Born in 1947 in Massachusetts, John Adams is 10 years younger than Steve Reich and Philip Glass, with whom he is often classified as a Minimalist. His success has much to do with an espousal of modality and regular pulse – musical elements reintroduced by the Minimalists in reaction to much modernist music. Yet Adams’s approach since the late 1970s emphasises two things that early Minimalism is generally said to have rejected. One is direct emotional expression; the other concerns allusions to, and even direct quotations from, other musics. Adams himself has described his development as an alternation between ‘two opposing polarities: along with every dark, introspective, “serious” piece there must come the Trickster, the garish, ironic wild card that threatens to lose me whatever friends the previous composition might have gained’. Thus Harmonium (1981), settings of John Donne and Emily Dickinson, was followed by Grand Pianola Music (1982).
Allusion and quotation played an increasing role in Adams’s output from 1978 – when Shaker Loops drew on the spiritual ecstasy of America’s 18th-century fundamentalist movement – up to the late-1980s works Nixon in China and Fearful Symmetries. Since then, such references have generally been less overt, though the Chamber Symphony (1992) alludes both to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 and to American cartoons.
With Nixon in China, his first opera (1987), Adams achieved international fame. The director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman and the choreographer Mark Morris were integral both to this project and to his next opera, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise-liner. An event from recent history – the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake – was likewise the starting point for the ‘songplay’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995). By contrast, El Niño (2000) is a ‘Nativity oratorio’ featuring film as well as stage action. Adams’s most recent operatic collaborations with Sellars are Doctor Atomic (2005) and A Flowering Tree (2006), both seen in London during the past two years. The Doctor Atomic Symphony, extensively recasting and extending the opera, was premiered at the 2007 BBC Proms. Adams’s works include Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), also choreographed for San Francisco Ballet by Mark Morris, and City Noir (2009).
In 1995 the composer received the Grawemeyer Award for his Violin Concerto. In 2003, the year in which he became Artist-in- Association with the BBC SO, his On the Transmigration of Souls, written for the first anniversary of 9/11, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Profile by Keith Potter © BBC