updated 28 November 2017
© Deborah O'Grady

John Adams

American composer and conductor born 15 February 1947 in Worcester, Massachusetts.

John Adams grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire, and received his early musical training from his father, with whom he studied clarinet and played in local marching bands. Adams has often noted the tremendous extent to which the exuberant sounds and powerful rhythms of marching bands and community orchestras influenced the character of his music over the course of a career that resembled that of Charles Ives at the end of the last century. In 1971, having graduated from Harvard, where he studied with Leon Kirchner, Adams left New England for California, where he has lived ever since, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Adams taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a decade, and from 1978 to 1985 worked closely with the San Francisco Symphony, where conductor Edo de Waart became the first to champion his work.

Adams’ first instrumental compositions, — such as Phrygian Gates and China Gates, two pieces for piano written in 1977 and considered to be his Opus One, or Shaker loops for string septet, composed in 1978 — while they never adhered to the strict forms of “classic” minimalism, did feature short phrases used repetitively. In this sense, they are a tribute not only to Reich and Glass, but also Terry Riley, along with certain experimental composers of the 1960s. Even in his most purely minimalist pieces, what makes Adams’ work incomparable are the great imagination and inventiveness he brings to his compositions. The long, powerful arcs of their dramatic progressions bend far beyond strict minimalism.

In the 1970s and 80s, Adams’ music played a decisive part in the creation and spread of a post-modern current within the contemporary art music tradition. Injecting new life into the thematics and harmonies that were a feature of the neo-romantic movement, he drew on the rhythms of traditional music and the euphoric energy of jazz and rock, creating music that was both infused with the experimental spirit of 1970s California and sought to draw together the many musical influences threading through American culture. The result was a singular style that tirelessly explores different paths toward a language of synthesis. The changing moods and grinding contrasts of his zestful humor and the nostalgic cast of his more elegaic moments are probably best expressed in his symphonic works.

In 1985, he began collaborating with Alice Goodman and Peter Sellars, producing two of the world’s most frequently performed operas of the past decades: Nixon In China (1984-1985) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990-1991). This latter work was adapted for film by Penny Woolcock in 2003. His collaboration with Peter Sellars continued with the “songplay” I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, in 1995; El Niño in 1999-2000, an opera-oratorio whose multilingual libretto is a celebration of the turn of the millenium, and Doctor Atomic in 2005. In 2006, A Flowering Tree, an opera inspired by Mozart’s Magic Flute premiered in Vienna. Their collaboration continued with an oratorio titled The Gospel According to the Other Mary, composed in 2012; and Girls of the Golden West, an opera about the Gold Rush, which premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2017.

John Adams is also a conductor, and has conducted the Houston Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the New World Symphony, among others.

  • 2000: California Governor’s Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts
  • 2003: Pulitzer Prize in Music for On the Transmigration of Souls
  • 2003: 3 Grammies for “Best Classical Recording,” “Best Orchestral Performance,” and “Best Classical Contemporary Composition” for the 10-CD collection The John Adams Earbox from Nonesuch Records
  • 2003: Honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge
  • 2004: Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition
  • 2007: Harvard Arts Medal
  • 2012: Honorary doctorate from Harvard University
  • 2013: Honorary Doctorate from Yale University
  • 2015: Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music (London)
  • 2019: Erasmus Prize

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2017


  • Marc Texier ;
  • Site personnel du compositeur (voir ressources documentaires).
  • Site de l’éditeur (voir ressources documentaires).

By Pierre Rigaudière

John Adams wrote of Charles Ives, a towering figure for many American composers, that he “always mixed the sublime with the vulgar and sentimental, and he did so with a freedom and insouciance that could only be done by an American.”1 In describing something he himself seems to wish to express, Adams is also defining an aesthetic stance that might be characterized as postmodern, with that touch of insouciance defusing whatever tensions might arise in the public when they see the sublime and the vulgar combined. Adams proposes to bring together the highbrow and the lowbrow, written and oral tradition — to reconcile contrasts. He seeks to lend legitimacy to what he calls “the vernacular.” This effort may be found in the instrumentation of his composition Gnarly Buttons (1997) for clarinet and chamber orchestra, for example, which includes parts for a banjo, a mandolin, and a guitar, as well as sampled accordion music and cow moos. The roots of this “vernacular” stretch back to the rural New England of Adams’s youth, which he spent in Vermont and New Hampshire, playing as a teenager in various marching bands; they also spring from the swing bands in which his father (who was also his first clarinet teacher) played.

Adams received his education at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he attended from 1965 to 1971. There, he studied clarinet, conducting, and composition with teachers such as Roger Sessions and Leon Kirchner, himself a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg, to whom Adams dedicated the 1980 piece Common Tones in Simple Time. Adams had little interest in the legacy of Schoenberg, a composer he associated with nineteenth-century individualism, and in the terrain he explored at Darmstadt. Indeed, Adams turned down funding to pursue his studies in Europe in favor of a move in the opposite direction, to California. There, he supported himself by working in a warehouse before signing on to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1972. The hive of activity at the school stimulated his own work; the mixtures of music overheard in the hallways or coming through the poorly insulated walls of the rooms influenced his preference for the weaving together of many styles.

While the ideas of John Cage had early impact on Adams, it was Adams’s interactions with the minimalists, which began in the 1970s, that had the deepest and most enduring influence on him. From their vocabulary, he borrowed such concepts as tonal anchoring, progression through harmonic fields, the repetition of musical cells, steady pulsing, and references to the Indonesian gamelan. Nevertheless, Adams’s piano compositions Phrygian Gates and China Gates (1977) stand apart from the work of Steve Reich and Terry Riley in their avoidance of phase shifting process. Loops make an explicit appearance in Shaker Loops for string septet (1978; he arranged a version for string orchestra 1983), with the pulsing liveliness that typifies Adams’s music.2 In Common Tones in Simple Time, he casts aside melody in favor of harmonic sequences braided together by recurring notes, thus confirming his preference for solid bass lines that provide clear and contrasting harmonies. In his imposing work Harmonium for choir and orchestra (1981), he makes full use of minimalism at its most expressive in his choice of brusque changes in atmosphere, shaped by the poems of John Donne and Emily Dickinson.

The orchestration in Harmonielehre (1984) recalls that of Schoenberg in Gurrelieder, Pelleas und Melisande, or Verklärte Nacht, as well of that of Alexander von Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss. Adams, however, invokes Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius as inspirations — and seeks to reconcile their music with minimalism. On the whole, though, pop and rock music references predominate in his work from the 1980s. The tumultuous reception of Grand Pianola Music (1982) can likely be attributed to the excessive use of I–V–I progressions in the third movement, which was his pushback against the minimalist trend to progress through sequences of thirds. This rather futile antagonism, combined with the coarse use of a chorus of sirens, had every chance of grating on its audience. Adams uses musical vernacular with greater finesse in his “heroic” opera3 Nixon in China (1985-1987), expressed through jazz (Act I) and through dancing in an almost disco-like scene in Act II (“Flesh Rebels”) and in Act III (as well as in the independent piece The Chairman Dances [1985] which Adams composed as a warmup for writing the opera). Adams’s use of electronic keyboards and samplers, which began with Fearful Symmetries (1988), oriented his work even further in the direction of rock music’s driving beat, put in counterpoint with expressive, Wagner-tinged passages. The hyper-romantic gesture underlining the words “to die for you,” sung by the baritone in The Wound-Dresser (1989) and taken from Walt Whitman, evokes the music of Hollywood films, offering a glimpse of the likely influence of composers such as Max Steiner or Bernard Herrmann, who were even more rooted in the Wagnerian tradition than Adams.

A push and pull between two rhythmic schemes becomes a defining trait in Adams’s music, originating perhaps from his own description of himself as “a trickster” and “melancholic.” The first is a regular beat that establishes a dominant, catchy rhythm that drives the piece forward. The second is static — at times ecstatic — and built on long, slowly evolving harmonic passages. From their push and pull, an archetypal pattern emerges: a phase of increasing tension building to climax and descending back into calm. Despite the presence of transitions between the two schemes, the broadly dominant model in his music is that of juxtaposed sequences. Adams describes The Death of Klinghoffer (1989-1991) as transitioning into a “linear and chromatic”4 language that favors a renewed connection to melody, which he had until then put aside to make way for rhythm and harmony. While this second opera benefits from a more diverse language, richer harmonies, and more frequent chromatic textures than his first opera, the rhythmic duality remains, as do Adams’s characteristic harmonic procedures (layers of static, alternations between two chords) and explicit references to pop music (echoes of drum machines, British progressive rock, twist, I–IV–V chord progressions, female backup singers) and to French music (Klinghoffer’s body is lowered into the sea to the sound of Gymnopédie).

It was another decade before Adams began working on more supple vocal parts and creating choruses. This period was punctuated by lighter work, such as on the musical I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), a “songplay” in two acts and twenty songs written to the standard length of pop albums, which continued in El Niño (1999-2000). Whereas Adams had taken Johann Sebastian Bach as a model in composing The Death of Klinghoffer, he drew on George Frideric Handel for this Nativity oratorio, in which monody is interspersed with homophonic choruses whose parallel voices at times recall those in the work of Arvo Pärt. Just as Adams avoids exoticizing Asian culture in Nixon in China and limits reference to Middle Eastern cultures in The Death of Klinghoffer — in which Palestinian terrorists murder an American Jewish man named Leon Klinghoffer — to a sampled qanun (II, 1), he allows himself just one medieval reference in El Niño (no. 15). His fourth collaboration with Peter Sellars, his faithful creative co-conspirator since 1983, this work confirms their shared attraction to legendary historical subjects.

As with El Niño, the libretto for Doctor Atomic (2004-2005) was put together by Sellars from existing texts (including from Charles Baudelaire, John Donne, the Bhagavad Gita, Muriel Rukeyser, declassified documents, excerpts from the press, and scientific articles). Here, Adams can be seen moving into a new phase, with melodic lines and a tighter and more sophisticated harmonic framework. While the rhythmic choruses display a grandiloquence inspired by the choral writing of Carl Orff in Carmina Burana, the orchestration, which for the first time Adams wrote concurrently with the vocal parts, shows greater homogeneity and more intense contrast than in his earlier pieces and is inspired in its most vehement moments by the energy of Edgard Varèse.

Adams’s last stage opera to date,5 A Flowering Tree (2006), based on an Indian folktale as translated by A. K. Ramanujan and adapted by Adams and Sellars, expresses this same attention to homogeneity, although signs of the syncretism for which Adams reaches do show through. His vocabulary has always been open to certain expressive romantic traits — a notable one is a vocal gesture consisting of an upward leap of a major ninth. This gesture was already present in Doctor Atomic, and in A Flowering Tree it becomes a veritable signature. Adams combines it with whole-tone scales, and, more sporadically, modal tetrachord structures such as the one that accompanies the extended allusion to the Balinese kecak in Act II, Scene 4.

The 1990s saw Adams making stylistic references to Igor Stravinsky’s music from the period between Stravinsky’s Russian period and his turn to neoclassicism. True, Chamber Symphony (1992) is an explicit reference to Schoenberg’s opus 9. It, along with Slonimsky’s Earbox (1996), with its larger orchestra, draws inspiration from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Both, however, at points reflect the ambience of Stravinsky’s Ragtime and L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), within chromatic, linear writing (even virtuosic writing in the Chamber Symphony). These traits are typical of Adams’s post-Klinghoffer style, which reintegrates traits of minimalism. Seeking a more uneven approach to rhythm, Adams gives new momentum to his piano compositions in this period by drawing from the dizzying mechanics of Conlon Nancarrow in Hallelujah Junction (1996). This he does even more openly in the third movement of his concerto Century Rolls (1997), as well as in American Berserk (2001).

With On the Transmigration of Souls (2001), Adams composed a tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks — here, again, a legendary historical event. My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003) becomes an intriguing reflection on stylistic coherence, through the ficticious quotations of music that Adams imagines Ives could have written. As the title indicates, this work contains an autobiographical component; in other works as well Adams evokes loved ones or uses his dreams to inspire musical ideas. Present, too, in My Father Knew Charles Ives are references to nature, to which Adams is particularly sensitive.

Written for Tracy Silverman and his six-stringed electric violin, The Dharma at Big Sur (2003) is an exploration of the borderlands between composition and improvisation. Adams’s writing for this instrument recalls, at moments, the jazz violin of Stéphane Grappelli. It evokes even more directly the sarangi and kamancha (both from the family of bowed stringed instruments) through modal inflections borrowed from Indian raga. Adams carefully determined the ornamental detail in the violin’s melody. Its microtones — which in an earlier version of the score were played by the orchestra as well — lend a spectral aura to the nearly static harmonic bed provided by the orchestra. With this piece, Adams reminds listeners that in some cultures outside the European classical tradition, music’s meaning resides between the notes.

From this extensive, varied, but coherent catalogue comes a deeply American music that places Adams in the tradition of Ives, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. Adams’s aesthetic is pragmatic. Undaunted by the expectations within his context, he has written according to a criterion of effectiveness drawn from Fred Lerdahl, who argues that “the best music utilizes the full potential of our cognitive resources.”6 If we admit that “our response to tonal harmony is not so much cultural as genetic,”7 we must conclude with Adams that this “full potential” can only be reached in a tonal context, albeit expanded. Within this domain, Adams has without contest shown and continues to show great inventiveness and creative vitality.

1. This is from the composers’ notes to My Father Knew Charles Ives, which are available at

2. He nonetheless transitions into the slow movement with a fermata. 
3. Andrew PORTER and John ADAMS, “’Nixon in China’: John Adams in Conversation,” Tempo, New Series, no. 167 (1988): 27. 
4. John Adams, program notes for Chamber Symphony, available at https://www.earbox.com/chamber-symphony/.
5. Translator’s note: Adams has since written a fifth staged work, Girls of the Golden West, completed in 2017. 
6. Fred LERDAHL, “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,” in John SLOBODA (ed.), Generative Processes in Music: The Psychology of Performance, Improvisation, and Composition (Oxford, 2001; online edition, Oxford Academic, 22 March 2012), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198508465.003.0010, accessed 24 March 2023. 
7. Translator’s note: The music critic Michael Steinberg wrote this when discussing Adams. The quotation appears in Michael STEINBERG and Larry ROTHE, For the Love of Music: Invitations to Listening (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 165. 

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2010

Bibliographie sélective

  • John ADAMS, Hallelujah Junction. Composing an American Life, ed.Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York, Faber Books Ltd., UK, 2008, 320 pages [plus d’informations]
  • Stéphane LELONG, [entretien avec John Adams], dans Nouvelle musique, à la découverte de 24 compositeurs, Paris, 1996.
  • Renaud MACHART, John Adams, Actes Sud, 2004.
  • Tom MAY (sous la dir. de), The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer, ed. Amadeus Press, 2006. [plus d’informations]
  • Béatrice RAMAUT-CHEVASSUS, Composer un opéra aujourd’hui : actes de la journée du 13 mai 2003, Publications de L’université de Saint-Etienne, Centre Interdisciplinaire d’Étude et de Recherches sur l’Expression Contemporaine (CIEREC), Saint Etienne, 2003.
  • K. Robert SCHWARZ, Minimalists, Phaidon Express Limited, Londres, 1996.
  • Arnold WHITTALL, Exploring twentieth-century music, tradition and innovation, Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en novembre 2017).