John Adams

American Composer 1947 -

About the Composer

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

General Biography

Adams began composing at the age of ten and first heard his music performed around the age of 13 or 14. After he matriculated at Harvard University in 1965 he studied composition under Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, and David Del Tredici.[2][page needed] While at Harvard, he conducted the Bach Society Orchestra and was a reserve clarinetist for both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Company of Boston. He earned two degrees from Harvard University (BA 1969, MA 1972) and was among the first students to be allowed to submit a musical composition for a Harvard undergraduate thesis. His piece "American Standard" was recorded and released on Obscure Records in 1975. He taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 until 1984. He served as musical producer for a number of series for the Public Broadcasting System including the award-winning series, The Adams Chronicles in 1976 and 1977.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams
John Adams - On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)

My own thoughts on the music of John Adams


John Adams began composing relatively early; at ten he started composing, and by 14 he had heard his works performed. Entering Harvard University in 1965, Adams became the conductor for the Bach Society Orchestra. At Walter Piston’s Clarinet Concerto world premiere, Adams performed on the clarinet as the soloist. He moved to San Francisco in 1972 to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music until 1984.

While at the conservatory, Adams worked in an electronic music studio and was the conductor of the New Music Ensemble. It was in San Francisco that he heard the minimalist works of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley for the first time, and was immediately drawn to its sound. However, he soon felt that although minimalism was “the most important stylistic development in Western art music since the Fifties”, the genre had its limits, since repetition was its foundation.

Adams coined the term “post-minimalism” starting with his piece for string septet Shaker Loops (1978). This style is characterized by greater dynamic contrasts and a more fluid and layered sound. The completion and premiere of Harmonium in 1981 was well-received by critics and the public, establishing Adams as a major American composer. In 1987, he made yet another impact on the music scene with his opera Nixon in China. Another major opera work followed in 1991, titled The Death of Klinghoffer, which, like Nixon in China, detailed a historic event.

At the turn of the century, Adams composed El Niño (2000), an oratorio based on the Christmas story of Jesus Christ. With the tragic events that transpired on September 11, 2001, Adams was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center’s Great Performers to compose a piece in memory of the victims. The result, On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), is a work for orchestra, chorus and children’s choir on pre-recorded tape, earning Adams a 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

John Adams continues to compose to this day, with his most recent work being The Gospel According to the Other Mary (Oratorio for Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists) in 2013.

Most Significant Musical Works

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.


John Adams:
1. A Modern American Composer born in 1947
2. His style is "post minimalist"
3. Was inspired by Phillip Glass and Steve Reich
4. He composed a famous piece on the topic of the tragic events of Sept 11
5. He is alive and still working today