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Composer of the Week: John Adams

February 13, 2014

John Adams, this week’s birthday boy, belies the usual stereotypes about composers. Vigorous, worldly, engaged, conversant with a wide swath of culture and cultural activities, he is no ivory-tower intellectual. You get the sense that his music is responding directly to our cultural moment, not channeling the past and trying to make it relevant.

John AdamsAdams is often lumped together with minimalists a decade or more older than he (Reich and Glass), because for a time he used their ideas to generate the large-scale forms he wanted. But that formal prompt was just the beginning. The propulsive rhythmic drive of some of the earlier works (the opening of Harmonielehre or Nixon in China, for example) becomes more complex, layered, and varied in later works such as City Noir or Doctor Atomic. Adams also samples a wide range of musical styles, like Charles Ives and Leonard Bernstein before him. It’s hard to be a great composer without being an omnivore.

Adams is a composer you can head-bang to; he also can write a brilliant melody. Listen to music, read his biographical note, find fun facts, links, video and more at SFCV’s Composer Gallery page.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.