Often described as the US’s unofficial composer laureate, John Adams has become one of the most sought-after musicians of the 21st century, carving out a distinctive and often politically charged niche in the contemporary repertoire.
Adams was raised on a mixed diet of jazz, rock ’n’ roll and classical music in his New Hampshire childhood home, and the impetus placed on musical impartiality by his saxophonist father is evident in the broad range of influences that inform his work.
On being awarded a scholarship to Harvard University in the late 1960s, Adams at first intended to focus on his instrument – the clarinet – and conducting. And indeed, it wasn’t until after he graduated and moved to San Francisco, turning his back on fellow students’ idolatry of serialists like Webern and Boulez, that he began to approach composition seriously.
In 1972 he took up a post at the San Francisco Conservatory, organising concerts of ‘experimental’ music by composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman. However, his own musical style took inspiration from jazz and the ‘pure’ minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. With a flock of students at his disposal – what he described as a ‘working laboratory’ – Adams had a ready-made platform from which to develop this style.
Here’s a quick look at what we think are the six best works he’s come up with since…
1. Shaker Loops (1978)
Shaker Loops for string septet was written using fragments of an earlier string quartet Wavemaker, which, according to Adams himself, was poorly conceived and had a disastrous first performance
In this, his second attempt at presenting the material, he employs the same principles of repetition – or ‘loops’ – that pervade the music of Riley and Reich. However, expressive melodies and a strong narrative arc set the work apart from its minimalistic counterparts.
Its hugely successful premiere propelled Adams into the international limelight.
Recommended recording: Marin Alsop/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Naxos.
2. Harmonium (1980-81)
Written for SATB chorus and orchestra, Harmonium was composed in a small studio on the third floor of Adams’s Haight-Ashbury townhouse. While searching for inspiration, the composer (in his own words) ‘cast far and wide for a text to satisfy a musical image … one of human voices – many of them – riding upon waves of rippling sound’.
In the end he based the piece on three poems: ‘Negative Love’ by John Donne and Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ and ‘Wild Nights’. These poems define the three movements of the work, which has become one of his most well-known.
Recommended recording: Edo de Waart/San Francisco Symphony and Chorus on ECM New Series
3. Nixon in China (1987)
With its highly political subject matter and bold mix of contemporary and old fashioned operatic traditions, Adam’s first foray into stage music became an overnight sensation.
The opera is based upon the historic meeting of Richard Nixon and Chinese chairman Mao Tse-Tung in Beijjing, 1972 – the first time a US president had visited the People’s Republic of China. Being set just 15 years before it was written, Nixon in China was unique in that many of the characters portrayed could have attended the Houston premiere.
Recommended recording: Edo de Waart/The Chorus and Orchestra of St Lukes on Nonesuch.
4. Naïve and Sentimental Music (1999)
Written in three movements, this orchestral work is an exploration of the two types of creative personality described by Friedrich Schiller in his essay On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.
The first is the ‘naïve’ artist, who creates for the sake of creation, as opposed to the ‘sentimental’ artist who is aware of the historical and political significance of their work. Adams writes, ‘This particular piece, perhaps more than any of my others, attempts to allow the naïve in me to speak, to let it play freely’.
Recommended recording: Peter Oundjian/Sean Shibe and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos
5. Dharma at Big Sur (2003)
Adams harnesses the ethereal sound of the electric violin in this work composed for the opening of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In it he depicts the ‘shock of recognition’ one gets when reaching the end of the continental land mass at the California coast.
The first draft required the orchestra and soloist to play in ‘just intonation’, where the intervals between notes are tuned differently to a conventional scale. He spent weeks in his studio retuning synthesizers and samplers to create the desired effect, which to his disappointment was too difficult for the orchestra to recreate when he finally brought them the score.
Still, even without, the music is undeniably beautiful.
Recommended recording: John Adams/Tracy Silverman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Nonesuch
6. The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2014)
This oratorio is one of Adams’s more recent compositions. A rare choice in its religious subject matter, the work focuses on the last weeks of Jesus’s life from the point of view of Mary Magdeline, her sister Martha and brother Lazarus.
The libretto is compiled by Peter Sellers from Biblical sources, as well as original texts by the likes of Dorothy Day and Primo Levi.
A finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, The Gospel According to the Other Mary was received with critical acclaim, and confirmed Adams’s place in the composer hall of fame.
Recommended recording: Gustavo Dudamel/The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale on DG
Listen to our Best of John Adams playlist on Spotify