John Adams is frequently (and mistakenly) included under the umbrella of minimalism. However, his best music, although possessing traits of minimalism, is recognizably his work, bearing his trademark style of expanding the genre of minimalism by creating greater dynamic contrasts and a more fluid, layered sound. It was Adams who coined the term “post-minimalism”, an evolution from minimalism bearing subtle yet crucial differences.
When he was young, John Adams was given many different genres of music to listen to, ranging from Classical music to jazz. Going to Harvard in the late 1960s, he was immersed in the radical social elements of the changing times, at one point becoming enthralled by William Burroughs’ “junkie language”, inspiring Adams to create a musical style which “didn’t make a distinction between high art and low art, highbrow and middlebrow and lowbrow”. The experimental music of John Cage was also an influence on Adams, showing him an example of how to be different and have an individual voice as a composer in the music scene at the time. Serialist music was taught extensively in colleges during Adams’ college years, and as he reflected, being in composition class was comparable to a “mausoleum where we would sit and count tone rows in Webern”. Upon graduating, he bore a great dislike to the Serialist music genre and felt it was too confined.
After graduating from Harvard, Adams went to San Francisco, where he encountered the minimalist works of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. This was a major milestone in the development of his style; Adams soon stated that minimalism is “the most important stylistic development in Western art music since the Fifties”. The impact on his music was undeniable; the composition of Phrygian Gates (1977) and China Gates (1977) for piano marked the beginning of the composer’s individual style. Both pieces are labeled Adams’ “opus one”, meaning they were the first pieces showcasing his new style. The composition of Shaker Loops (1978), a septet inspired by the miniamlist tape-loop works of the 1960s. From here, Adams began on a journey, coining the term “post-minimalism” to describe his own musical style.
With the opera Nixon in China (1987), he brought post-minimalism to the dramatic stage, garnering divisive criticism but more attention nonetheless. His following opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) is a musical retelling of the 1985 hijacking of a passenger liner by the Palestine Liberation Front and the subsequent killing of a Jewish-American passenger. This notable opera also garnered criticism upon its premiere and other stagings, including its staging at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2014.
John Adams’ continued relevance in the modern American classical music scene is evident from his winning of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his choral piece On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) commemorating the victims of the September 11 attacks, his jazz-infused symphonic work City Noir (2009), saxophone concerto (2013), and Scheherazade.2, premiered at David Geffen Hall (formerly known as Avery Fisher Hall) in March 2015.