Music John Adams
Alice Cotter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0279


American composer John Coolidge Adams (b. 1947, Worcester, MA) has created some of the most provocative artistic statements of our age. Adams’s controversial operas about real-life recent events contributed to a reinvigoration of contemporary opera in America. While the composer’s stage works have generated much scholarly and critical interest, the breadth of scholarship on Adams’s music expands beyond the operas. Early instrumental works have been the subject of scholarly discussion about the evolution of musical minimalism to postminimalism. Interviews and Adams’s autobiography offer insight into the many musical tributaries that have informed the composer’s life: big band jazz heard at the family’s dance hall in New Hampshire; musical theater sung by Adams’s mother in community productions; classical music as a clarinetist in youth symphonies; rock and roll; and the New England landscapes that would long inspire Adams. At Harvard University, Adams studied composition with Leon Kirchner, a former student of Arnold Schoenberg. Kirchner introduced Adams to the rigors of academic serialism and also to the problem, which would later plague Adams, of how to balance instinct with method. In 1971, after completing degrees (BA and MA) in music composition, Adams relocated to northern California. Adams joined the San Francisco experimental music scene and eventually established a voice as a distinctly American composer. Much scholarship has been devoted to the plurality of Adams’s stylistic impulses. Phrygian Gates (1977) and China Gates (1977) were the composer’s first works in the strict minimalist style. Soon thereafter, Adams began to integrate compositional techniques drawn from pre-Baroque to late-19th-century Romantic styles. Shaker Loops (1978), Harmonium (1981), and Harmonielehre (1984–1985) resulted. In 1985, Adams began composing the opera Nixon in China (1987) in collaboration with director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman, discovering a penchant for text setting. Their next opera, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), proved to be a critical minefield, giving rise to a series of polemical debates about music, politics, and representation. After Klinghoffer, Adams composed primarily instrumental works using increasingly chromatic and modal idioms. In the early 2000s, Adams returned to grand opera with Doctor Atomic (2005) and continued to compose stage works, including A Flowering Tree (2006), The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012), and Girls of the Golden West (2017), all in collaboration with Sellars. Adams’s focus on subjects of living memory in both the operas and instrumental works, such as On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), transformed the contemporary classical repertoire, making Adams a principal figure in late-20th and early-twenty-first-century American music.

General Overviews

The most useful all-purpose introductions to Adams’s music and life are found not in academic publications at this time but rather in the popular press and Adams’s own memoir and official website. Ross 2001 presents an engaging biographical overview of Adams from the perspective of a working music critic. Machart 2004 is a book-length biography of the composer, written in French and also from the point of view of a professional music critic. May 2006 is a compendium of critical essays, reviews, and interviews that point the reader toward specific issues and works. Adams 2008 is the composer’s autobiographical account. Cahill’s article in Grove Music Online (Adams, John), updated in 2008, offers a useful summary of Adams’s compositional activities up to that point. John Adams (official website) is a good place to start for a list of works, basic information about specific pieces, and regular updates concerning new works.

  • Adams, John. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

    This autobiographical account charts the evolution of the composer’s aesthetics and compositional practice from the 1960s to 2007. Adams organizes the memoir chronologically, detailing the genesis of major works, namely the operas. Includes firsthand account of Adams’s relationship to musical minimalism, childhood, influences, and individuals who helped shape the composer’s career.

  • Cahill, Sarah. “Adams, John.” In Grove Music Online.

    Cahill, a professional pianist and writer on music, provides an excellent biographical summary, contextual details, and overview of Adams’s music up to 2008. The author offers general comments about the composer’s stylistic tendencies. A partial chronological work list through 2006 appears.

  • John Adams.

    Curated by Adams himself, the composer’s official website offers details about Adams’s dramatic, orchestral, solo, tape and electronic, choral, and chamber works. The page for each work provides information about premieres, instrumentation, length, available recordings, overviews, and video/audio links. The site is often updated with news, information about upcoming premieres, Adams’s biography, and photos to download.

  • Machart, Renaud. John Adams. Arles, France: Actes-Sud, 2004.

    In French, this first book-length biography of Adams offers insight into the composer’s music and aesthetic leanings, from Adams’s minimalist beginnings to the operas and Pulitzer Prize–winning commemorative work, On the Transmigration of Souls (2002). An English translation of Machart’s chapter, “Aspects of John Adams’s Music: Floating Elegies and Music Boxes,” is included in May 2006. Written in some collaboration with Adams. Journalistic in style.

  • May, Thomas, ed. The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer. Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2006.

    The most comprehensive collection to date of select interviews, essays, and reviews by critics and commentators of Adams’s music. The book is organized in four parts: biographical overviews; program/liner notes and reviews (1970s to 2005); collaborations and conducting career; and critical reception, with an emphasis on the Klinghoffer controversy. Ross 2001 and Taruskin 2001 (cited under the Klinghoffer Controversy) are among the essays included in May’s collection.

  • Ross, Alex. “The Harmonist: John Adams Takes the Agony Out of Modern Music.” New Yorker, 8 January 2001: 40–46.

    A portrait of Adams written at the end of a period in which Adams composed primarily instrumental works. Ross, longtime New Yorker music critic, positions Adams as a pioneer and discusses the composer’s relationship with minimalism. Includes commentary on the Klinghoffer controversy and Adams’s lack of interest in composing another grand opera at that point. Ends with discussion of then recent works Naïve and Sentimental Music (1999) and El Niño (2000).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.