John Adams (b. 1947)

John Adams is perhaps the best current representative composer of classical “Americana”, along the lines of Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein. Although he is usually grouped with Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, Adams’ music draws on a wide range of musical influences, including jazz, the blues, and popular music like the Beatles. His music uses repetitive rhythmic and melodic patterns like those used in minimalist music, but strings them together into larger thematic and harmonic structures, allowing melodies to “float” over them.

Adams studied composition and conducting at Harvard. He is also a highly skilled clarinetist, having served as a reserve member of the Boston Symphony and giving the world premiere of Piston’s Clarinet Concerto. Although he grew up and studied in New England, Adams moved to San Francisco after his studies were completed. He taught at the San Francisco Conservatory from 1972-84 and afterwards served as composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony, which premiered several of his important orchestral pieces.

Two of his best known early minimalist works are the Phrygian Gates for solo piano and Shaker Loops for strings. His fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine is one of the most frequently performed American orchestral compositions of the last 25 years. Adams has composed music in almost every genre, including choral works, piano pieces, chamber music, film scores, electronic music, and orchestrations of works by Liszt, Debussy, and Charles Ives. However, he is probably best known for his operas, many of which are based on historical events. His breakthrough work was the opera Nixon In China, which established his importance as a composer throughout the world. His next opera, The Death Of Klinghoffer, about the murder of an American Jewish tourist by Palestinian terrorists, has sparked controversy at its premiere and most subsequent performances. It has been criticized by some as anti-Semitic and romanticizing terrorism, while others have called it Zionist propaganda and anti-Arab in its outlook. One of his most recent operas is Dr. Atomic, about Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

Over the last ten years, Adams has continued to produce several important works, beginning with El Niño, an oratorio about the birth and early life of Jesus that draws on a variety of sources, including the King James Bible, a Christmas sermon by Martin Luther, Medieval English Miracle plays and several Mexican poets. His most important recent work is 2002’s On The Transmigration Of Souls, a 25 minute long work for orchestra, chorus, children’s chorus, and pre-recorded voices to commemorate the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. This work and the recording made by the New York Philharmonic won three Grammy Awards and earned Adams the Pulitzer Prize for music.

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