John Coolidge Adams

John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947) is an American composer, with strong roots in minimalism.

John Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1947 and graduated from Harvard University in 1971. He studied with Leon Kirchner. During these years, he occasionally played clarinet in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was active as a conductor, leading the Harvard University Bach Society Orchestra. He moved to California where he taught and conducted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years.

His innovative concerts led to his appointment firstly as contemporary music adviser to Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony, and then as the orchestra's composer-in-residence between 1979 and 1985, the period in which his reputation became established with the success of such works as Harmonium and Harmonielehre. Recordings on the New Albion and ECM labels were followed in 1986 by an exclusive contract with Nonesuch Records, an association that continues today. In 1999 Nonesuch released The John Adams Earbox, a critically-lauded 10-CD retrospective box set.

Of John Adams's compositions, the best known and most widely discussed is his opera Nixon in China, given its premiere by Houston Grand Opera in 1987 and winner of the 1989 Grammy for "Best Contemporary Composition". With Nixon in China, the composer, along with director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and choreographer Mark Morris, brought contemporary history vividly into the opera house, pioneering an entire genre of post-modern music theater.

The original staging of the work by Sellars has subsequently been seen in New York, Washington, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Paris, Adelaide, and Frankfurt. New productions of the opera have been presented in Chicago, Helsinki (in Finnish), and Bielefeld (in German), while concert performances have recently been given in London and Tallinn, Estonia.

Adams's second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, again a collaboration with Sellars, Goodman, and Morris, had its premiere at the Brussels Opera in 1991. Described by Newsweek critic Katrine Ames as "a work that fires the heart," it has also been seen in Lyon, Vienna, New York and San Francisco and was given its UK premiere by the BBC SO during the 2002 January Composer Weekend dedicated to Adams's music. Depicting the 1985 murder of American Leon Klinghoffer by Islamic terrorists on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, the opera has been criticized by some Jewish and Muslim groups as not being even-handed. John Adams has said that much of the controversy may stem from the fact that the terrorists are not portrayed as “poster board villains” in the opera.

His next stage work was a collaboration with Peter Sellars and librettist June Jordan; entitled I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, it is described by its creators as a 'song play,' scored for seven singers and an onstage band of eight instrumentalists. Ceiling/Sky, which made its debut in Berkeley in May 1995, has since been performed throughout North America and Europe. Adams's newest opera, Doctor Atomic, which premiered October 1, 2005, is also a collaboration with Sellars. The action of the opera is centered on the very first test of the atomic bomb, and is mainly about J. Robert Oppenheimer.

John Adams became the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Artist in Association in June 2003. In the words of Adams himself, "the position is sufficiently unstructured and flexible to allow any number of wild things to happen."

On 23 November 2004, the British Academy presented a Fellowship of the Academy to John Adams at the Barbican, London, following a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by the composer and including his work Harmonium.

In 2005, the premiere recording of On the Transmigration of Souls (with Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic) won three Grammy awards: Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

Musical style and major works
Initially known as a minimalist, Adams has in his mature work harnessed the rhythmic energy of Minimalism to an extraordinary harmonic palette and fertile orchestral imagination, with the strong influence of late-Romanticism evident. Concurrently he has introduced references to a wide range of 20th-century idioms — both 'popular' and 'serious' — in works such as his operas, the wittily eclectic orchestral piece Fearful Symmetries, which touches on Stravinsky, Honegger, and big-band swing music, and the recent My Father Knew Charles Ives, which stakes out strikingly original territory.

In a similar vein, Adams's Chamber Symphony, premiered in January 1993, merges the virtuosic expressionism of Schoenberg with the manic world of cartoon soundtrack music. Scored for fifteen instruments, Chamber Symphony has met with extraordinary success: more than 40 ensembles have performed or scheduled the work. In addition, Chamber Symphony won Adams the 1994 Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for best chamber composition.

Orchestral works by Adams include the two often-heard fanfares Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Tromba Lontana; his acclaimed Walt Whitman setting The Wound-Dresser; and El Dorado, a commission from the San Francisco Symphony that addresses the effects of greed on our environment and society.

For his Violin Concerto, written in an unusual three-way commission between the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony and the New York City Ballet, Adams was awarded the 1995 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Other honors include the California Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, the Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, and the rank of Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, awarded by the French Ministry of Culture.

February 1999 brought the world premiere in Los Angeles of Naïve and Sentimental Music, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Vancouver Symphony, Sydney Symphony, and Ensemble Modern Orchestra. This 50-minute orchestral essay has been widely hailed as one of Adams's crowning achievements in the medium. Other orchestral pieces written during the 1990s include Slonimsky's Earbox (1996), commissioned jointly by the Hallé Orchestra and the Oregon Symphony; Gnarly Buttons (1996), a clarinet concerto given its premiere by soloist Michael Collins and the London Sinfonietta with the composer conducting; and Century Rolls, a piano concerto written for Emanuel Ax, and premiered in 1997 by Ax with the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi.

Adams's work On the Transmigration of Souls, a choral work commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music. However, after winning the award Adams expressed "ambivalence bordering on contempt" since he felt that the prize had "lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields" because "most of the country's greatest musical minds" have been ignored in favor of academic music.


(1985-87) Nixon in China
(1991) The Death of Klinghoffer
(1995) I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
(2000) El Niño
(2005) Doctor Atomic
(2006) A Flowering Tree


(1979) Common Tones in Simple Time
(1980) Harmonium
(1983) Shaker Loops (version for string orchestra)
(1984) Harmonielehre
(1985) The Chairman Dances
(1985) Tromba Lontana
(1986) Short Ride in a Fast Machine
(1988) Fearful Symmetries
(1989) Eros Piano
(1993) Violin Concerto
(1991) El Dorado
(1995) Lollapalooza
(1996) Slonimsky's Earbox
(1997) Century Rolls
(1998) Naive and Sentimental Music
(2001) Guide to Strange Places
(2002) On the Transmigration of Souls
(2003) My Father Knew Charles Ives
(2003) The Dharma at Big Sur
(2005) Doctor Atomic Symphony


Voice and orchestra
(1987) The Nixon Tapes
(1988) The Wound-Dresser

[edit] Chamber Music
(1970) Piano Quintet
(1992) Chamber Symphony
(1978) Shaker Loops
(1994) John's Book of Alleged Dances
(1995) Road Movies
(1996) Gnarly Buttons

Other ensemble works
(1973) American Standard
(1973) Christian Zeal and Activity
(1975) Grounding
(1982) Grand Pianola Music
(1996) Scratchband
(2001) Nancy's Fancy

(1973) Ktaadn
(1980) Harmonium
(1991) Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer
(2002) On the Transmigration of Souls

Tape and electronic compostions
(1971) Heavy Metal
(1976) Studebaker Love Music
(1976) Onyx
(1983) Light Over Water
(1992) Hoodoo Zephyr

(1977) Phrygian Gates
(1977) China Gates
(1996) Hallelujah Junction
(2001) American Berserk

Film score
(1982) Matter of Heart
(1999?) An American Tapestry

Arrangements and Orchestrations
(1990) The Black Gondola (orchestration of Franz Liszt’s La Lugubre Gondola)
(1991) Berceuse Élégiaque (arrangement of Ferruccio Busoni’s original)
(1993) Le Livre de Baudelaire (orchestration of four songs from Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire by Claude Debussy)
(1995) La Mufa (orchestration of an Astor Piazzolla tango)
(1996) Todo Buenos Aires (orchestration of an Astor Piazzolla tango)
(1989-1993) Six Songs by Charles Ives (arranged of songs by Charles Ives)