Among over 60 major compositions are his breakthrough piece for string ensemble Shaker Loops (1978), his first significant large-scale orchestral work Harmonielehre (1985), the popular fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), the oratorio El Niño based on biblical text concerning the nativity of Jesus and Spanish-language poetry, and On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), a choral piece commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003.
He has written five operas, notably Nixon in China (1987), which recounts Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China, Doctor Atomic (2005), which covers Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the building of the first atomic bomb, and the controversial The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the hijackers' murder of 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, who used a wheelchair.
John Coolidge Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947. He was raised in various New England states, where he was greatly influenced by New England's musical culture. He graduated from Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire.
Adams began composing at the age of ten and first heard his music performed around the age of 13 or 14. After he matriculated at Harvard University in 1965 he studied composition under Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, and David Del Tredici. He studied at Harvard University (BA 1969, MA 1972).
He taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 until 1984. In 1975, his piece "American Standard" was recorded and released on Obscure Records. He served as musical producer for a number of series for the Public Broadcasting System, including the award-winning series, The Adams Chronicles in 1976 and 1977.
Some works composed during this period include China Gates (1977), Phrygian Gates for solo piano (1977), Shaker Loops (1978), Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), Harmonium (1980–81), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Light Over Water (1983), Harmonielehre (1984–85), The Chairman Dances (1985), Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), and Nixon in China (1985–87).
The Wound-Dresser (1988): John Adams's setting of Walt Whitman's 1865 poem of the same title, which Whitman wrote after visiting wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. The piece is scored for baritone voice, two flutes (or two piccolos), two oboes, clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet (or piccolo tpt), timpani, synthesizer, and strings.
The Death of Klinghoffer (1991): The opera's story begins with the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and details the murder of a passenger named Leon Klinghoffer, a retired, physically disabled American Jew.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995): A stage piece with libretto by June Jordan and staging by Peter Sellars. The main characters are seven young Americans from different social and ethnic backgrounds, all living in Los Angeles. The story takes place in the aftermath of the earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994.
On the Transmigration of Souls (2002): This piece commemorates those who lost their lives in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. It won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music as well as the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition.
The Dharma at Big Sur (2003): A piece for solo electric six-string violin and orchestra. The piece calls for some instruments (harp, piano, samplers) to use just intonation, a tuning system in which intervals sound pure, rather than equal temperament, the common Western tuning system in which all intervals except the octave are impure.
Doctor Atomic (2005): An opera in two acts, about Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the creation and testing of the first atomic bomb. The libretto of Doctor Atomic by Peter Sellars draws on original source material, including personal memoirs, recorded interviews, technical manuals of nuclear physics, declassified government documents, and the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita, John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, and Muriel Rukeyser. The opera takes place in June and July 1945, mainly over the last few hours before the first atomic bomb explodes at the test site in New Mexico. Characters include Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty, Edward Teller, General Leslie Groves, and Robert Wilson.
A Flowering Tree (2006): An opera in two acts, based on a folktale from the Kannada language of southern India as translated by A.K. Ramanujan. it was commissioned as part of the Vienna New Crowned Hope Festival to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth.
Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007): Based on music from the opera.
Fellow Traveler (2007): This piece was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by Greg G. Minshall, and was dedicated to opera and theater director Peter Sellars for his 50th birthday.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2011–13): An oratorio in two acts for orchestra, soloists and chorus, it premiered in May 2012 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The revised version, in the work's staged premiere, occurred in February 2013 again with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and directed by Peter Sellars.
Scheherazade.2 (2014): A dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra. The World Premiere for this work took place on March 26, 2015 at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City and was performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert, and violinist Leila Josefowicz.
On March 26, 2015, before the premier of Scheherazade.2 by the New York Philharmonic, Adams introduced the setting of the piece as related to One Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade, after being forced into marriage, by recounting tales to her husband, delays her death. He associated modern examples of suffering and injustice towards women around the world, with acts in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Kabul, and comments from The Rush Limbaugh Show.
The music of Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist, although in interview he has categorized himself as a 'post-style' composer. While Adams employs minimalist techniques, such as repeating patterns, he is not a strict follower of the movement. Adams was born ten years after Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and his writing is more developmental and directionalized, containing climaxes and other elements of Romanticism. Comparing Shaker Loops to the minimalist composer Terry Riley's piece In C, Adams remarked:
rather than set up small engines of motivic materials and let them run free in a kind of random play of counterpoint, I used the fabric of continually repeating cells to forge large architectonic shapes, creating a web of activity that, even within the course of a single movement, was more detailed, more varied, and knew both light and dark, serenity and turbulence.
Many of Adams's ideas in composition are a reaction to the philosophy of serialism and its depictions of "the composer as scientist." The Darmstadt school of twelve tone composition was dominant during the time that Adams was receiving his college education, and he compared class to a "mausoleum where we would sit and count tone-rows in Webern."
Adams experienced a musical epiphany after reading John Cage's book Silence (1973), which he claimed "dropped into [his] psyche like a time bomb." Cage posed fundamental questions about what music was, and regarded all types of sounds as viable sources of music. This perspective offered to Adams a liberating alternative to the rule-based techniques of serialism. At this point Adams began to experiment with electronic music, and his experiences are reflected in the writing of Phrygian Gates (1977–78), in which the constant shifting between modules in Lydian mode and Phrygian mode refers to activating electronic gates rather than architectural ones. Adams explained that working with synthesizers caused a "diatonic conversion," a reversion to the belief that tonality was a force of nature.
Some of Adams's compositions are an amalgamation of different styles. One example is Grand Pianola Music (1981–82), a humorous piece that purposely draws its content from musical cliches. In The Dharma at Big Sur, Adams draws from literary texts such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Henry Miller to illustrate the California landscape. Adams professes his love of other genres other than classical music; his parents were jazz musicians, and he has also listened to rock music, albeit only passively. Adams once claimed that originality wasn't an urgent concern for him the way it was necessary for the minimalists, and compared his position to that of Gustav Mahler, J. S. Bach, and Johannes Brahms, who "were standing at the end of an era and were embracing all of the evolutions that occurred over the previous thirty to fifty years."
Adams, like other minimalists of his time (e.g. Philip Glass), used a steady pulse that defines and controls the music. The pulse was best known from Terry Riley's early composition In C, and slowly more and more composers used it as a common practice. Jonathan Bernard highlighted this adoption by comparing Phrygian Gates, written in 1977, and Fearful Symmetries written eleven years later in 1988.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Adams started to add a new character to his music, something he called "the Trickster." The Trickster allowed Adams to use the repetitive style and rhythmic drive of minimalism, yet poke fun at it at the same time. When Adams commented on his own characterization of particular minimalist music, he stated that he went joyriding on "those Great Prairies of non-event."
Adams won the annual American Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003 for his 9/11 memorial piece, On the Transmigration of Souls. Response to his output as a whole has been more divided, and Adams's works have been described as both brilliant and boring in reviews that stretch across both ends of the rating spectrum. Shaker Loops has been described as "hauntingly ethereal," while 1999's "Naïve and Sentimental Music" has been called "an exploration of a marvelously extended spinning melody." The New York Times called 1996's Hallelujah Junction "a two-piano work played with appealingly sharp edges," and 2001's "American Berserk" "a short, volatile solo piano work."
The most critically divisive pieces in Adams's collection are his historical operas. At first release, Nixon in China received mostly negative press feedback. Donal Henahan, writing in the New York Times, called the Houston Grand Opera world premiere of the work "worth a few giggles but hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory" and "visually striking but coy and insubstantial." James Wierzbicki for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Adams's score as the weak point in an otherwise well-staged performance, noting the music as "inappropriately placid," "cliché-ridden in the abstract" and "[trafficked] heavily in Adams's worn-out Minimalist clichés." With time, however, the opera has come to be revered as a great and influential production. Robert Hugill for Music and Vision called the production "astonishing ... nearly twenty years after its premier," while City Beat's Tom McElfresh called Nixon's score "a character in the drama" and "too intricate, too detailed to qualify as minimalist."
2003's The Dharma at Big Sur/ My Father Knew Charles Ives was well-received, particularly at Adams's alma mater's publication, the Harvard Crimson. In a four-star review, Harvard's newspaper called the electric violin and orchestral concerto "Adams's best composition of the past ten years." Most recently, The New York Times writer Anthony Tommasini commended Adams for his work conducting the American Composers Orchestra. The concert, which took place in April 2007 at Carnegie Hall, was a celebratory performance of Adams's work on his sixtieth birthday. Tommasini called Adams a "skilled and dynamic conductor," and noted that the music "was gravely beautiful yet restless."
The opera The Death of Klinghoffer has been criticized as antisemitic by some, including by the Klinghoffer family. Leon Klinghoffer's daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, after attending the opera, released a statement saying: "We are outraged at the exploitation of our parents and the coldblooded murder of our father as the centerpiece of a production that appears to us to be anti-Semitic." In response to these accusations of antisemitism, composer and Oberlin College professor Conrad Cummings wrote a letter to the editor defending Klinghoffer as "the closest analogue to the experience of Bach's audience attending his most demanding works," and noted that, as someone of half-Jewish heritage, he "found nothing anti-Semitic about the work."
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of excerpts from Klinghoffer were canceled. BSO managing director Mark Volpe remarked of the decision: "We originally programmed the choruses from John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer because we believe in it as a work of art, and we still hold that conviction. ... [Tanglewood Festival Chorus members] explained that it was a purely human reason, and that it wasn't in the least bit a criticism of the work." Adams and Klinghoffer librettist Alice Goodman criticized the decision, and Adams rejected a request to substitute a performance of Harmonium, saying: "The reason that I asked them not to do 'Harmonium' was that I felt that 'Klinghoffer' is a serious and humane work, and it's also a work about which many people have made prejudicial judgments without even hearing it. I felt that if I said, 'OK, "Klinghoffer" is too hot to handle, do "Harmonium,"' that in a sense I would be agreeing with the judgment about 'Klinghoffer.'" In response to an article by San Francisco Chronicle David Wiegand denouncing the BSO decision, musicologist and critic Richard Taruskin accused the work of catering to "anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-bourgeois" prejudices.
A 2014 revival by the Metropolitan Opera reignited debate. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who marched in protest against the production, wrote: "this work is both a distortion of history and helped, in some ways, to foster a three decade long feckless policy of creating a moral equivalency between the Palestinian Authority, a corrupt terrorist organization, and the state of Israel, a democracy ruled by law." Current mayor Bill de Blasio criticized Giuliani's participation in the protests, and Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, said in support of the production: "It is not only permissible for the Met to do this piece – it's required for the Met to do the piece. It is a powerful and important opera." A week after watching a Met performance of the opera, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said "There was nothing anti-Semitic about the opera," and characterized the portrayal of the Klinghoffers as "very strong, very brave", and the terrorists as "bullies and irrational".
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