An American Sensibility: A Profile of 2022 Composer-in-Residence John Adams

March 2, 2022

story by Kyle MacMillan
photo by Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Predicting musical immortality is a speculative enterprise at best, but few if any composers from our time stand a better chance of being remembered 100 years from now than John Adams…

who sprang to fame in the 1980s with high-spirited works like Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Once an upstart who caused waves with his controversial “CNN operas” like Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer, the 75-year-old composer has become a much performed and respected éminence grise in the field.

The Grammy Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner will serve as the Colorado Music Festival’s 2022 composer-in-residence and co-curator of its July 12-17 Music of Today series, which features an array of works by 17 living composers. In addition, Adams will conduct two of his own creations: City Noir (2009) and Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018). Unlike some composers who dabble in the pursuit, Adams has taken conducting seriously enough that he was invited by the vaunted Berlin Philharmonic to lead a slate of his works as that orchestra’s composer-in-residence in 2016-17. “I need to have both – that extrovert, public activity to balance the introverted and solitary nature of my composing,” he said in a 2017 interview published on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website.

Adams is part of a wave of composers in the late 20th century who rejected the iron grip that serialism exerted on the field for decades and looked to other musical styles and classical music’s past for inspiration. San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman, for example, has written that Adams’ 1999 large-scale orchestral work Naïve and Sentimental Music (a title inspired by the writings of 18th-century philosopher Friedrich Schiller) “takes its rhetoric and sense of scale from the symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler and Sibelius, and its musical content from the nexus of pop melody and old-style minimalism à la Steve Reich.”

And indeed, Adams drew on the work of Reich and Philip Glass, composers a decade or so older than him. In his early pieces, he created his own brand of minimalism, which can be heard in some of the insistent, iterative passages in Nixon in China (1985-87), one of the few contemporary operas to gain a foothold in the standard repertoire. But even though elements of minimalism recur in his music, the composer moved beyond the approach. It can be hard to pin down Adams’ style, because somewhat in the same way that Stravinsky was constantly evolving, the composer changes his musical approach to fit whatever project he is working on at the time.

That can mean adding a cimbalom – a hammered dulcimer that is associated with folk music from Central Europe – to his orchestration for the 2012 oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary or looking back to the 20th-century world of jazz-tinged orchestral music in City Noir. “A lot of artists do that,” he said in a 2013 Chicago Sun-Times interview, “they brand themselves, so the audience thinks they know what they’re getting, and I completely don’t want to do that. I want each piece of mine to be a complete departure or, if not complete, at least a challenge for myself and a move into the future.”

Like Aaron Copland, Carlisle Floyd or Florence Price, what can be said about Adams is that he is an emphatically American composer, a fact he acknowledges in what he has described as a kind of musical autobiography, My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003). He sometimes draws on popular, idiomatic American musical styles like jazz and ragtime and mines American history in works like Nixon in China. At the same time, he has lived much of his life outside San Francisco and is deeply marked by the American West, as evidenced by works like Girls of the American West (2017) and The Dharma at Big Sur (2003), in part an ode to the Pacific coastline and Beat author Jack Kerouac. “Without turning into a jingoist or offering a version of America First, which I certainly don’t agree with,” Adams said in the Chicago Symphony interview, “I do think that being able to express what you might call an ethnic American sensibility has been one of the flavors of my creative life.”

Unlike some composers who are primarily known for their instrumental works (Brahms or Chopin) or operatic works (Verdi or Wagner), Adams follows more in the footsteps of Mozart or Britten. Opera and all the theatricality and vocalism that goes along with it sit at the heart of those two giants’ output, but they managed to do both kinds of music well, and that is the case with Adams as well. He has produced five operas, including Doctor Atomic (2004-05), which revolves around the Manhattan Project, and they are counterbalanced by symphonies, concertos, string quartets and instrumental and choral works that defy conventional structures.

Whatever form he is working in, Adams is not afraid to address historical and socio-political themes. After Sept. 11, he wrote what arguably stands as classical music’s most poignant rumination on the events of that horrible day, On the Transmigration of Souls. The Pulitzer-winning 23-minute orchestral and choral work is performed alongside a soundtrack filled with ambient sounds of New York with voices reciting names of victims and fragments of sentences from the thousands of missing-person posters after the horrific tragedy. “What John does in this piece so remarkably is somehow bring together the global, or even cosmic, aspect of that with the very deeply personal,” pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane said in a 2010 Denver Post article, having conducted the work at the Colorado Symphony. “It’s mostly a very gentle piece with a few very powerful and necessary exceptions.”

Adams is not afraid to take on tough subjects such as women’s rights or nuclear war, and some of his works have inevitably sparked debate, none more so that than the 1990-91 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which is based on the 1984 highjacking of the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro. But he is not interested in agitation or provocation for its sake. At his core, he is a master musician, a composer who has managed to live up to the standards set by the greats before him yet carve out a fresh, distinctively American and arguably timeless musical niche of his own.

2022 Festival attendees have six opportunities to experience classical music composer John Adams’ music this summer at Chautauqua Auditorium. 

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