Composer of the Week: John Adams

photo courtesy of
photo courtesy of

John Adams is an incredibly awesome San Francisco Bay Area-based composer. You also may have noticed that many of my posts on Twitter are labeled with the #JohnAdamsFanClub hash tag.  I may be biased, but either way, his music is fantastic.

b. Feb. 15, 1947 in Worcester, MA

John Adams graduated from Concord High School in Concord, NH and went on to earn two degrees at Harvard. New England composers and the New England composition style in general were very influential for Adams. One of his major influences was Charles Ives. Adams’ work “My Father Knew Charles Ives” is a musical autobiography and an ode to Ives’ great influence on Adams’ work.
As a young child, Adams’ father taught him to play the clarinet — an instrument on which he was very accomplished. Adams mastered many clarinet works and performed as the soloist for the world premiere of Walter Piston‘s Clarinet Concerto at Carnegie Hall.

Adams began composing at age 10 and was still a teenager when he heard his own works performed.  Adams’ compositional style bridges minimalism, serialism, and romantic styles.

After moving to California in 1971, Adams taught and led ensembles at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for about 10 years. He was a composer in residence at the San Francisco Symphony from 1982-1985. Several of his major orchestral works were written for and performed by the Symphony in this time period, including Grand Pianola MusicHarmonielehre, and Harmonium.

Adams has also written six operas: Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky (1995), El Nino (2000), Doctor Atomic (2005) and A Flowering Tree (2006). In 2003 Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls which was a piece written for the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the first anniversary of the 2001 World Trade Center bombings. The work also won GRAMMY awards for “Best Classical Recording”, “Best Orchestral Performance”, and “Best Classical Contemporary Composition”.

Where to start:

-See a performance of one of John Adams’ operas or rent one on DVD. Doctor Atomic, The Death of Klinghoffer and El Nino are available on Netflix.

-listen to the emotion-evoking On the Transmigration of Souls.

Here’s a YouTube video of the first movement from John Adams’ Violin Concerto:

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