The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer
John Adams - A Portrait and a Concert of American Music
Adams - Death of Klinghoffer / Randle, Sylvan, Howard, Maltman, Boutros, Melrose, Bickley, LSO
One of America’s most famous living composers, John Adams is best known for producing dramatic works with highly topical subjects. A recent example is his Transmigration of Souls for chorus, children’s chorus, orchestra, and pre-recorded soundtrack. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for the opening of its 2002 season, the piece commemorated the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Its text consists almost entirely of missing-persons signs and memorials posted after September 11. This work is a testament to the significant place Adams occupies in American musical life.
Youth and Education
John Coolidge Adams was born on February 15, 1947, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The family soon moved, first to Vermont and then to New Hampshire. His father played the clarinet, and the young Adams also took up this instrument, traveling to Boston for clarinet lessons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Felix Viscuglia. Adams and his father played both in marching bands and in a local community orchestra. Being involved with the orchestra gave Adams an opportunity to learn conducting. In addition, when he was only fourteen, one of his early orchestral pieces received its premiere with this ensemble.
Adams began composition lessons when he was ten years old. Eight years later, in 1965, he entered Harvard University, where he studied with the composer Leon Kirchner. Adams also worked with other compositional luminaries, including Roger Sessions and David Del Tredici. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he stayed to earn a master of arts, awarded in 1972. Though he focused on composition, Adams did not abandon his other musical skills; he was a skilled enough clarinetist that he sometimes played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
San Francisco and the Development of a New Style
By the time he received his graduate degree, Adams had moved to San Francisco, where he taught at the San Francisco Conservatory from 1972 to 1982. After leaving Harvard, Adams had moved away from the academic compositional styles in which he had been educated. Instead he took inspiration from the writings and compositions of John Cage and from the growing anti-academic, minimalist movement of the mid-1970s. He also developed his interest in avant-garde styles by conducting the San Francisco Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble and commissioning new works for the group from Bay Area composers. The New Music Ensemble premiered Adams’ own Shaker Loops for string septet in 1978. (A later version for string orchestra was completed in 1983.)
Also in 1978, Adams began a long-standing association with the San Francisco Symphony, when, appointed to the post of music advisor, he initiated a program to bring new music to San Francisco. As composer-in-residence with the symphony between 1982 and 1985, Adams produced his celebrated choral-orchestral work Harmonium (1981), the ensemble piece Grand Pianola Music (1982), and the orchestral Harmonielehre (1985).
Grand Pianola Music (written for three female voices, two pianos, wind, brass, and percussion) mixes popular music styles with what are considered more serious art forms. However, its sense of parody and humor did not fit the expectations of the San Francisco audience, many of whom had attended the concert for its preceding program of serialist works. Harmonium and Harmonielehre were more favorably received. Both demonstrate the development of Adams’ personal approach to minimalism. Harmonium takes its title from a collection by the poet Wallace Stevens (published in 1923), but it actually sets two poems by Emily Dickinson, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “Wild Nights,” and one by John Donne, “Negative Love.” The title for Harmonielehre comes from a 1911 theoretical publication by composer Arnold Schoenberg, of whom Adams’ own teacher Leon Kirchner had been a pupil in the 1940s.
In 1983 renowned opera director Peter Sellars approached Adams about writing an opera. The subsequent collaborative project eventually enlisted poet Alice Goodman as librettist and choreographer Mark Morris. A joint commission made up of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Grand Opera, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts supported the project.
The result, Nixon in China, addresses Richard Nixon’s 1972 meeting with Mao Zedong, a subject that reflected Adams’ long-standing curiosity about American politics. The choice to write about a recent historical event, near enough that most of the participants in the meeting were still alive at the time of the opera’s composition, proved original and successful with audiences. By the end of its two-year developmental process, the opera was highly anticipated, attracting a great deal of media attention. The first performance at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987, was received enthusiastically. It soon earned an Emmy award for a televised broadcast and a Grammy for a 1988 recording on the Nonesuch label, conducted by Edo de Waart.
A second collaboration among Adams, Goodman, Sellars, and Morris began in 1989, taking on a different kind of political subject. The Death of Klinghoffer also portrayed an event in the very recent past, the 1985 hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro. The politically sensitive topic, involving Palestinian hijackers and a murdered Jewish passenger, provoked strong reactions when it premiered in 1991, particularly following its opening in the United States. Though Adams and Goodman attempted to produce a balanced dramatic portrayal, not indicative of any particular political stance, the opera caused widespread controversy and remained largely neglected until a film version was released in 2003.
Other dramatic works include I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, a “songplay in two acts” (1995), the “Nativity oratorio” El Niño (1999-2000), and Adams’ most recent opera, Doctor Atomic (2005). This opera addresses the moral considerations surrounding the development of the atomic bomb, particularly from the point of view of protagonist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Director Peter Sellars drew the texts from original sources, including government documents and the personal recollections of people associated with the project. Text from the Bhagavad Gita and poems of John Donne and Baudelaire were also woven into the libretto. Doctor Atomic, which premiered at the San Francisco Opera on October 1, 2005, has been well received to date.
Adams, John, Rebecca Jemian, and Anne Marie de Zeeuw. “An Interview with John Adams.” Perspectives of New Music 34.2 (1996): 88-104.