|Known for||Nixon in China, , Guide to strange places, Harmonielehre|
|A.K.A.||John Coolidge Adams|
|Is||Musician Conductor Composer Autobiographer|
|From||United States of America|
|Birth||15 February 1947, Worcester, Worcester County, Massachusetts, USA|
John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947) is an American composer and conductor of classical music and opera, with strong roots in minimalism.
Among over 60 major compositions are his breakthrough piece for string septet, Shaker Loops (1978), his first significant large-scale orchestral work, Harmonielehre (1985), the popular fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), and On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), a piece for orchestra and chorus commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003. He has written several operas, notably Nixon in China (1987), which recounts Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China; 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, wheelchair-bound, Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer; and Doctor Atomic (2005), which covers Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the building of the first atomic bomb.
In addition to the Pulitzer, Adams has received the Erasmus Prize, five Grammy Awards, the Harvard Arts Medal, France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and six honorary doctorates.
Life and career
John Adams, in full John Coolidge Adams, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 15, 1947. As an adolescent, he lived in Woodstock, Vermont for five years before moving to East Concord, New Hampshire. In the third grade, Adams took up the clarinet, initially taking lessons from his father, Carl Adams, and later with Boston Symphony Orchestra bass clarinetist Felix Viscuglia, as well as playing in various local orchestras and concert bands while a student. Adams began composing at the age of ten and first heard his music performed around the age of 13 or 14. He graduated from Concord High School in 1965.
Adams next enrolled in Harvard University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1969 and a Master of Arts in 1971, studying composition under Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, and David Del Tredici. As an undergraduate, he conducted Harvard's student ensemble, the Bach Society Orchestra, for a year and a half. He was also the first student there to be allowed to write a musical composition for his senior thesis. The piece he wrote was The Electric Wake for "electric" (i.e. amplified) soprano accompanied by an ensemble of "electric" strings, keyboards, harp, and percussion.
After graduating, Adams taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 until 1982, teaching classes and directing the school's New Music Ensemble. In the early 1970s, Adams wrote several pieces of electronic music for a homemade modular synthesizer he called the "Studebaker". He also wrote American Standard, composed of three movements, a march, a hymn, and a jazz ballad, which was recorded and released on Obscure Records in 1975. Adams served as musical producer for a number of series for the PBS, including the award-winning series, The Adams Chronicles in 1976 and 1977.
1977 to Nixon in China (1987)
In 1977, Adams wrote the half-hour-long solo piano piece, Phrygian Gates, which he later called "my first mature composition, my official 'opus one', as well as its much shorter companion piece, China Gates. The next year, he finished Shaker Loops, a string septet based on an earlier, unsuccessful string quartet called Wavemaker. In 1979, he finished his first orchestral work, Common Tones in Simple Time, which was premiered by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra under Adams' baton.
In 1979, Adams became the New Music Adviser for the San Francisco Symphony and created the symphony's New and Unusual Music concerts. A commission from the symphony resulted in Adams' large, three-movement choral symphony Harmonium (1980–81) setting texts by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. He followed this up with the three-movement, orchestral piece (without strings), Grand Pianola Music (1982). That summer, he wrote the score for Matter of Heart, a documentary about psychoanalyst Carl Jung, a score he later derided as being "of stunning mediocrity". In the winter of 1982–83, Adams worked on the purely-electronic score for Available Light, a dance choreographed by Lucinda Childs with sets by Frank Gehry. Without dance, the electronic piece alone is called Light Over Water.
After an eighteen-month period of writer's block, Adams wrote his three-movement, orchestral piece Harmonielehre (1984–85), which he described as "a statement of belief in the power of tonality at a time when I was uncertain about its future." As with many of Adams' pieces, it was inspired by a dream, in this case, a dream in which he was driving across the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and saw an oil tanker on the surface of the water abruptly turn upright and take off like a Saturn V rocket.
From 1985 to 1987, Adams composed his first opera, Nixon in China, with libretto by Alice Goodman, based on Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China. The opera marked the first collaboration between Adams and theatre director Peter Sellars, who had proposed it to Adams in 1983. Adams has subsequently worked with Sellars on all of his operas.
During this time, Adams also wrote The Chairman Dances (1985), which he described as an "'out-take' of Act III of Nixon in China", to fulfill a long-delayed commission for the Milwaukee Symphony. He also wrote the short orchestral fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986).
After Nixon in China
Adams wrote two orchestral pieces in 1988: Fearful Symmetries, a 25-minute work in the same style as Nixon in China, and The Wound-Dresser, a setting of Walt Whitman's 1865 poem of the same title, written when Whitman was volunteering at a military hospital during the American Civil War. The Wound-Dresser is scored for baritone voice, two flutes (or two piccolos), two oboes, clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet (or piccolo trumpet), timpani, synthesizer, and strings.
During this time, Adams established an international career as a conductor. From 1988 to 1990, he served as conductor and music advisor for the St Paul Chamber Orchestra. He has also served as artistic director and conductor of the Ojai and Cabrillo Music Festivals in California. He has conducted orchestras around the world, including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, performing pieces by composers as diverse as Debussy, Copland, Stravinsky, Haydn, Reich, Zappa, and Wagner, as well as his own works.
He completed his second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, in 1991, again working with librettist Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars. The opera is based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and details the murder of passenger Leon Klinghoffer, a retired, physically disabled American Jew. The opera has generated controversy, including allegations that it is antisemitic and glorifies terrorism.
Adams' next piece, Chamber Symphony (1992), is for a 15-member chamber orchestra. Written in three movements, the work is inspired by an unlikely combination of sources: Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (which Adams was studying at the time) and the "hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic" music of the cartoons his young son was watching.
In 1995, Adams completed I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, a stage piece with libretto by poet June Jordan and staging by Peter Sellars. Inspired by musicals, Adams referred to the piece as a "songplay in two acts". The main characters are seven young Americans from different social and ethnic backgrounds, all living in Los Angeles, with stories that take place around the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Hallelujah Junction (1996) is a three-movement composition for two piano, which employs variations of a repeated two-note rhythm. The intervals between the notes remain the same through much of the piece.
Written to celebrate the millennium, El Niño (2000) is an "oratorio about birth in general and about the Nativity in specific." The piece incorporates a wide range of texts, including biblical texts as well as poems by Hispanic poets like Rosario Castellanos, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidobro, and Rubén Darío,
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the New York Philharmonic commissioned Adams to write a memorial piece for the victims of the attacks. The resulting piece, On the Transmigration of Souls, was premiered around the first anniversary of the attacks. On the Transmigration of Souls is scored for orchestra, chorus, and children's choir, accompanied by taped readings of the names of the victims mixed with the sounds of the city. It won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music as well as the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition.
Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, Adams' orchestral piece My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003) is cast in three movements: "Concord", "The Lake", and "The Mountain". Though his father did not actually know American composer Charles Ives, Adams saw many similarities between the two men's lives and between their lives and his own, including their love of small-town New England life and their unfulfilled musical dreams.
Written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall in 2003, The Dharma at Big Sur (2003) is a two-movement work for solo electric six-string violin and orchestra. Adams wrote that with Dharma, he "wanted to compose a piece that embodied the feeling of being on the West Coast – literally standing on a precipice overlooking the geographic shelf with the ocean extending far out to the horizon…" Inspired by the music of Lou Harrison, 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 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.
In January 2017 he was appointed visiting professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
The music of Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist, although in an interview he said that his music is part of the 'post-style' era at the end of the twentieth century. 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, which 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".
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".
List of works
- Nixon in China (1987)
- The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
- I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (song play) (1995)
- El Niño (opera-oratorio) (2000)
- Doctor Atomic (2005)
- A Flowering Tree (2006)
- The Gospel According to the Other Mary (opera-oratorio) (2013)
- Girls of the Golden West (premiered by San Francisco Opera, November 2017)
- Common Tones in Simple Time (1979)
- Grand Pianola Music (1982)
- Shaker Loops (adaptation of the 1978 string septet for string orchestra) (1983)
- Harmonielehre (1985)
- The Chairman Dances (1985)
- Tromba Lontana (1986)
- Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)
- Fearful Symmetries (1988)
- Eros Piano (for piano and orchestra) (1989)
- El Dorado (1991)
- Violin Concerto (1995 Grawemeyer Award for Music composition) (1993)
- Lollapalooza (1995)
- Slonimsky's Earbox (1996)
- Century Rolls (for piano and orchestra) (1997)
- Naive and Sentimental Music (1998)
- Guide to Strange Places (2001)
- My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003)
- The Dharma at Big Sur (for solo electric violin and orchestra) (2003)
- Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007)
- City Noir (2009)
- Absolute Jest (for string quartet and orchestra) (2012)
- Saxophone Concerto (2013)
- Scheherazade.2 (dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra) (2014)
- Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (concerto for piano and orchestra) (2018)
Voice and orchestra
- The Nixon Tapes (three suites from Nixon in China) (1987)
- The Wound-Dresser (1989)
- Piano Quintet (1970)
- Shaker Loops (for string septet) (1978)
- Chamber Symphony (1992)
- John's Book of Alleged Dances (for string quartet) (1994)
- Road Movies (for violin and piano) (1995)
- Gnarly Buttons (for clarinet and chamber ensemble) (1996)
- Son of Chamber Symphony (2007)
- Fellow Traveler (for string quartet) (2007)
- First Quartet (2008)
- Second Quartet (2014)
Other ensemble works
- American Standard, including Christian Zeal and Activity (1973)
- Grounding (1975)
- Scratchband (1996)
- Nancy's Fancy (2001)
Choir and orchestra
- Harmonium (1980)
- Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
- On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)
Tape and electronic compositions
- Heavy Metal (1970)
- Studebaker Love Music (1976)
- Onyx (1976)
- Light Over Water (1983)
- Hoodoo Zephyr (1993)
- Phrygian Gates (1977)
- China Gates (1977)
- Hallelujah Junction (1996)
- American Berserk (2001)
- I Still Play (2017)
- Matter of Heart (1982)
- The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez (1991)
- American Tapestry (1999)
- I Am Love (Io sono l'amore) – all existing pieces, no original compositions (2010)
- K – all existing pieces, no original compositions (2015)
- Call Me by Your Name, contributions (2017)
- The Black Gondola (Liszt's La lugubre gondola II (1882)) (1989)
- Berceuse Élégiaque (Busoni's Berceuse Élégiaque (1907)) (1989)
- Wiegenlied (Liszt's Wiegenlied (1881)) (1989)
- Le Livre de Baudelaire (Debussy's Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire) (1994)
- La Mufa (Piazzolla's tango) (1995)
- Todo Buenos Aires (Piazzolla's tango) (1996)
- Six Songs by Charles Ives (Ives' songs) (1989–93)
Awards and recognition
- Pulitzer Prize for Music for On the Transmigration of Souls (2003)
- Erasmus Prize (2019)
- Best Contemporary Composition for Nixon in China (1989)
- Best Contemporary Composition for El Dorado (1998)
- Best Classical Album for On the Transmigration of Souls (2004)
- Best Orchestral Performance for On the Transmigration of Souls (2004)
- Best Classical Contemporary Composition for On the Transmigration of Souls (2004)
- Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Best Chamber Composition for Chamber Symphony (1994)
- University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for Violin Concerto (1995)
- California Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts
- Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts
- Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) (2015)
- Harvard Arts Medal (2007)
- 2018 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Music and Opera
- Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1997)
- Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997)
- Honorary Doctorate of Arts from University of Cambridge (2003)
- Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Northwestern University (2008)
- Honorary Doctorate of Music from Duquesne University (2009)
- Honorary Doctorate of Music from Harvard University (2012)
- Honorary Doctorate of Music from Yale University (2013)
- Honorary Doctorate of Music from Royal Academy of Music (2015)
- Creative Chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (2009–present)
Adams was married to Hawley Currens, a music teacher from 1970 to 1974. He is married to photographer Deborah O'Grady, with whom he has a son and daughter. Adams' son is the composer Samuel Carl Adams.