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John Adams

February 15, 1947 -
born in Worcester, MA, composed during the Contemporary period
Born in Massachusetts in 1947, composer John Adams was raised in Vermont and New Hampshire. Nothing in his classic New England training or early career suggested he would become affiliated with or brilliantly expand the once controversial musical language of minimalism. At the age of 10 he began studying clarinet, music theory, and composition. He attended Harvard University, financing composition studies with Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici, and Roger Sessions by appearing as a clarinetist with the Boston Symphony. He finished his master's degree at Harvard in 1971. Disillusioned with the East Coast academic scene, he took a job that year as head of the composition department at the San Francisco Conservatory, a position he held until 1981. In California he came under the influence of minimalist pioneer Steve Reich and sought out the music of the previous generation of experimentalists such as John Cage and Morton Feldman. Adams founded a series of New and Unusual Music concerts with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and from 1983 to 1985 served as its first composer-in-residence.

By that time, Adams was well on his way to becoming among the most influential and widely performed American composers since Copland. In early works, such as Phrygian Gates (1977) for piano and Common Tones in Simple Time (1979) for orchestra, Adams' musical language was most heavily influenced by the stripped-down harmonic palette and motoric pulse of minimalism. Even in these works, Adams' trademark rhythmic vigor and sense of large-scale architecture were already in evidence, and a lively humor rooted in juxtapositions of borrowed styles proved a consistent crowd-pleaser. The wild stylistic clashes of Grand Pianola Music (1982) provoked sharp critical disagreements in just the thing to benefit a young composer's career. Adams' affinity with the orchestra and his ability to fill a large canvas became fully apparent with Harmonielehre (1985), a work that fuses motoric repetitions, harmonic conciseness, and lush, textured emotionalism. Other Adams compositions of this period that continue to find places on symphony programs are the exhilarating overture Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) and the chugging, machine-like Fearful Symmetries (1988).

Adams really seized public attention with his stage works, however, and some consider his operas his most important contributions to musical literature. He tended to rip his subjects out of the headlines and of recent American history, with sometimes controversial results. The operas Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990-1991), the latter set amidst a terrorist attack, elicited both praise and controversy. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995) followed a diverse group of Angelenos in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. His large-scale song The Wound-Dresser (1988), set to Walt Whitman's war poetry, demonstrated great emotional depth and development. Through the 1990s, Adams continued to draw on increasingly diverse sources of musical inspiration, from the electronics of Hoodoo Zephyr (1992) to cartoon music in the Chamber Symphony (1992) to the old-time American music of John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994). In 1995, Adams received music composition's most lucrative honor, the Grawemeyer Prize, for his Violin Concerto. His music was frequently recorded, generally on the Nonesuch label. Adams has also been active as a conductor, championing challenging twentieth century works by composers such as Conlon Nancarrow and Frank Zappa.

In the new millennium, Adams continued to compose music addressing major national and international events. El Niño, an oratorio on the subject of the birth of Jesus, marked the turn of the millennium itself. This multimedia work, originally presented by the San Francisco Symphony, featured a silent film and on-stage dancing in conjunction with the music, and the movement of the vocal soloists was also choreographed. Adams faced perhaps his most difficult commission in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: On the Transmigration of Souls, for adult and children's choirs, orchestra, and taped sounds, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered on September 19, 2002, and issued on the Nonesuch label the following year. With its readings of the names of survivors and of passages from the missing-persons posters that appeared around New York in the immediate wake of the attack, mixed with quotations from Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, the work, in Adams' words, sought "to create what I would call a meditative space for the listener to bring one's emotions and memories, as if you would go into a cathedral." On the Transmigration of Souls earned Adams the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2003.

By the mid-2000s, Adams seemed almost an unofficial American composer laureate, and he continued to address major themes of American culture in his next major work, Doctor Atomic. An opera based on the life and career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead designer of the U.S. atomic bomb, it spawned an instrumental Doctor Atomic Symphony. Another opera, A Flowering Tree, merged ideas from Mozart's The Magic Flute, including its themes of moral transcendence, with those from a southern Indian folktale; the work was commissioned for performance in an Austrian Mozart celebration, and Adams' fame was becoming increasingly international. Adams remained active and in high demand in the late 2000s. His string quartet Fellow Traveler, in honor of his chief theatrical collaborator, director Peter Sellars, was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. ~ Rovi Staff, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

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Track List: The John Adams Earbox: A 10-CD Retrospective

Disc 1
Title: Harmonium, For Chorus & Orchestra
Title: Shaker Loops, For 7 Strings Or String Orchestra
Disc 2
Title: The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot For Orchestra
Title: Grand Pianola Music, For 3 Sopranos, 2 Pianos, Winds, Brass & Percussion
Title: Fearful Symmetries, For Orchestra
Disc 5
Title: The Death Of Klinghoffer, Opera
Disc 6
Title: Tromba Lontana, Fanfare For Orchestra
Title: Short Ride In A Fast Machine, Fanfare For Orchestra
Title: Common Tones In Simple Time For Orchestra
Title: El Dorado, For Orchestra
Disc 7
Title: Harmonielehre, For Orchestra
Title: Violin Concerto
Disc 8
Title: Chamber Symphony
Title: Hoodoo Zephyr, For Electronics
Title: Gnarly Buttons, For Clarinet & Ensemble
Disc 9
Title: I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky, Songplay
Disc 10
x

Track List: John Adams: Complete Piano Music

Disc 1
Title: Phrygian Gates, For Piano
Title: American Berserk, For Piano
Title: China Gates, For Piano
Title: Hallelujah Junction, For 2 Pianos
Disc 2
Title: Phrygian Gates, For Piano
Title: American Berserk, For Piano
Title: China Gates, For Piano
Title: Hallelujah Junction, For 2 Pianos
x

Track List: John Adams: Son Of Chamber Symphony / String Quartet

Comments

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This guy is so awesome. I first heard about him from a teacher at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. At first I listened to some of his music and thought, What the heck is this? (but it just was a bad piece I didn't like). Upon listen to his other works I immediately fell in love with his style. Some might think it's too repetitive, but that is what I like; it makes great background music. In fact, I've been basing my own composition style off of his.
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John is Pure genius of the modern times. He has the sensibility of great joy of emotion and Imagination like no other composer.
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Adams is terrific. Possibly the best American composer of all time. Stravinsky was pretty fine too. Oh there's several "bests".He's one of them.
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paultwatson
Very nice
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I f**k b**ches to this s**t
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dazernator80 0
I learned about this guy through my Game Civilization 4!
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mdshortes
First got turned on to John Adams when I heard Short Ride in a Fast Machine in the concert hall.

Fantastic stuff!
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twrighthome
cognitively satisfying while instinctivel y moving... perhaps more enduring of the modern composers?
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I played in my high school band and the local military band with John Adams (long time ago) ... so I knew him before he became "John Adams." No surprise, though -- he was (and is) clearly gifted. Read his autobiograph y , "Hallelujah Junction" for some great insights on the development of his pieces and on the mechanics of contemporary music in general. It's highly readable and informative.
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Great stuff! The most important living American composer. Pandora just played "Short Ride in a Fast Machine." Fabulous!
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jeffolson52
the new Ravel but slightly cooler ...oh ...that is silly I guess... I am always blown by this composer
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Tranquil.
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danpaquin
He is from Worcester Mass which is pronounced 'Wuhster' (like the oo in the word 'wood') which is why they list him as being from 'Wooster'. There is no Wooster. If you live in Worcester you pronounce it 'Wuhsta'. ;-)
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He is at the same time gigantic and minimal, solumn and bold, anticipatory and reflective. His music always brings me joy. It is a tonic at times of illness and a true gift to the American tradition of orchestral music.
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how come Phillip Glass fans and John Adams fans always bicker amongst each other. Can't we all get along, I mean they're both great in their own right.
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Brilliant man, John Adams. Still waiting for my 'modern era' station to play Harmonilehre , Harmonium, and Grand Pianola so I can thumb them up.
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John Adams is a wonderful composer and a great example of "Americanis" . . . of course there are good reasons for this. ;)
Report as inappropriate
AAAAAAAaaaaa a a a a a a a a a a h h h h h h h h h h h h h !

My favorite composer- ever!

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