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John Adams – Composer in 20th Century Essay

John Coolidge Adams is a recognized American composer, whose music works are distinguished by minimalism performance. The winner of Pulitzer Prize is famous for such music compositions as Shaker Loops (1978), Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), as well as for operas, such as Nixon in China (1987) and Doctor Atomic (2005).

All pieces are premised on deep historic and biographical backgrounds interpreting important events from the human history. Being among the most standout composers, Adams is distinguished by minimalist style of performance that is characterized by repeating patterns and developmental climaxes.

Some Adams’s works are associated with the response to the ideology of serialism that displays composers as scientists. In this respect, the uniqueness of the musical pieces introduced by Adams consists in unusual synergy of various sciences, approaches, and styles that are typical for the post-modern era in the twentieth century.

John Adams represents a sophisticated mixture between hard-core post-modern and mainstream opera music. In this respect, Lee (2002) discusses Adams’s minimalist music in the context of systematic and process elements. All the motifs are largely influenced by World War II and post-war period, convincing that modern music can describe historical events.

Using a limited spectrum of musical instruments and being under the influence of such composers as Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, John Adams approaches the composing process as the process of materials reduction, focusing on repetitive schemes. According to Lee (2002), “minimalism emerged as an effective alternative to the rigors of serialism and the randomness of indeterminate, or “change” music” (p. 2).

The core features of this music involve persistent rhythmic pulse that penetrates to the music fabric through prolonged repetition of music pieces. In this respect, Adams’s Shaker Loops (1978) is a bright illustration of minimalism. At a glance, the composition might seem to be dull and monotonous, but further development provides a deeper philosophical interpretation.

Nixon in China displays another example Adams’s adherence to minimalism, which is specifically uncovered through repetitive rhythmic pulses. Despite these features, the harmonic structure of the composition is premised on simple music patterns that are utilized by minimalists from earlier periods (Johnson, 2011). In this respect, the opera is inspired by Philip Glass’s opera, the predecessor of Adams’s future words.

Despite the fact, most of the elements of the composer’s works are premised on Glass’s compositions, there are many features that pertain Adams’s unique style. Harmonic landscapes of music composition can be reproduced through contrastive perspectives (Hoffer, 2011).

In Nixon in China, “the chorus of the Chinese people follows their repetitive passage with a wide-ranging palette of harmonic colors that rises from the low register of the repetitive passage” (Johnson, 2011, p. 22). In contrast, the Nixon’s part is represented through the repetitive monologue with a dismissive gesture.

Aside from minimalistic tendencies, the composer strives to recreate themes relating to geography, native culture, and ecology of his native land (Adams, 2009). These themes are reproduced not only by evocative titles, but also by anchoring the composition into the inspiring landscapes. The conception of place and location frequently occurs in Adams’s music compositions.

In this respect, the composer states, “…it might be a piece that could be realized at any location the earth, and that each location would have its unique sonic signature” (Adams, 2009, p. xii). Therefore, all musical works are developed through landscape associations.

Such an approach contributes to the uniqueness of the composer’s style. The invention of a new musical style aims to satisfy the composer’s needs and creative goals. The musical language should consist of the expressive needs that can render emotional change of mood through repetition, violent exposure, or monotonous and smooth sounding within one minute.

Although minimalism plays an important role in Adam’s creative work, these patterns do not stand at the core of his musical compositions. In particular, his early works are premised on minimalist textures of mow of these pieces are focused on the spatial and temporal characteristics which differ significantly from the minimalist essence.

Hence, the traditions stem from the musical styles by Aaron Copeland, Samuel Barber and David del Tredici (Hillier, 1997). More importantly, his later works also evocate the music style enriching the musical texture and its spatial attributes.

The transformation of minimalism into a synergy of other music techniques has contributed to the development of Adams’s authentic style of composing. In this respect, Sancher-Behar (2007), states that the composer’s vision on minimalism has undergone tangible shifts throughout years. There are different attributes that distinguish the musical style accepted in 1980s from its earlier expositions.

To begin with, the composers strived to combine minimalist features with dramatic and vocal works (Wright, 2010). Further, musical progression substituted musical succession. Finally, it has been asserted that minimalism was considered as an authentic element of mainstream modern music.

In addition, the influence of the minimalism was enhanced by the cultural, political, and economic development of American society. John Adams has confirmed that this music style is an important development in the field because it contributes to empirical development of contemporary art music.

Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) introduces faster tempo and repeating motives that remind of the machine engine and working cylinders. The rhythms, therefore, produce a dualistic effect (Hillier, 1997). On the one hand, the music focuses on traditional musical instruments to reproduce the sound.

On the other hand, the created passage reflects social and historical pace of the world development (May, 2006). The music piece under consideration focuses on the global and industrial trends in development. Technological advances are also brightly illustrated in the musical composition.

Adams’s later works has been considered rather contrapuntal and, therefore, they are opposed to earlier works. His stylistic progressions are specifically introduced in harmonic structure of the Chamber Symphony (1992) and the Death of Klinghoffer (1989-91). Both works are distinguished by break in harmonic structures and progress in contrapuntal style (Sancher-Behar, 2007).

Although the emphasis on such techniques as polyphony and counterpoint can be analyzed in detail from a theoretical viewpoint, its aesthetic function can be evaluated immediately after listening to Adams’s music piece (Hephaestus Books, 2011).

Nevertheless, these techniques are efficiently used to complement the composer’s ideas. According to Sancher-Behar (2007), “Adams’s own melodic patterns…typically exhibit stepwise motion, common in the beginning, middle, and end of a melodic segment” (p.19). Thus, the composer creates a strong rhythmic pulse with steady sixteenth notes.

While analyzing Adams’s work from historic and social perspectives, the music style of minimalism applied in his musical pieces is used to emphasize its functionality. In his interview with Lehman (2012), the composer states, “I have tried to create a body of work that give some feeling of what it means to be an American living in the latter part of this century and being exposed to so many different kinds of music” (p. 3).

Hence, the uniqueness of Adams’s sounding lies in a skillful combination of minimalist music with other styles although this approach is historically and theoretical considered a pure style.

In this respect, the composer asserts Shaker Loops is not premised solely on monotonous patterns that constantly repeat. Rather, the content is endowed with a set of moods and tempos contributing to the high expressiveness of the composition.

A straightforward and progressive style developed by the composer refers to the social and political environment in the second half of the twentieth century (Smith, 1995). This is of particular concern to the composer’s cultural and family background. Due to the fact that John Adams has been born to a family of jazz composers, most of his music works has American features of the period.

A strong historic background is introduced in Doctor Atomic, a musical composition that introduces a variety of iconic topics (Sheinberg, 2012). Specifically, different rhythmic patterns signify the abhorrent scenes of nuclear testing, spiraling motif in music suggest the storm and chain reactions of various chemical substances.

One again, each realistic objects from history acquires its authentic sonic signature. Such a mode of reproducing the reality testifies to Adams’s vision of music purpose.

The experiment with atomic bomb development initiated by Oppenheimer has been brightly described in John Adams’s operas. While working in cooperation with Peter Sellar, who created a complex stage lightning, design, and choreography, the composer introduces opera accompanied with documented film about scientific experiments, as well as Oppenheimer’s family background (Sheinberg, 2012).

The complex synergy of musical elements with choreography and visual effects has contributed to the reproduction of the overall atmosphere of that period.

In addition, the proposed approach “complements the male scientists’ preoccupation with objective speculations about the success of failure of the testing by taking into account the moral compass of the experiment at hands” (Sheinberg, 2012, p. 265). In this respect, the composer is fully aware of the consequences of the atomic disaster and introduces his own vision on the tragedy.

John Coolidge Adams is an outstanding American musician and composer whose creative work was premised on experimenting with minimalist styles and repetitive patterns. Although minimalism is a relatively independent style, the composer manages to combine expressive tones with progressive music to render social and historic atmosphere in the United States.

Interestingly, the uniqueness of his musical pieces lies in reproducing historic events, phenomena, and objects possessing their authentic sonic signature. Thus, each sound introduced in the composition resembles sounds and rhythms existing in reality. Repetitive passages, impulsive music, and the philosophy of serialism stand at the core of the musician’s work.

His progressive music style, therefore, is capable of interpreting the historic events and, therefore, most of his operas are escorted with sophisticated decorations, visual effects, and choreography.

Finally, the composer strongly beliefs that the music language allows the creator to deliver the most important messages that are impossible to reproduce by traditional means. Therefore, sophisticated combination of styles and techniques focuses on Adams’s personal vision of the world surrounding him. It is also introduced as a biographic narrative.


Adams, J. L. (2009). The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music. US: Wesleyan University Press.

Hephaestus Books. (2011). Articles on Electronic Musicians, Including: John Adam, Vladislav Delay, Counterstrike (Drum and Bass Group), Clara Rockmore, Seelenluft, Perrey and Kingsley, Robert Miles, Daniel Lentz, Jonah Sharp, Michael Cretu, Dr. Alban. US: Hephaestus Books.

Hillier, P. (1997). Arvo Part. UK: Oxford University Press.

Hoffer, C. (2011). Music Listening Today: Music Listening Today. US: Cengage Learning.

Johnson, T. A. (2011). John Adam’s Nixon in China: Musical Analysis, Historical and Political Perspectives. US: Ashgate Publishing.

Lee, D. A. (2002). Masterworks of 20th Century Music: The Modern Repertory of the Symphony Orchestra. New York: New York.

Lehman, M. (1999). A Talk with John Adams. American Record Guide, 62(4), 12.

May, T. R. (2006). The John Adams Reader: Essential Writing on an American Composer. US: Hai Leonard.

Sancher-Behar, A. (2007). Counterpoint and Polyphony in Recent Instrumental Works of John Adams. US: ProQuest.

Sheinberg, E. (2012). Music Semiotics: A Network of Significations – In Honor of Raymond Monelle. US: Ashgate Publishing.

Smith, G. (1995). John Adams speaks his mind. American Record Guide, 58(5), 20.

Wright, C. (2010). Listening to Music. US: Cengage Learning.

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