John Adams – The master of conventional harmony in music

John Adams Photo credit: Vern Evans

John Adams is an American composer born in 1947 in Massachusetts. He started composing when he was ten years old and trained as a clarinetist before deciding to compose full time.

Adam’s music favors minimalism. His inspiration are composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Cage. Adam’s music is full of things that are typical for minimalism, like repetitiveness and shifting musical layers. But there is one thing that makes his music stand out – he uses conventional harmony. Many modern minimalists try to break free of musical tradition altogether, but he believes that tonality is like a natural force. Just like gravity is impossible to escape and is very beneficial, music needs the sense of familiarity that tonality brings.

Another benefit of Adam’s use of conventional harmony? It means that his music has a sense of direction that other minimalistic music often lacks. It feels like the music is heading somewhere and not just soaring without a goal.

John did not enjoy learning how to compose twelve-tone music in college at all. He thought that sitting and just calculating the music was a waste of time. When he read the book Silence by John Cage, he was introduced to the idea that any sound we hear can be music. This was quite different from what he had in mind. It changed the way he viewed music and encouraged him to experiment with different sources of sound and electronic music.

John Adams has composed eight operas, often with political themes, but also music for orchestra, choir, chamber music, and much more.

He likes to try new sounds and mix what the old masters discovered with modern sounds and ideas. He is also inspired by folk music, world music, and jazz.

One example of his operas is El Niño (2000) with its focus on the global environmental changes.

Another example is The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). It portrays Palestinian terrorists hijacking an international cruise ship in the Mediterranean in 1985. The opera is seen as very provocative, even antisemitic by some. This caused John Adams a lot of trouble, even though he claims that he never intended to offend anybody.

One of Adam’s most popular works is Shaker Loops (1978). It is the perfect example of how he uses the harmony we’re so familiar with, but at the same time makes use of typical minimalistic techniques.

He also knows the value of a dash of humor from time to time. In the piece Grand Pianola Music, he purposefully uses musical clichés that he mixes together in a solemn manner. Despite the apparent seriousness of the work, it comes across as funny and over-the-top.

John Adams has won many awards over the years, including many Grammys and most recently the Erasmus price for the exceptional contribution he has made to music.

Even better, his legacy lives on. He has a son, Samuel Adams, who is also a composer and has already composed many notable works.

John Adams is one of the most important composers of modern time. The appreciation for his music will likely only increase as time goes by.

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