John Adams

Biography

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
Rzewski: Four Pieces;  Adams: Phrygian Gates / Arciuli
Release Date: 08/08/2006   Label: Stradivarius  
Catalog: 33735   Number of Discs: 1
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Browse 1-25 of 120 Available Recordings
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  • 1.
    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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  • 2.
    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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  • 3.
    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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  • 4.
    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  ... 
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  • 5.
    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,  Hamburger Bläserkreis für Alte Musik  ... 
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  • 6.
    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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  • 7.
    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  ... 
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  • 8.
    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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  • 9.
    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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  • 10.
    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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  • 11.
    Road Trip / Aurora Orchestra
    Label: Warner Classics   Catalog: 632791 Release Date: 01/13/2015   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Aaron Copland,  John Adams,  Charles Ives,  Traditional  ... 
    Performer:  Sam Amidon,  Dawn Landes
    Conductor:  Nicholas Collon
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Aurora Orchestra
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  • 12.
    Liszt Inspections
    Label: Kairos   Catalog: 13292 Release Date: 01/01/2015   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Franz Liszt,  Friedrich Cerha,  Kurt Weill,  György Ligeti  ... 
    Performer:  Marino Formenti
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  • 13.
    Label: Milan   Catalog: 36708 Release Date: 12/02/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Anton Bruckner,  Vasily Kalinnikov,  Hanan Townshend,  Anonymous  ... 
    Performer:  Brit Marling
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  • 14.
    Road Movies - Adams, Part, Lysight  / Duo Gemini
    Label: Pavane   Catalog: 7562 Release Date: 09/09/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams,  Arvo Pärt,  Michel Lysight
    Performer:  Jean-Noël Remiche,  Jean-Frédéric Molard
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Gemini
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  • 15.
    Cognisance: The Piano Music Of Glass, Adams, Part, Cage & Helisck
    Label: Helisek Publishing   Catalog: 239 Release Date: 07/08/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams,  Philip Glass,  Arvo Pärt,  John Cage  ... 
    Performer:  Timothy A. Helisek
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  • 16.
    Mendelssohn, Adams: Violin Concertos / Jarvi, Hoopes,  Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra
    Label: Naive   Catalog: 5368 Release Date: 05/27/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Felix Mendelssohn,  John Adams
    Performer:  Chad Hoopes
    Conductor:  Kristjan Järvi
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Middle German Radio Symphony Orchestra
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  • 17.
    John Adams: City Noir / Mcallister, Robertson, St. Louis Symphony
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 541356 Release Date: 05/06/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Timothy McAllister
    Conductor:  David Robertson
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
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  • 18.
    Road 66 / Shani Diluka, Natalie Dessay
    Label: Mirare   Catalog: 237 Release Date: 04/08/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams,  Keith Jarrett,  Percy Aldridge Grainger,  Samuel Barber  ... 
    Performer:  Shani Diluka,  Natalie Dessay
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  • 19.
    Adams: Gospel According to the Other Mary / Dudamel
    Label: Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog: 002003402 Release Date: 03/11/2014   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Russell Thomas,  Tamara Mumford,  Kelley O'Connor,  Daniel Bubeck  ... 
    Conductor:  Gustavo Dudamel
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Los Angeles Master Chorale,  Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
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  • 20.
    American Grace - Piano Music From Steven Mackey & John Adams / Orli Shaham
    Label: Canary Classics   Catalog: 11 Release Date: 02/25/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams,  Steven Mackey
    Performer:  Orli Shaham,  Jon Kimura Parker
    Conductor:  David Robertson
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  • 21.
    Composing America / Lark Quartet
    Label: Bridge   Catalog: 9423 Release Date: 02/11/2014   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams,  William Bolcom,  Aaron Copland,  Paul Moravec
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lark String Quartet
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  • 22.
    La Folie Americaine! - Dvorak, Gershwin, Bernstein, Barber, Copland, Glass, Adams
    Label: Erato   Catalog: 2564634485 Release Date: 02/11/2014   Number of Discs: 3
    Composer:  George Gershwin,  Samuel Barber,  Philip Glass,  Aaron Copland  ... 
    Performer:  André Previn,  Hélčne Grimaud,  Richard Rodney Bennett,  Dame Kiri Te Kanawa  ... 
    Conductor:  André Previn,  David Zinman,  John McGlinn,  Simon Rattle  ... 
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  • 23.
    Adams: Harmonielehre; Doctor Atomic Symphony; Short Ride in a Fast Machine
    Label: Chandos   Catalog: 5129 Release Date: 11/19/2013   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Conductor:  Peter Oundjian
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra
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  • 24.
    Adams: El Nino / Nagano, Upshaw, Hunt Lieberson, White
    Label: Arthaus Musik   Catalog: 101669 Release Date: 10/29/2013   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Dawn Upshaw,  Willard White,  Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
    Conductor:  Kent Nagano
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
    DVD: $29.99
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  • 25.
    Yarlung Records: The First Seven Years
    Label: Yarlung Records   Catalog: 96821 Release Date: 08/27/2013   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Gaspar Sanz,  Jason Barabba,  Gustav Mahler,  Witold Lutoslawski  ... 
    Performer:  Sasha Cooke,  David Fung,  Elinor Frey,  Badal Roy  ... 
    Conductor:  Yehuda Gilad
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ciaramella,  Janaki String Trio,  Smoke & Mirrors
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