John Adams (composer)

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
John Adams (2008)

John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947 in Worcester , Massachusetts ) is an American composer . Together with Steve Reich , Philip Glass and Terry Riley , he is counted among the best-known representatives of minimal music , a musical style that is based on repetitive harmonic and / or rhythmic patterns. Adams himself has assigned his compositions to post-minimalism since the 1990s .


Adams learned the clarinet from his father and played in marching bands and smaller orchestras. His earliest musical experience was a performance by Ralph Vaughan Williams Fantasia based on themes by Thomas Tallis , which he said "shaped him for life". He began to compose at the age of ten, and as a teenager he heard the first orchestral performance of one of his works. Adams studied at Harvard University , where he was tutored by Leon Kirchner . As a student he occasionally played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted the Harvard University Bach Society Orchestra. In 1970 he received a BMI Student Composer Award . After completing his studies, he moved to San Francisco in 1971 , where he has lived ever since. In 1997 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . Adams taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years before he was resident composer of the San Francisco Symphony from 1982 to 1985 and developed the successful and controversial concert series New and Unusual Music for its conductor Edo de Waart . A number of Adams' orchestral pieces are written specifically for the San Francisco Symphony , including Harmonium (1981), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Harmonielehre (1985) and El Dorado (1992).

Adams was awarded the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award for 2018 and the Erasmus Prize for 2019 .


20th century

Adams gained first attention with the piano works Phrygian Gates and China Gates , his first world success he had with the orchestral work Shaker Loops . In 1985 he began working with the lyricist Alice Goodman and the director Peter Sellars . The result was two operas that were as successful as they were controversial: Nixon in China about President Richard Nixon's state visit to the People's Republic of China (Grammy 1989 for the best contemporary classical composition) and The Death of Klinghoffer about the kidnapping of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists. These two operas are among the most frequently performed stage works in contemporary music.

21st century

A film version of The Death of Klinghoffer was set up by Penny Woolcock for Channel Four in 2003 . The film won a number of international television awards, including the Prix ​​Italia . Adams' opera tries to develop understanding for everyone involved; Jewish and Arab interest groups accused Adam of taking sides with each other. Because of the controversy, the work was not performed in the USA for several years. It wasn't until 2011 that the Saint Louis Opera House dared to start a new production. Long Beach and the Metropolitan Opera New York followed in 2014 , where a co-production with the English National Opera London came out. However, after massive protests, artistic director Peter Gelb decided not, as planned, to broadcast a performance in cinemas worldwide.

Three more stage projects with Sellars followed: The "Songplay" I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky about the 1994 earthquake in the Los Angeles area , El Niño , a multilingual rendering of Christmas history, composed to celebrate the millennium, and Doctor Atomic on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the first atomic bomb . Adams' last opera to date, A Flowering Tree , a commissioned work for Mozart's 250th birthday, is based on his opera The Magic Flute , but is essentially based on a South Indian legend.

Adams has written two film scores so far: Matter of Heart for a documentary about CG Jung and An American Tapestry , a feature film by Gregory Nava about illegal immigrants in the United States. The music for the feature film I Am Love by Luca Guadagnino with Tilda Swinton in the leading role comes exclusively from John Adams, but was not composed specifically for the film, it is pieces from the period 1978 to 1996.

John Adams also worked with the Kronos Quartet .

In 2002 Adams composed On the Transmigration of Souls for the New York Philharmonic , an orchestral work to mark the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks . For this work, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music and three Grammies at once for Best Classical Music Recording, Best Orchestra Recording, and Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

In 2017 he was inspired by Louise Clappe's letters from 1851/52 for the opera Girls of the Golden West (text by Peter Sellars ). Clappe spent a year and a half among miners during the California gold rush and published her letters under the name Dame Shirley. The opera premiered in San Francisco on November 21, 2017 .

In March 2019, his third piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall by Yuja Wang and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel .

Composition style and aesthetic approach

Adams began as a minimalist in the spirit of Philip Glass and Steve Reich , but in his later works that lead into post-minimalism he combines the rhythmic energy of minimalism with a rich harmonic palette and great orchestral imagination that betrays influences of late romanticism . According to his own categorization, the violin concerto from 1993 can be clearly assigned to a “post-minimalist era”. But already “Phrygian Gates” (1977) and “Shaker Loops” (1978) would have “nibbled” at his ties to minimalism. He confirmed this development in an interview in 2017: "Minimalism is a very pure and rigorous musical language, very similar to minimalist sculpture and painting. Right from the start I felt a much stronger impulse towards dramatic surprise. I love a lot about minimalism, but I felt like it was a little too monochrome emotionally, with my own music I wanted to create a language capable of more fluid emotional life ... and over the years I've tried to develop a more diverse harmonious language. " Adams processes a wide spectrum of music-historical influences (both from classical and light music) in his works, but never leaves the tonal basis and never loses sight of the artfully pointed tensions of his works.

Charles Ives , to whom Adams has so far dedicated two compositions, plays a special role in his examination of the work of other composers : the orchestral work My Father Knew Charles Ives , in which the composer processes memories of his childhood, and an orchestral arrangement of Ives songs. Eros Piano is the composed answer to Toru Takemitsu's piece riverrun , A Flowering Tree varies Mozart's Magic Flute , harmony theory and Chamber Symphony deal with Arnold Schönberg compositions and, in the case of the Chamber Symphony , combine them with animation music. Slonimsky ’s Earbox is based on the opening bars of Igor Stravinsky's Le Chant de Rossignol . Adams has rearranged works by other composers six times, alongside songs by Ives, compositions by Ferruccio Busoni , Claude Debussy , Franz Liszt and Astor Piazzolla .

Adams repeatedly takes up current and historical events as inspiration for his music, at first glance "inappropriate" subjects for classical music, which often led to political controversy (Nixon's state visit to China, the hijacking of a cruise ship by terrorists, an earthquake, the development of the first atomic bomb, terrorist attacks, the American Civil War and illegal immigration).

Adams often takes direct inspiration from philosophy, literature and religion for his works. Religion is a theme in Adams' global hit Shaker Loops , which evokes the ecstatic dances of the American Shaker community. El Niño is a new version of the Christmas story , Christian Zeal & Activity already deals with Christianity in the title. In The Dharma at Big Sur 's suggestions come from the works of Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller in Harmonium are the poems Wallace Stevens ' basis. Naive and Sentimental Music is a musical examination of Friedrich Schiller's distinction between naive and sentimental poetry, The Wound Dresser is a setting of verses by Walt Whitman about the horrors of the American Civil War . Adams borrowed the title of American Berserk from Philip Roth .

Works (selection)

  • 1973: Christian Zeal & Activity (for orchestra)
  • 1977: China Gates (for piano)
  • 1977: Phrygian Gates (for piano)
  • 1978: Shaker Loops (version for string septet)
  • 1980: Common Tones in Simple Time (for orchestra)
  • 1981: Harmonium (for choir and large orchestra)
  • 1982: Grand Pianola Music (for 2 pianos, 3 female voices, wind ensemble and percussion)
  • 1983: Shaker Loops (version for string orchestra)
  • 1985: Harmony (for orchestra)
  • 1986: The Chairman Dances (for orchestra)
  • 1986: Short Ride in a Fast Machine (for orchestra)
  • 1987: Nixon in China (opera)
  • 1988: Fearful Symmetries (for orchestra)
  • 1989: The Wound Dresser (for baritone and orchestra)
  • 1991: The Death of Klinghoffer (opera)
  • 1993: Chamber Symphony
  • 1993: Hoodoo Zephyr (for synthesizer)
  • 1993: Violin Concerto
  • 1994: John's Book of Alleged Dances (for string quartet and tape playback)
  • 1995: I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (Songplay in 2 acts)
  • 1995: Lollapalooza (for orchestra)
  • 1995: Road Movies (for violin and piano)
  • 1996: Century Rolls (piano concerto)
  • 1996: Gnarly Buttons (for clarinet and chamber ensemble)
  • 1999: Naive and Sentimental Music (for orchestra, including an electric guitar solo)
  • 2000: El Niño (multimedia opera)
  • 2002: American Berserk (for piano)
  • 2002: On the Transmigration of Souls (for choir, voices, orchestra and tape; in memory of the victims of September 11, 2001)
  • 2003: My Father Knew Charles Ives (for orchestra)
  • 2003: The Dharma at Big Sur (concert for electric violin)
  • 2005: Doctor Atomic (opera)
  • 2006: A Flowering Tree (Opera)
  • 2007: Doctor Atomic Symphony
  • 2008: Hallelujah Junction - Composing an American Life (autobiography)
  • 2010: Absolute Jest (for string quartet and orchestra)
  • 2012: The Gospel According to the Other Mary (oratorio)
  • 2017: Girls of the Golden West (Opera)
  • 2019: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

Individual evidence

  1. a b Text accompanying "Violin Concerto" and "Shaker Loops" by John Adams, 1996, Nonesuch Records, 79360-2
  2. John Adams: Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life , New York 2009, p. 1, foreword
  4. Dudamel & Yuja Wang | LA Phil | Walt Disney Concert Hall. Retrieved May 15, 2021 .


  • John Adams: Hallelujah Junction. Composing an American Life , Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York 2008, ISBN 978-0-374-28115-1 .
  • John Adams: The machine in the garden. How electronic instruments change composition and aesthetics. Lettre International . LI 87, winter 2009.
  • John Adams: Composition Processes. The sense of the playful. The order of the musical material. Lettre International . LI 88, spring 2010.
  • Thomas May (Ed.): The John Adams Reader - Essential writings on an american composer. Amadeus Press, Pompton Plain, NJ, 2006, ISBN 1-57467-132-4 .

Web links