John Adams

b. 1947

Modern

There aren’t many famous classical composers alive today, but John Adams is definitely one of them. He’s been writing music since he was ten years old, and now his compositions are performed all over the world. In 2003 he even won a Pulitzer Prize, which is the big, important prize that all American composers want to win.

Like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, he’s best known for a distinctive style of music called Minimalism. Minimalist composers like to break music down into tiny little building blocks – people sometimes call them motifs, or even cells, like the building blocks of your body – then experiment with different ways of putting them back together. All sorts of unexpected sounds and rhythms emerge when the building blocks knock into each other. Sometimes the results sound really strange and exhilarating: just listen to Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which is one of John Adams’s best known works, for example. Or sometimes they sound creepy and sad, like his On the Transmigration of Souls, which was written in memory of the victims of the 9/11 attacks on America. Either way, you tend to get lots of repetition and gradual transformations. Like other Minimalist composers, Adams is very interested in the relationship between detail and structure – how small changes can have huge effects.

Adams writes more operas than most composers do these days, often choosing big, controversial political events as his subject matter. One of his more recent ones, from 2005, is called Doctor Atomic: it’s all about Robert Oppenheimer, the American scientist who helped build the first atomic bomb. Adams likes to provoke his audience and make them think, which means that sometimes people find his work challenging and difficult. Why do you think he does that? Is it just to be annoying, or is he trying to make a bigger point?

John Adams, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Try some tracks by John Adams...

Short Ride in a Fast Machine

A fast-paced, exhilarating piece that Adams described as a ‘fanfare for orchestra’. Explaining the title, he said, ‘You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?’

Performers: Marin Alsop; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Taken from Naxos 8.559031

Shaker Loops

One of Adams’s most popular pieces, exploring the composer’s interest in looping motifs. Originally written for string septet, it’s in four movements.

Performers: Marin Alsop; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Taken from Naxos 8.559031

Nixon in China: Act I Scene 1

One of Adams’s best-known operas, this work was inspired by a real-life political event. He uses lots of different musical styles in it.

Performers: Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.669022-24

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What was the instrument John Adams played as a child?

a. Clarinet
b. Bongos
c. Oboe

 Who hasn’t John Adams written an opera about?

a. Robert Oppenheimer
b. Richard Nixon
c. George Washington

 With which of these is John Adams most associated?

a. Serialism
b. Minimalism
c. Romanticism

 Which composer did Adams write an orchestral triptych (a set of three orchestral pieces) about?

a. J.S. Bach
b. Charles Ives
c. Joseph Haydn

 Whose poetry did Adams set in Harmonium?

a. Seamus Heaney
b. Thomas Hardy
c. Emily Dickinson


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. John Adams started writing music when he was just 10 years old.
  2. John Adams’s son followed in his footsteps – he’s a composer too!
  3. In 2003, John Adams won a Pulitzer Prize.
  4. One of the earlier composers who most influenced Adams is John Cage, even though their music sounds very different.
  5. When John Adams was young, the first instrument he learned properly was the clarinet.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Loop the Loop


Shaker Loops

One of Adams’s most popular pieces, exploring the composer’s interest in musical motifs (short groups of notes) that loop round and repeat. Originally written for string septet, it’s in four movements.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559031


Short Ride in a Fast Machine

A fast-paced, exhilarating piece that Adams described as a ‘fanfare for orchestra’. Explaining the title, he said, ‘You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?’

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559031


Phrygian Gates

This uses an old-fashioned ‘mode’ (a very old kind of scale) instead of a more modern key (like E major, or B minor), and Adams explores in detail the sound-world that this mode creates.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559285


Nixon in China: Act I Scene 1

The opening section of Adams’s best-known opera uses lots of looping motifs, which Adams layers up.

Performers: Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.669022-24

Pieces for Piano


Phrygian Gates

This uses an old-fashioned ‘mode’ instead of a key, and Adams is very rigorous about the way he explores the sound-world this creates.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559285


China Gates

This is a pretty early work, written for pianist Sarah Cahill. Like Phrygian Gates, it uses a mode rather than a key.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559285


American Berserk

Adams was inspired by jazz piano for this piece, but also by imaginative composers like Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559285


Hallelujah Junction

One piano wasn’t enough to convey the sonorous back-and-forth in this piece – so Adams uses two!

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559285

Vocal Works


The Wound-Dresser

This melancholy piece sets a poem by Walt Whitman about the American Civil War.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Nathan Gunn, baritone; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559031


I was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky: Act II: One Last Look…

Adams wrote this ‘song play’ about the aftermath of the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles. It follows seven very different people living in LA.

Performers: Simon Klaus; Holst Sinfonietta; Martina Muhlpointner, soprano; Kimako Xavier Trotman, baritone

Taken from Naxos 8.558196-97


Nixon in China: Act III: I am old and I cannot sleep

A meditative baritone aria from John Adams’s best-known opera. The character singing here is Chou En-Lai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China.

Performers: Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Chen-Ye Yuan, baritone; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.558216-17

Violin Music


Violin Concerto

This concerto is really difficult for the violinist. Just listen to her part here – she hardly ever stops playing! Adams’s earlier music didn’t have much melody – it was more about repeating phrases and making layers of sound; but in this concerto it’s as if he’s making up for it. It is full of curious, winding melodies…

Performers: Chloë Hanslip, violin; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.559302