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John Adams

Adams, John (John Coolidge Adams), 1947–, American composer, b. Worcester, Mass. A clarinetist, he studied composition at Harvard (B.A. 1969, M.A. 1971). Often regarded as the most outstanding, technically adept, and influential composer of his generation, Adams has written in numerous genres, bringing to his compositions a keen sense of the theatrical and the vernacular. His distinctive sound is a mixture of post-minimalism with an intensely emotional expansiveness and a range of expressive tonal elements reminiscent of late romanticism and early modernism. Strong and vivid, his music can exhibit both a wittily life-affirming sense of fun and a decidedly contemporary aura of grief and horror.

Adams is best known for operas on topical themes, including Nixon in China (1987), about the president's 1972 visit; The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), based on a 1985 terrorist hijacking and murder; and Doctor Atomic (2005), dealing with J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the atomic bomb. Among his many other works are Shaker Loops (1978, rev. 1983) for strings, Harmonielehre (1985), Fearful Symmetries (1988), the "song-play" I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), El Dorado (1993), a violin concerto (1993), Lollapalooza (1995), Gnarly Buttons (1996) for clarinet and orchestra, and the symphonic Naive and Sentimental Music (1999). His 21st-century pieces include the monumental nativity oratorio El Niño (2000); On the Transmigration of Souls (2002; Pulitzer Prize), a meditative soundscape in memory of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, for orchestra, chorus, and various sound effects; A Flowering Tree, a lyrical opera based on a South Indian folk tale; and the dissonance-filled Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), a modernist interpretation of the last days of Jesus written for orchestra, soloists, and chorus.

See his memoir (2008); T. May, ed., The John Adams Reader (2006).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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