John Adams was a cool cat and is the most widely performed of all living American composers

John Adams, born 1947 in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a composer who grew up in NH and is widely recognized as the most widely performed of all living American composers. Beyond this, we at Night is Alive think he was a pretty cool cat and has an interesting story to be told. His work covers a wide range of genres which pays tribute to rock and jazz as well. He went to Harvard University to study Clarinet and although he studied composing he felt that much of what was taught was nothing more than a mass of useless music theory with very little real-world application.

Adams was a free spirit and an adventurous type and, in an effort, to free his mind he felt that he needed to switch coasts. So, he headed to the left coast of California in search of flower power inspiration. It was 1971 and 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 1972 he got a job teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

In 1983 he was approached by a 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 wary of the idea, but then realized 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.

The Death of Klinghoffer, another composition of Adams, was built around another piece of contemporary history, the hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in the Mediterranean in 1985.

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.

Adams is prolific in his compositions that spanned over 30 years. This is only a partial list of his musical creations. 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 retold the Nativity story in El Niño (2000).

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