John Adams

John Adams is one of the best-known composers who works in a minimal style, though as you’ll read in the linked article he is less rigid in his application of minimalism than some earlier composers such as Phillip Glass or Steve Reich. As you read the section entitled “Musical Style,” pay special attention to his feelings about twelve-tone composition and the influence of John Cage.


Figure 1. John Adams

Figure 1. John Adams

John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947) is an American composer with strong roots in minimalism.

His works include Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), a choral piece commemorating the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003), and Shaker Loops (1978), a minimalist four-movement work for strings. His operas include Nixon in China (1987), which recounts Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, and Doctor Atomic (2005), which covers Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the building of the first atomic bomb.

The Death of Klinghoffer is an opera for which he wrote the music, based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the hijackers’ murder of wheelchair-bound 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. The opera has drawn controversy, including allegations by some (including Klinghoffer’s two daughters) that the opera is antisemitic and glorifies terrorism. The work’s creators and others have disputed these criticisms.

Musical Style

The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist although in interview he has categorised himself as a ‘post-style’ composer. While Adams employs minimalist techniques, such as repeating patterns, he is not a strict follower of the movement. Adams was born ten years after Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and his writing is more developmental and directionalized, containing climaxes and other elements of Romanticism. Comparing Shaker Loops to minimalist composer Terry Riley’s piece In C, Adams says,

rather than set up small engines of motivic materials and let them run free in a kind of random play of counterpoint, I used the fabric of continually repeating cells to forge large architectonic shapes, creating a web of activity that, even within the course of a single movement, was more detailed, more varied, and knew both light and dark, serenity and turbulence.

Many of Adams’s ideas in composition are a reaction to the philosophy of serialism and its depictions of “the composer as scientist.” The Darmstadt school of twelve tone composition was dominant during the time that Adams was receiving his college education, and he compared class to a “mausoleum where we would sit and count tone-rows inWebern.”

Adams experienced a musical epiphany after reading John Cage’s book Silence (1973), which he claimed “dropped into [his] psyche like a time bomb.” Cage posed fundamental questions about what music was, and regarded all types of sounds as viable sources of music. This perspective offered to Adams a liberating alternative to the rule-based techniques of serialism. At this point Adams began to experiment with electronic music, and his experiences are reflected in the writing of Phrygian Gates (1977–78), in which the constant shifting between modules in Lydian mode and Phrygian mode refers to activating electronic gates rather than architectural ones. Adams explained that working with synthesizers caused a “diatonic conversion,” a reversion to the belief that tonality was a force of nature.

Figure 2. John Adams, Phrygian Gates, mm 21–40 (1977)

Figure 2. John Adams, Phrygian Gates, mm 21–40 (1977)

Some of Adams’s compositions are an amalgamation of different styles. One example is Grand Pianola Music (1981–82), a humorous piece that purposely draws its content from musical cliches. In The Dharma at Big Sur, Adam’s draws from literary texts such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Henry Miller to illustrate the California landscape. Adams professes his love of other genres other than classical music; his parents were jazz musicians, and he has also listened to rock music, albeit only passively. Adams once claimed that originality wasn’t an urgent concern for him the way it was necessary for the minimalists, and compared his position to that of Gustav Mahler, J. S. Bach, and Johannes Brahms, who “were standing at the end of an era and were embracing all of the evolutions that occurred over the previous thirty to fifty years.”

Style and Analysis

Adams, like other minimalists of his time (e.g. Philip Glass), used a steady pulse that defines and controls the music. The pulse was best known from Terry Riley’s early composition In C, and slowly more and more composers used it as a common practice. Jonathan Bernard highlighted this adoption by comparing Phrygian Gates, written in 1977, and Fearful Symmetries written eleven years later in 1988.

Violin Concerto, Mvt. III “Toccare”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Adams started to add a new character to his music, something he called “the Trickster.” The Trickster allowed Adams to use the repetitive style and rhythmic drive of minimalism, yet poke fun at it at the same time. When Adams commented on his own characterization of particular minimalist music, he stated that he went joyriding on “those Great Prairies of non-event.”