John Adams

Born:  February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA

The minimalist movement was fathered by La Monte Young, and brought to fruition by Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.  From these artists came the new generation of American composers, those who embraced minimalism but also wanted to move it forward.  It is in this newer generation that one finds composer John Adams. 


Early Studies        Minimalist Works        Nixon in China       

On the Transmigration of Souls            Sounds


Early Studies:

            Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 15, 1947.  The son of a clarinetist, he began clarinet lessons with both his father and Boston Symphony Orchestra clarinetist Felix Viscuglia (Sadie, 142).  By the age of ten he was studying theory and composition, and by age 14 he was playing with his father in a community orchestra.  He also used that orchestra to premiere his first composition and to practice his conducting skills.  His talent grew, and in 1972 he attended Harvard University to study composition with such illustrious composers as Leon Kirchner and Roger Sessions (Gann, 229).  However, as many composers before him, he felt stifled by the school’s music curriculum.  Adams described his college experience by saying,

“I was interested in jazz and rock, and then I would go into the music department, which was like a    mausoleum where we would sit and count tone-rows in Webern.  It was a dreadful time…Right from 1967 I knew I was leading a double-life-and that it was dishonest.”

Adams’ parents understood their son’s dissatisfaction, and upon graduation they gave him a copy of Silence by John Cage (Gann, 229).  While Adams was skeptical about Cage’s chance compositional techniques, his work did present Adams with the possibility of alternative ideas, which culminated in his 1971 move to San Francisco.


Minimalist Works:

Upon his arrival to San Francisco, Adams found work teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a position he held until 1982.  It was in this capacity that his interest in minimalism flourished.  Adams already had some experience with the genre; while at Harvard he had heard Terry Riley’s In C.  However, to be in California in the 1970s was to be surrounded by minimalist composers and works.  Adams was converted after hearing a 1974 performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming; he referred to the work as, “a bucket of fresh spring water splashed on the grim and rigid visage of classical music” (Gann, 229).  This led to his first two minimalist pieces.  The first was a 1977 piano work called Phrygian Gates, which demonstrated repetitive cell structure used within the Lydian and Phrygian modes.  The next year, a string septet called Shaker Loops seemed to cement his reputation as a minimalist contemporary of Reich, Riley, and Philip Glass.  The work consists of oscillating melodic cells which create complex patterns when repeated as if in a tape loop, and the resulting effect is that of a shimmering pond or lake.  Indeed, Shaker Loops is a reworking of an earlier failed Adams composition, named Wavemaker, reflecting this concept (Adams, 2006).  With these pieces, Adams gained a reputation as a minimalist.  However, Adams wanted to stretch the boundaries of the style: one writer even referred to him as “a Minimalist bored with Minimalism.”  Adams found a way to expand minimalism five years later with his most notorious piece: an opera based on President Richard Nixon.


Nixon in China:

In 1983, a theater director named Peter Sellars approached Adams with the intention of hiring him to collaborate on an opera about Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.  The subject matter was daunting, but Sellars already had a reputation as being a bit of a maverick.  He was famous for taking important classical works, such as Shakespeare plays or Mozart operas, and setting them in modern times, scandalizing audiences and confusing critics (Gann, 229).  However, three separate entities had requested a work from him:  the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Opera, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Adams, 2006).  Sellars’s interest in contemporary staging would make Nixon an appealing subject.  Also, by focusing on the trip to China rather than events afterward, they could avoid making the work into a simple parody.  Adams agreed to the subject, and asked that the libretto be written in couplets, a form which Adams felt would bring out both the satirical and the serious sides of the former president.  The libretto was written by Alice Goodman, a Harvard classmate of Sellars, who insisted that the work be in the form of a heroic opera.  She created a libretto focusing on six unique characters: Richard and Pat Nixon, Chairman Mao, his wife Chiang Ch’ing, Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai, and American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Goodman, 1987). 

Once Goodman finished the libretto, Adams began working on the music.  The opening theme that Adams created for the work consisted of rising scales lasting for 159 measures.  The rising tones, harmonic shifts, and gradual crescendo create a sense of anticipation in the audience, which leads to the opening chorus by the Chinese peasants:  “The people are the heroes now.  Behemoth pulls the people’s plow” (Steinberg, 1987).  This chorus sets the stage; their words reflecting communist China’s dedication to the principle of shared work and shared benefits.  The peasant’s singing leads to the opera’s greatest staged effect: a replica of Air Force One appears, and an excited Nixon emerges to meet with Premier Chou En-Lai.  After exchanging a few pleasant remarks, Nixon remarks to Kissinger that “News has a kind of mystery.  When I shook hands with Chou En-Lai…Just now, the world was listening.”  Adams is not unwilling to satire Nixon in this speech; Nixon demonstrates such excitement that he can barely get this sentence out through his stuttering (Gann, 230-231).  Yet, he leaves no room for others to speak; Chou tries to say something to Nixon, but the president is too wrapped up in his beliefs that this is a historical moment to be praised.  Thus, the opera begins, and the clash between the two nations is introduced. 

As the opera continues, Adams demonstrates the difference between the two countries in different ways.  One example he cites occurs in Act II, in an opera-within-an-opera entitled “The Red Detachment of Women.”  This section opens with the dancers carrying rifles while costumed in Revolution Army uniforms.  For this dance, Adams brilliantly designed music that sounds as if it were composed by a committee, where each member does not know what the others have done (Adams, 2006).  From a communist perspective, such music would reflect the desire for everyone to work together so that the art is “of the people.”  To Americans used to individual expression in art, the music does not sound right; there is a feeling of too little personality. 

As the opera-within-an-opera progresses, Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing find themselves drawn into its story about the women’s army saving a group of peasants maltreated by a vicious landowner.  The wives of Nixon and Mao take opposing sides, reflecting the clash between the two nations and political philosophies (Adams, 2006).  By Act III, Nixon’s confidence is shaken, since he does not quite understand the cultural forces that have shaped Mao and Chou’s political vision.  In turn, Mao and Lai feel that not much has been accomplished in these five days.  By the end of the opera, each character is in his or her bed, reflecting on the visit.  Nixon and Chairman Mao both reflect upon their early years (Gann, 231).  Premier Chou has the final thoughts on the visit, which turn out to be more thoughtful than the other characters’ musings.  He asks the question, “How much of what we did was good?  Everything seems to move beyond our remedy.  Come, heal this wound.  At this hour nothing can be done” (Goodman, 1987).   Nixon in China premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987.  The reception was mixed, since some rebelled against the minimalist music, and others rebelled against a heroic opera about the unpopular Nixon.  Donal Henehan of The New York Times was one such critic, who described Adams’s writing as, “a mechanical, modular manner that a fairly intelligent computer could be programmed to duplicate” (Henehan, 1987).  However, critics were mostly positive, and over  time the opera has gained popularity and critical acclaim.  Commentator Michael Steinberg said of the opera, “Adams’s music enters the ear easily, but it is not simple, certainly not simple-minded, and never predictable” (Steinberg, 1987).  This quote suggests that those who criticized the work as strictly minimalist may have reacted more to Adams’s notoriety in the genre than by what they heard.  Current reviews of various revivals support this; The Guardian’s Erica Jeal described the score as “…beautiful, lyrical and, yes, operatic”  (Jeal, 2006).  Nixon in China stands today as an important artistic reflection of the Cold War and, as the first American opera to deal in current events, an important influence on modern opera.  Fresh ears can listen to Adams’s score and hear both the minimalist and the operatic qualities that create a fascinating portrait of this historic event.


On the Transmigration of Souls:

The example of Nixon in China as an opera based on current events is one that Adams followed throughout his compositional career.  His second opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, was based on the 1985 Arab terrorist hijacking of the ship Achille Lauro, which resulted in the death of an elderly Jewish man (Gann, 231).  This piece was composed in 1991, and created some controversy due to the three-dimensional portrayal of some of the terrorists.  Even though the opera ends with Klinghoffer being murdered and his wife mourning his dead body, many felt that by humanizing the terrorists and examining both sides of the story, Adams was making an anti-Semitic statement.  The Jewish Information League picketed the performances, critics attacked the opera’s politics, and the work has not been performed in America since its first run (Adams, 2006).  Therefore, it was strange that when the New York Philharmonic wanted to commission a work for its 2002-2003 season that would have another terrorist act as its subject, Adams was chosen as the composer.  This time, however, there would be no controversy.  Adams would create his most poignant, emotional, and heart-breaking composition to date.

In January of 2002, Adams was asked to compose a work for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra that would premiere just after the one-year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Adams accepted the commission knowing that he would have comparatively little time to work, but he felt that the commission would help him better understand his own feelings about the attacks.  In March of 2002, Adams visited Ground Zero with police officers guiding him around the area, describing what they had witnessed with emotion.  He noticed that although it appeared to be a construction site, if he looked closer he could see the memorials left in remembrance (Adams, 2006). 

John Adams made the decision that he did not want his work to have the feel of a standard memorial or requiem.  Rather, he wanted to give the impression of a vast empty space inside a cathedral, where one feels surrounded by the souls of all who have passed, and where one could silently contemplate (Adams, 2006).  He referred to such places as “memory spaces,” and his intention was to create a memory space with his work (Schiff, 2003).  Another musical cliché Adams wanted to avoid was narrative, either musical or vocal.  The reasoning was simple to comprehend.  Everyone in America already knew the story of what had happened, and any attempt to summarize the events or create a standard plot would be “distasteful and banal” (Adams, 2006).  Adams found inspiration in a video he had seen about the event, with paper falling out of windows and falling like snow (Adams, 2006).  That was a creative starting point, and from there Adams began setting out what he would do to make this difficult piece work.

Adams titled his composition On the Transmigration of Souls.  The word ‘transmigration’ is defined as ‘to migrate to another place, to cause to go from one state of existence or place to another.”  Adams wanted his piece to reflect the soul’s movement not just from life to death, but also from suffering and pain to a new transformation, whatever that might be for the survivors (Adams, 2006).

The text consisted of several sections.  The first was a reading of the victims’ names by family members and friends, recorded onto tape.  Also recorded onto tape were sounds of New York City; the cars, horns, sirens, voices, laughter, and all other sounds that are common on any given day to New York City.  These taped sections were superimposed over the live chorus that would perform the third portion of sound, which came from missing person signs around Ground Zero, captured in photograph by New York Philharmonic archivist Barbara Haws (Schiff, 2003).  Adams was particularly struck with the absence of verbosity on the signs, since the survivors were often in too much grief to express how they felt (Adams, 2006).  The words were simple; a few examples being, “He was the apple of my father’s eye,” and “”He used to call me every day.  I’m just waiting.”  These texts were incorporated into works for adult and children’s choirs, the different sounds of each playing off each other (Adams, 2006).  The choirs were underscored by an orchestra tentative to enter at first.  For nearly ten minutes there is merely a suggestion of strings, harp, and a trumpet which quotes Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, in which the question being asked is, “What is the meaning of life?”  The woodwinds enter and ripple in the background as the chorus sings, and then there is a sudden blast from the whole orchestra.  The sound backs away, only to return again, the orchestral chords building as the chorus sings the repeated words “love” and “light.”  Finally, the orchestra backs away and the chorus sings of everyday concerns:  “I see water and buildings” (Schiff, 2003).  

On September 19, 2002, John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls debuted at the New York Philharmonic (Adams, 2006).  Pierre Ruhe of the Atlanta Journal Constitution said that at its premiere, the piece, “held everyone in the Lincoln Center audience frozen in their seats, engrossed in the music, and for moments in the middle, weeping” (Ruhe, 2003).  Despite a few people who felt that having tape and live music created an atmosphere more suited to the movies, the reaction Ruhe describes has been the prevailing opinion.  Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle refers to the work as, “…a public utterance of enormous dignity and tenderness” (Kosman, 2003).  The Atlantic Monthly’s David Schiff says of the work, “He has created a music that mirrors and exalts the public wisdom” (Schiff, 2003).  In April of 2003, Adams received the Pulitzer Prize in music, and the recording of On the Transmigration of Souls won Grammy Awards for Best Orchestra Performance, Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and Best Classical Album (Mattison, 2005).  Moreover, the work has cemented Adams’s reputation as America’s principal living composer.  On the Transmigration of Souls proved that Adams’s music can tell stories and describe emotions that most other composers would find impossible.  Creating a meaningful work so soon after the tragedy of September 11th was an extremely difficult task, and Adams exceeded all expectations while managing to keep the focus as far from himself as possible.  With this piece, Adams has assured those who love classical music that it is still a vital, creative, and necessary art form, and will survive into the 21st century.



Nixon in China:  The People Are the Heroes Now

This is the first vocal line heard in the opera.  The singers, Chinese workers, express their philosophy on the country's Communist government.


Nixon in China - News Has a Kind of Mystery

Nixon describing his satisfaction in the first meeting between himself and Chou En-Lai, and expressing his awareness of the cultural, political, and historical impact this visit represents.  The repetition of the word "who" represents Nixon's habit of stuttering when excited.


On the Transmigration of Souls

In this opening section of the work, names of missing victims from the Twin Towers are read aloud by family members and friends.