Composer, conductor, and creative thinker – John Adams occupies a unique position in the world of American music. His works, both operatic and symphonic, stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, brilliance of sound, and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes. Over the past 25 years, Adams’s music has played a decisive role in turning the tide of contemporary musical aesthetics away from academic modernism and toward a more expansive, expressive language, entirely characteristic of his New World surroundings.
Born and raised in New England, Adams learned the clarinet from his father and played in marching bands and community orchestras during his formative years. He began composing at age ten and heard his first orchestral pieces performed while still a teenager. The intellectual and artistic traditions of New England, including his studies at Harvard University and attendance at Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, helped shape him as an artist and thinker. After earning two degrees from Harvard, he moved to Northern California in 1971 and has since lived in the San Francisco Bay area.
Adams taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years before becoming composer-in-residence of the San Francisco Symphony (1982-85), and creator of the orchestra’s highly successful and controversial “New and Unusual Music” series. Many of Adams’s landmark orchestral works were written for and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony, including Harmonium (1981), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Harmonielehre (1985),My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003) and Absolute Jest (2012).
In 1985, Adams began a collaboration with the poet Alice Goodman and stage director Peter Sellars that resulted in two groundbreaking operas: Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). Produced worldwide, these works are among the most performed operas of the last two decades. Five further stage collaborations with Sellars followed: the 1995 “songplay”, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, with a libretto by June Jordan; El Niño (2000), a multilingual retelling of the nativity story; Doctor Atomic(2005), about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the first atomic bomb; A Flowering Tree, inspired by Mozart’s Magic Flute and premiered in Vienna in 2006, and the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary(2012), written for Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Adams is currently at work on a new opera about the California Gold Rush.
Recently completed works include the City Noir and the Saxophone Concerto, both released on a Nonesuch CD with the St Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson. In January the St Lawrence String Quartet gave the world premiere of Adams’ Second Quartet, marking the third collaboration between the composer and that ensemble. In March Leila Josefowicz will premiere Scheherazade.2, a “dramatic symphony” for violin and orchestra, with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert.
Both Harvard and Yale universities have conferred honorary doctorates on Adams, as have Northwestern University, the Juilliard School and Cambridge University in England. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California honored him with the Governor’s Award for his distinguished service to the arts in his adopted home state. His Violin Concerto won the 1993 Grawemeyer Award, and On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11, received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
The music of John Adams figures in numerous award-winning movies, including “I Am Love,” starring Tilda Swinton, “Barfly” with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway and this year’s Academy Award-winning “Birdman” by Alejandro Iñárritu.
John Adams is a much sought-after conductor, appearing with the world’s major orchestras in programs combining his own works with a wide variety of repertoire ranging from Beethoven and Mozart to Ives, Carter, Zappa, Glass and Ellington. He has appeared with the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the BBC Symphony and the London Symphony. This season he appears with the Vienna Symphony, and the orchestras of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Sao Paulo. For the past six years he has been Creative Chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Adams’ educational activities reach from the local (the John Adams Young Composers program in his hometown of Berkeley, California) to the international (Yale School of Music, the Juilliard Orchestra, the Royal Academy of Music and the New World Symphony).
John Adams is also a highly esteemed and provocative writer. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and has written for The New Yorker and The London Times. Hallelujah Junction, Adams’s much praised volume of memoirs and commentary on American musical life, won the Northern California Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and was named one of the “most notable books of the year” by The New York Times. The official John Adams website is www.earbox.com.
Articles by John Adams:
The wonderful, astonishing truth is that the arts are utterly useless. You can't eat music or poetry or dance. You can't drive your car on a sonnet or wear it...
Somehow it still seems fitting that I should always associate my apprenticeship with Leon Kirchner with the stormy years of the late sixties and early seventies, an era full of...
John Adams spills the beans about his new opera.