénö Jandó,  Jürgen Schuster,  Idil Biret  ... 
    Conductor:  Michael Halász,  Stephen Gunzenhauser,  Marin Alsop,  Keith Clark  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Éder String Quartet,  Danubius String Quartet,  German Wind Soloists  ... 
    CD: $48.99
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  • 12.
    Adams: Scheherazade.2 / Josefowicz, Robertson, St. Louis Symphony
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 557170 Release Date: 09/30/2016  
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Leila Josefowicz
    Conductor:  David Robertson
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
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  • 13.
    So Many Things / Anne Sofie von Otter, Brooklyn Rider
    Label: Naive   Catalog: 5436 Release Date: 09/30/2016   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams,  Bjork,  Kate Bush,  Elvis Costello  ... 
    Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Brooklyn Rider
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  • 14.
    Label: Infine   Catalog: 1038 Release Date: 09/30/2016   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Cage,  Arvo Pärt,  Aphex Twin,  György Ligeti  ... 
    Performer:  Vanessa Wagner,  Murcof
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  • 15.
    American Classics
    Label: Warner Classics   Catalog: 556702 Release Date: 08/26/2016   Number of Discs: 6
    Composer:  George Gershwin,  Leonard Bernstein,  Samuel Barber,  Erich Wolfgang Korngold  ... 
    Performer:  Wayne Marshall,  Peter Donohoe,  Hélčne Grimaud,  Sabine Meyer  ... 
    Conductor:  Wayne Marshall,  Simon Rattle,  David Zinman,  Paavo Järvi  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Aalborg Symphony Orchestra,  London Sinfonietta,  Baltimore Symphony Orchestra  ... 
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  • 16.
    125 Years of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
    Label: Chandos   Catalog: 241 Release Date: 06/24/2016   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Richard Wagner,  Hamish MacCunn,  Carl Nielsen,  George Enescu  ... 
    Performer:  Felicity Lott,  Lydia Mordkovitch
    Conductor:  Neeme Järvi,  Sir Alexander Gibson,  Bryden Thomson,  Matthias Bamert  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra,  Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus
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  • 17.
    Maximum, Minimum, Modern / Cho
    Label: Albany Records   Catalog: 1617 Release Date: 03/08/2016   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Corigliano,  Michael Ippolito,  John Adams,  Lowell Liebermann  ... 
    Performer:  Sung-Soo Cho
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  • 18.
    Visions / Christina & Michelle Naughton
    Label: Warner Classics   Catalog: 554296 Release Date: 02/26/2016   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Olivier Messiaen,  Johann Sebastian Bach,  John Adams
    Performer:  Christina Naughton,  Michelle Naughton
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  • 19.
    Contemporary American Operas
    Label: Opus Arte   Catalog: OA 1179BD Release Date: 11/13/2015   Number of Discs: 4
    Composer:  Leonard Bernstein,  John Adams,  Philip Glass
    Performer:  Karl Daymond,  Stephanie Novacek,  Eric Owens,  Thomas Glenn  ... 
    Conductor:  Paul Daniel,  Lawrence Renes,  Dennis Russell Davies
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of London Sinfonia,  Netherlands Opera Chorus,  Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra  ... 
    CD: $39.99
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  • 20.
    The History of Classical Music in 24 Hours
    Label: Dg Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog: 002403602 Release Date: 11/13/2015   Number of Discs: 24
    Composer:  Anonymous,  Pérotin,  Guillaume de Machaut,  John Dunstable  ... 
    Performer:  Konrad Ragossnig,  Charles [Tenor Vocals] Daniels,  Susan Gritton,  Trevor Pinnock  ... 
    Conductor:  Pater Godehard Joppich,  David Munrow,  Josef Ulsamer,  Bruno Turner  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Early Music Consort of London,  Ulsamer-Collegium,  Pro Cantione Antiqua  ... 
    CD: $75.49
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  • 21.
    Introductions: The Wind Orchestra
    Label: Mark Records   Catalog: 50916 Release Date: 10/09/2015   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Shelley Hanson,  Paul Creston,  Alfred Reed,  Eric Whitacre  ... 
    Performer:  Mario Bernardo,  Jeanie [Soprano Vocal] Darnell
    Conductor:  Rod M. Chesnutt,  Troy V. Jones
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  • 22.
    The CBSO Years / Rattle
    Label: Warner Classics   Catalog: 552758 Release Date: 10/09/2015   Number of Discs: 52
    Composer:  Leos Janácek,  Benjamin Britten,  Kurt Weill,  Ralph Vaughan Williams  ... 
    Performer:  Felicity Palmer,  Ameral Gunson,  John Mitchinson,  Malcolm King  ... 
    Conductor:  Simon Rattle
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,  City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus,  Christ Church Cathedral Choir Men and Boys  ... 
    CD: $126.99
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  • 23.
    Adams: Absolute Jest, Grand Pianola Music / Thomas
    Label: San Francisco Symphony   Catalog: 63 Release Date: 08/21/2015   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Marc-André Hamelin,  Orli Shaham
    Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas,  John Adams
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra,  St. Lawrence String Quartet,  Synergy Vocals
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  • 24.
    American Intersections
    Label: Twopianists (Label)   Catalog: 1039220 Release Date: 08/14/2015   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Samuel Barber,  Aaron Copland,  Frederic Rzewski,  John Adams  ... 
    Performer:  Luis Magalhaes,  Nina Schumann
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  • 25.
    Powerhouse Pianists, Vol. 2: Works For Two Pianos
    Label: American Modern Recordings   Catalog: 1039 Release Date: 03/31/2015   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Robert Paterson,  Doug Opel,  Amanda Harberg,  Mary Ellen Childs  ... 
    Performer:  Stephen Gosling,  Blair McMillen
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