Whenever a new composer “arrives,” a portion of the ensuing excitement comes from the fact that their future remains unwritten. Anything can still happen, and it’s precisely that lack of baggage that makes the early works so thrilling. Before long, though, the academics pounce and attempt to categorize everything; the allure of compartmentalizing becomes too difficult to resist.
So it can feel sometimes with John Adams, one of the most performed and beloved (and discussed) of America’s contemporary composers. Is he really a “minimalist,” a la Steve Reich and Philip Glass? He certainly does love hard-driving rhythms and those repeating loops of notes (known as ostinati). Or is he a “post-minimalist,” given the obvious love of Romantic harmony and his jones for grand, expressive climaxes? Or would those traits make him a neo-something-or-other? And, wait: In light of his memorable arias written for fictional versions of President Nixon, ship-hijacking terrorists and Robert Oppenheimer, is Adams now best thought of as a composer of historical operas?
This is where most people who aren’t into such debates check out. But here’s the secret: you don’t have to choose – the answer to the question, “Which kind of composer is John Adams?” might simply be “all of the above.” What follows are five ways to make your way into the living legend’s body of work.
The Young Minimalist
Younger than both Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Adams didn't come up in New York, so he was never part of that scene even though, as a student at Harvard, he also didn't much care for the European atonalism in vogue inside the academy. The undergraduate liked rock and he liked Wagner, only he didn't quite know what to do with that information until he went west after college, to San Francisco. Adams's first mature works find him drawing inspiration from the heavies of minimalism while also starting to forge his own path, one where momentum isn't just about motorik chugging, but also a self-consciously lush harmonic sweep. The first recording of the whirling, dazzling, Shaker Loops in its original incarnation for seven soloists is still the best. This is the piece that made director Peter Sellars realize that Adams, who had no intention of being an opera composer, ought to start writing dramatic music for the stage. The recording on New Albion comes with "Light Over Water," an early electronic work that, while not canonic, is a crucial piece for any Adams aficionado to hear.
Aside from the original "Shaker Loops," the other highlight of Adams's early career is his writing for solo piano. These pieces are most efficiently collected on this single disc from Naxos. "Phyrgian Gates," at 30 minutes, sees Adams's ambitions testing the limits of pure minimalism: The pieces feel at times as though it wants to burst out into the wild, orchestrated colors of a full-throated symphony...though no philharmonic has commissioned Adams to write one yet. (Don't worry: they will, in time.)
The Roller-Coaster Maker
Whether he's whipping up aggressive essays for orchestra or extended pieces for chamber ensembles, Adams is renowned for creating kinetic machines that swing and jag and thrust and bump. "Lollapalooza" and "Slonismky's Earbox," in particular, are both compact works you might play for anyone who thinks "classical music" equals "restrained" or "boring." This high-value release pairs those two works with "Century Rolls," a three-movement piano concerto commissioned by the virtuoso Emmanuel Ax. The Cleveland Orchestra, a legendary ensemble for new music, matches the pianist for intensity and precision.
This release features the most playful piece in the Adams canon. And, for a composer who often deals with Important Subjects, a little playfulness can be a welcome change. In this "Chamber Symphony," Adams is goofing on Schoenberg (whose own "Chamber Symphony" was a craggy thing), by marrying some of his most atonal writing to the leg-tapping meter of what passes, in Adams's mind, for cartoon music. On the whole, it's a gas, including the almost-jazzy walking bass of the second movement. "Grand Pianola Music," by contrast, occasionally feels like Adams on auto-pilot, though the array of forces — an orchestra with two pianos, two sopranos and a mezzo — occasionally lights upon revelatory moments unlike anything else in the composer's repertoire.
The Man Who Re-invented American Opera (and Oratorios)
If Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha exploded the myth of what operas could look and sound like, Adams's Nixon In China is the work that put those pieces back together in a practical way for American composers. Like Glass, Adams and his operatic co-creators aren't principally interested in plot machinations — we already know what happened during Nixon's trip to China, anyway.
What's different is that there's more myth-making here than in Glass's abstract operas, along with some show-stopping arias that can compete with the old Italian masters (as with the President's media-obsessed "News," or Madame Mao's introductory song of herself, "I Am the Wife of Mao-Tse Tung"). Here is work that is indisputably American in character, but also makes sense alongside the European tradition. One of the secrets of Nixon, despite its reputation as one of the Most Important American Operas Ever, is that this thing is filled with hits, starting with the brass-and-drum-driven landing of the president's aircraft in a field outside Beijing. And Edo de Waart's first recording with the original cast has yet to be topped.
It is upsetting to some that, in this dramatization of the Achille Lauro hijacking, Adams and his librettist allowed insight into the terrorists' interior minds and motivations (however misguided and murderous). Because grand opera companies are perhaps the only cultural institutions that fail to thrive on such public controversy, stagings of the Death of Klinghoffer have been rare, given the protests that greeted its New York premiere.
And yet, as Kent Nagano's reading of the piece shows, this practical-if-unofficial ban is a shame. Klinghoffer, in addition to being a morally complex work, is also a musical knockout that features some of Adams's greatest choral writing. (In fact, Adams wouldn't top it until he was writing his 9/11 Requiem, "On the Transmigration of Souls.") Scheduled performances of those choruses were canceled in Boston directly after 9/11, out of what was termed "respect," but was really just deference to ambient cultural panic. In retrospect, that move appears clumsy, just as Adams's opera seems worthy of another look.
The Symphonist Who (Almost) Never Calls Anything a Symphony
America's leading contemporary symphonist has never written a Symphony No. 1. That doesn't mean Adams hasn't been turning out amazing essays for orchestra over the last 30 years. This streak begins properly with "Harmonielehre" (named after a Schoenberg text on harmony), which starts off with a bang. Or, more precisely, with 40 bangs in a row.
Many listeners prize Edo de Waart's premiere recording of the piece, available on Nonesuch, and it is a really good version. But this live release gives a more urgent (if occasionally uneven) account. David Robertson turns up the opening timpani blasts louder than any other conductor. And for most of this marathon work, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra does a grand job of not falling off after such a riveting opening high. The brooding middle movement is pregnant with drama (as well as trunk-rattling low brass). Only a few of the rhythmic steps in the final movement find themselves tripped up, though the performance recovers nicely in the run up to the blazing finale. And the overall sound production is impressively rich, especially for a live recording.
Doctor Atomic is the most problematic of Adams's operas. On the one hand, it contains some of the composer's best music; on the other hand, it literally has something called a "corn dance" in it. This unevenness is perhaps why Adams assembled a "greatest orchestral hits" piece from it, and appended the word "symphony" for the first time ever in his career (at least to a piece for orchestra). Or maybe he was just really proud of some of this music (he ought to be).
In any case, if this doesn't really hang together like a proper symphony, it's full of exciting music just the same, including the climactic music from Act I of the opera, here titled "Trinity." (In the opera, the Robert Oppenheimer character sings John Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV" on the night before the first nuclear test at Los Alamos. Here, the trumpet takes on Oppenheimer's music, which contains Adams's most lyrical melodic writing.)
The secret weapon on this release, though, is the long-unavailable "Guide to Strange Places," which flirts with some Messiaen-like harmonies and truly apocalyptic percussive smashes before winding down to its mysteriously sputtering final seconds. Adams was already wearing the tag of "greatest living American composer" when he wrote this in 2001, so it's impressive that he was still pushing himself to investigate new symphonic architectures for his established sound. Because it took nearly a decade for this piece to get a release, this is one of the most undeservedly slept-on Adams works. Actually put it on your stereo, though, and there's little chance of slumber.
Our 9/11 Requiem. The piece that got Adams his Pulitzer. There was (and remains) a lot of distracting reputational noise around "On the Transmigration of Souls" — so much so that it can be a challenge to actually hear the work underneath. And while it's easy to see how a piece of this nature, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to open its 2002 season one year after 9/11, could be overestimated on the basis of sentiment alone, you should really try to hear it with ears stripped of all cynicism.
The sirens and other street sounds played on tape, underneath the orchestra and chorus, aren't gimmicks; they tie back to Adams's early interest in musique concrete. And while no one would mistake the Philharmonic's then-music director, Lorin Maazel, for a progressive champion of new music, the conductor smartly saves the biggest dynamic wallop for the emotional climax: a moment where the chorus, taking as its text a widow's testimony to the New York Times, proclaims of a dead husband: "I wanted to dig him out / I KNOW... JUST...WHERE HE IS."
The effect is incredible.
The Strange Misfires That Few Will Admit to Liking (Though Some Secretly Might)
With operas, symphonies and solo piano pieces that are so well loved, you'd think Adams's compositional hand created gold no matter what it turned to. Erm, not so. His album of electronic music, Hoodoo Zephyr, is pretty widely mocked as a fogey's dabbling. (So is his piece for string quartet with programmed percussion, "John's Book of Alleged Dances," and his gooey-liberal, purported attempt at a "high school musical," entitled "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky").
But ... shhh, some of Hoodoo Zephyr is actually hypnotic. Opener "Coast" reveals a composer making some sense out of pop flourishes. "Disappointment Lake" has some neat ideas about drone tucked within its first half (before going a bit limp). The jangly, farting ragtime synths of "Bump" are...an acquired taste you may not want to actually acquire. But you know what? It's also kind of endearing to listen to this stuff, the imperfections of which humanize a dude who's otherwise been praised to the high heavens for decades now.