Adams, John, American composer

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 Doctor Atomic (libretto by Peter Sellars, 2005) about Robert Oppenheimer and 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 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; A Flowering Tree (2006), a lyrical opera based on a S Indian folk tale; the dissonance-filled oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012, rev. 2017), an interpretation of Jesus' last days; Girls of the Golden West (libretto by Sellars, 2017), which punctures myths about the California gold rush; and a funkily American piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2019).

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

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Music: History, Composers, and Performers: Biographies