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 Niño, 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
Browse 1-12 of 12 Available Recordings
  • 1.
    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
    On sale! $27.98
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  • 2.
    Adams: Nixon In China / John Adams, Metropolitan Opera [DVD & Blu-ray]
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 532291 Release Date: 11/19/2012   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Russell Braun,  Robert Brubaker,  Janis Kelly,  James Maddalena  ... 
    Conductor:  John Adams
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
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    Blu-ray Video: $26.99
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  • 3.
    Anthology Of The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Vol 6 - Live Radio Recordings 1990-2000
    Label: Rco Live   Catalog: 11004 Release Date: 10/11/2011   Number of Discs: 14
    Composer:  Béla Bartók,  Ludwig van Beethoven,  Luciano Berio,  Hector Berlioz  ... 
    Performer:  Ildiko Komlósi,  Kolos Kovacs,  Martha Argerich,  Ann Murray  ... 
    Conductor:  Iván Fischer,  Claus Peter Flor,  Wolfgang Sawallisch,  Luciano Berio  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra,  Swingle Singers,  Netherlands Radio Women's Chorus
    Recommendation
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    CD: $189.99
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  • 4.
    Adams: Son Of Chamber Symphony; String Quartet / International Contemporary Ensemble, St. Lawrence String Quartet
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 523014 Release Date: 05/31/2011   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Conductor:  John Adams
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  International Contemporary Ensemble,  St. Lawrence String Quartet
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  • 5.
    John Adams: Hallelujah Junction - A Nonesuch Retrospective
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 512396 Release Date: 10/07/2008   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Jessica Rivera,  Dawn Upshaw,  Kari Tenkanen,  Hannu Rantanen  ... 
    Conductor:  John Adams,  Kent Nagano,  Edo De Waart,  Esa-Pekka Salonen
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra,  Schola Cantorum De Venezuela,  Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin  ... 
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  • 6.
    Adams: A Flowering Tree / Adams, Rivera, Thomas, Owens
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 327110 Release Date: 09/23/2008   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Jessica Rivera,  Russell Thomas,  Eric Owens
    Conductor:  John Adams
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra,  Schola Cantorum De Venezuela
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    CD: $34.99
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  • 7.
    Adams: The Dharma At Big Sur, Etc / Silverman, Adams, Bbc So
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 79857 Release Date: 09/26/2006   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Tracy Silverman,  William Houghton
    Conductor:  John Adams
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony Orchestra
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  • 8.
    Adams: Death Of Klinghoffer / Sylvan, Maltman, Howard, Et Al
    Label: Philips   Catalog: 000151509 Release Date: 11/11/2003   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Conductor:  John Adams
    DVD: $29.99
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  • 9.
    Adams: Violin Concerto, Shaker Loops / Kremer, Nagano
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 79360 Release Date: 04/09/1996   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Gidon Kremer
    Conductor:  John Adams,  Kent Nagano
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra of St. Luke's,  London Symphony Orchestra
    Recommendation
    ArkivCD $16.99
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  • 10.
    Adams: Chamber Symphony, Grand Pianola Music / John Adams
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 79219 Release Date: 10/25/1994   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Conductor:  John Adams
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
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  • 11.
    Adams: American Elegies / Adams, Upshaw, Crossley
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 79249 Release Date: 03/05/1991   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Charles Ives,  David Diamond,  John Adams,  Morton Feldman  ... 
    Performer:  Paul Crossley,  Dawn Upshaw
    Conductor:  John Adams
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra of St. Luke's
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  • 12.
    Adams: Fearful Symmetries, Wound-dresser / Adams, Sylvan
    Label: Nonesuch   Catalog: 79218 Release Date: 10/20/1989   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  John Adams
    Performer:  Sanford Sylvan
    Conductor:  John Adams
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra of St. Luke's
    Recommendation
    ArkivCD $16.99
    Special Order
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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
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