When asked to define what kind of music he writes, John Adams is fond of categorising himself as an 'ethnic' composer. It is as good a label as any for someone who has created a totally individual, immediately identifiable musical language from a more diverse collection of sources than any major composer working today. In the last 30 years of the 20th century the welter of styles and possibilities that has confronted any aspiring composer grew exponentially, and could easily have daunted a less discriminating personality, but that plurality of references has been turned to positive advantage by Adams.
Now, at the height of his powers, he is a composer who has at his fingertips a prodigiously adaptable musical language, in which the whole of the Western tradition, from the baroque to the present day is contained, and which pays tribute to rock and jazz as well. That wonderfully democratic approach to all forms of music, and the fastidious and constantly imaginative ear for harmony and instrumental colour, makes his music attractive, accessible and rewarding; it is not surprising that Adams has become the most widely performed of all living American composers.
Yet he began his career as a composer apparently destined for a role firmly fixed in the mainstream of the American tradition. Though he was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947, his family to the countryside of New Hampshire when he was very young and he grew up in a household in which in the early days of the LP, he has recalled, he could listen to both Mozart and Benny Goodman and enjoy their very different musics as equally valid. His father, who was a saxophonist, taught him the clarinet, and as a teenager he played in marching bands and even conducted a local orchestra. By the time Adams won a scholarship to Harvard University he had begun to compose himself, but when he went to college his intention was to study conducting and the clarinet; only gradually did composing become more important to him.
At Harvard Adams' composition teacher was the much respected Leon Kirchner, but in that cloistered academic atmosphere at the end of the 1960s he experienced what he has described as a great 'cognitive dissonance'. The musical world in which he found himself immersed took serialism as the orthodoxy, with Webern and Boulez especially promoted as models. But the aesthetic those composers defined was one from which Adams instinctively recoiled; he has said that he thought Webern's was 'particularly stingey music', in which everything had been shrunk down to a 'mass of precious informational theory'. And once he left what he has called the 'hushed, mortuary silence' of the Harvard music department, and went into the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the real cultural limitations of what he was being taught struck home; there on the streets he found the rock revolution in full spate, with flower power at its height.
It was a cultural paradox that Adams could only resolve by leaving the East Coast far behind. As a graduation present his parents gave him a copy of John Cage's book Silence, which for the first time made him aware of the myriad possibilities of writing music unencumbered by the strait jacket of serialism. The spiritual home of that Cageian revolution was then the California and so in 1971 Adams packed all his belongings into a Volkswagen Beetle and set off west, driving across the continent until he reached San Francisco; he has lived there ever since.
In the city he found the wholly different musical culture he was looking for, nurtured by composers, who, he has said, weren't worried about Schoenberg, and were less insular in their outlook with Cage as their patron saint. Adams immediately immersed himself in that heady, and crucially much more laissez-faire artistic world. In 1972 he began teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and began to organise concerts of what was then known as experimental music, including works by composers such as Cage, Earl Brown and Morton Feldman, bringing Gavin Bryars to the USA for the first time, and even commissioning a piece from Cornelius Cardew.
Most of the music that Adams himself wrote during those years has disappeared from sight. If he had achieved the physical break with the modernist tradition he had been desperately seeking, he had yet to find the way of convincingly reflecting that changed environment in what he was writing himself. The music he did produce explored unconventional sounds in exuberant Cageian collages and made forays into electronics. And much as enjoyed programming concerts of the West Coast radicals, he found that he was increasingly getting his real musical experiences not from their pieces, but from listening to the great established masters, especially Beethoven, and from jazz. He came to realise that for all the fun of working with the experimentalists, their musical outlook was not fundamentally his. If he wanted to find a real starting point for his own works he had to look elsewhere, and find a way of dealing with tonality in what he composed.
The mid 1970s were the high point of what, with the benefit of a quarter of a century of hindsight, we would now call the "pure" phase of minimalism. Some of the finest products of that movement, especially Terry Riley's In C, not so much a finished work as a musical kit from which performers could develop their own versions, and Steve Reich's far more deterministic Drumming seemed in their different ways to offer Adams the starting point he was looking for. But at the same time he realised that straight minimalism could not be the complete answer to his compositional impasse; he wanted to exploit the drive and rhythmic energy of that music, yet he also wanted to create a language with more expressive potential than minimalism on its own seemed to offer.
Those wider concerns are obvious in the first two minimalist works Adams produced, Phrygian Gates (1977) for piano, and Shaker Loops, the string septet he wrote the following year and which became the first of his scores to get widely performed and kickstarted his international reputation. Shaker Loops employs many of the repetitive procedures of minimalism in ways that recall Riley, but uses them to propel long, sinuous and unmistakably lyrical lines, melodies full of expressive intent; it remains one of his most effective and often heard works, especially in its string-orchestra version.
In 1978 also Adams became new-music advisor to the San Francisco Symphony, an appointment that four years later was transmuted into that of composer-in-residence with the orchestra, which he held until 1985. With the possibility now of composing for a full orchestra, his musical development accelerated; between 1981 and 1985 he produced three major scores that remain among his finest achievements and took his music far beyond the narrow confines of minimalism and into a world from which he was no going back. Harmonium (1981) is a choral work, setting poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and creating instrumental and vocal textures of luminous intensity.
If many of the techniques used in Harmonium can be traced directly back to minimalism, and to Reich's procedures in particular, then Grand Pianola Music (1982) for voices, two pianos and wind ensemble, really kicks over the traces; the building blocks of the music may still be based upon repetition, but overlaid on that matrix are increasingly outrageous, romantic gestures; the apotheosis of the last movement is a series of increasingly grandiose B flat major arpeggios. As Adams describes it, 'Beethoven, and Rachmaninov soak in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives and John Philip Sousa', and it predictably caused a scandal at its premiere in New York. On one level Grand Pianola Music is a parody of 19th-century rhetoric, but on another it is a clear statement of Adams' artistic intent, a signal that he was not going to be confined by any dogma or musical prescription and would create what he wanted using whatever material he thought appropriate.
Harmonielehre (1985) then pushed that debt to romanticism a step further, into a world of post-Wagnerian grandeur; The title is borrowed from the massive treatise on harmony that Schoenberg published in 1911, just before he took the final step into atonality and in Adams' bold, sometimes monumental writing work there are echoes of Schoenberg's early scores as well of Mahler, Sibelius, and Strauss. The three weighty movements have a quasi-symphonic sweep to them,
By the time that Harmonielehre was performed, however, Adams was already contemplating an even larger project. In 1983 he had been approached by the stage director Peter Sellars to write an opera; Sellars even had the subject ready made - the historic meeting of Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-Tung in Beijing in 1972 - and had a librettist lined up as well, the writer and poet Alice Goodman. Adams was initially chary of the idea, but then realised that these larger-than-life world leaders had an operatic quality to them that was hard to resist. Nixon in China not only set the seal on Adams' international reputation, but changed the face of contemporary opera virtually overnight.
Here was a work that dealt in recent history and real people, creating a genre that has been dubbed 'CNN opera'; several of whose protagonists could, had they so wished, actually have attended the premiere in Houston in 1987. It was unmistakably contemporary yet at the same time it was a grand opera in the Verdian tradition, which mediated between the public personas of the protagonists and their private anxieties, and built from a series of set-piece arias and ensembles, and even included a ballet. It is arguably the most successful opera of the last quarter of the 20th century, but the stage work with which the same team of composer, librettist and director followed Nixon has had a much more chequered career. The Death of Klinghoffer, was built around another piece of contemporary history, the hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in the Mediterranean in 1985. It is sombre, meditative work, darkly scored and often intensely chromatic, which takes Bach's passions as one of its models, and uses the tragic events of the hijacking as the springboard for a meditation on the whole eternal conflict between Arabs and Jews. The first performance took place in Brussels in 1991, during the Gulf War, and because Goodman's libretto deliberately avoided take sides, Klinghoffer was widely condemned by Jewish lobby groups especially in the USA. That controversy has dogged the score ever since, and further productions have been few and far between.
After writing two such large-scale works in relatively quick succession Adams temporarily at least turned away from opera. In the early 1990s he produced a series of orchestral works – a portrait of impending environmental catastrophe in El Dorado (1991), an exploration of Klinghoffer's chromaticism through the rhythmic prism of the jerky dislocations of cartoon music in the Chamber Symphony (1992) and a celebration of gilded melodic invention and virtuosity in the Violin Concerto (1993)– and followed those with a quirky string quartet, John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994) , in which the live strings are accompanied by a pre-recorded tape of prepared piano sounds, a remembrance of Adams' enthusiasm for John Cage two decades earlier. By then he was ready to explore music theatre again, but only on an intimate scale; I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, deals with the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994 and its consequences, as seen through the eyes of a group of the city's inhabitants; the score, a series of 24 'pop' songs, is arguably the most eclectic that he has composed so far.
Adams that he does not expect his musical language to change very radically in the future, but that he is going to use the craft he has acquired over the last two decades to create an expressive experience that goes beyond anything that he has done before. And in the works of the late 1990s he has shown how he has consistently expanded his horizons, even when the musical language itself has remained more or less the same; there is the fond revisiting of the music of the past, often placing it in an unexpected context, like the little homage to Satie's Gymnopédies in the slow movement of his piano concerto Century Rolls (1998), or the implicit tributes to Benny Goodman, Sousa and marching bands, all part of his youth, in Gnarly Buttons, for clarinet and chamber orchestra (1996). In Naive and Sentimental Music (1999), he takes a philosphical concept from Schiller as the basis for his most extended and ambitious orchestral work to date, and in El niño (2000), he showed his willingness to cut right across conventional genres. This part oratorio, part stage work defies easy categorisation, with its retelling of the Nativity story through extracts from both the familiar gospels and the apocryphal ones, overlaid with a commentary on the mystery of birth and child bearing in a series of poems by Latin American women writers. It is the kind of multi-cultural assemblage that is absolutely characteristic of Adams' art at its best; it celebrates the richness and the strangeness of being a composer in the 21st century, and does so in an utterly unique and often magically original way.