As most regular visitors to this blog know, one of my favorite genres of music is minimalist or post-minimalist works and, to some extent, ambient sound.  These works can include pioneer composers such as Erik Satie (1866 – 1925) or Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), the former being influenced by the Dadaist movement in visual art and applying those principles to compositions such as “Gymnopédies” (1888).  In terms of modern-day composers my tastes run towards Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and John Adams.

This post primarily addresses the works of John Adams (born: 1947).  Adams was born in Worcester, MA and was raised in Concord, MA.  After graduating from Concord H.S. he attended Harvard and received BA and MA degrees in music.  Adams ranks among my favorite modern classical composers.  If you want to have some insight into what the experience was like for those who lived in the age of Beethoven, Mozart, or Mahler (when their music was new), this is the guy to be listening to now.

Adams is a prolific composer and has primarily worked in operas and orchestral pieces.  He has also composed for chamber groups, oratorio, film soundtracks, tape & electronica, and arrangements of others’ works.  Adams’ work has been performed by artists and orchestras globally and has earned him a Pulitzer Prize, five Grammy awards, and two honorary doctorates (Harvard and Northwestern).

Adams frequently takes on tough topics for composition.  “The Death of Klinghoffer” (1991) deals with the murder of a disabled passenger on the cruise ship Achille Lauro at the hands of Palestinian terrorists.  With “On The Transmigration of Souls” (2002) Adams has composed a work, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, that addresses the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

“Transmigration” is a work for chorus, orchestra, a children’s choir, and pre-recorded tapes.  I picked it up a couple of years ago and it is one of the most moving, emotional works of modern music that I have ever heard.  As a testament to its brilliance, it is so good that I find it difficult to listen to as it elicits too strong of an emotional reaction.  I can only imagine what the experience must be like in a live setting. Adams won the Pulitzer for this work along with 3 Grammys ( “Best Classical Album,” “Best Orchestral Performance” and “Best Contemporary Composition”).    It debuted on September 19, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC. Loren Maazel conducted the NYP and they were joined by the Brooklyn Children’s Chorus and New York Choral Artists.

An abridged list of Adams’ key compositions include:


  • Nixon in China (1987)
  • The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
  • El Nino (2000)
  • Doctor Atomic (2005)

Orchestral Works

  • Short Ride in a Fast Machine
  • Shaker Loops
  • On the Transmigration of Souls
  • Doctor Atomic Symphony (based on his opera)
  • Harmonium


Segment from: “On the Transmigration of Souls”

“Shaker Loops”

Segment from: “The Dharma at Big Sur”

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