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John Adams and “The Chairman Dances”

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John Coolidge Adams (born February 15, 1947) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer with strong roots in minimalism who was born in Worcester, MA, in 1947 and raised in various New England states where he was greatly influenced by New England’s musical culture. He graduated from Concord High School in Concord, NH. His father taught him how to play the clarinet, and he was a clarinetist in community ensembles. He later studied the instrument further with Felix Viscuglia, clarinetist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Adams began composing at the age of ten and first heard his music performed around the age of 13 or 14.

After he matriculated at Harvard University in 1965 Adams studied composition under Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, and David Del Tredici. While at Harvard, he conducted the Bach Society Orchestra and was a reserve clarinetist for both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Opera Company of Boston. He earned two degrees from Harvard University (BA 1971, MA 1972) and was among the first students to be allowed to submit a musical composition for a Harvard undergraduate thesis. His piece “American Standard” was recorded and released on Obscure Records in 1975. He taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 until 1984. He served as musical producer for a number of series for the Public Broadcasting System including the award-winning series, The Adams Chronicles in 1976 and 1977.

Adams worked in the electronic music studio at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, having built his own analogue synthesizer, and as conductor of the New Music Ensemble, he had a small but dedicated pool of young and talented musicians occasionally at his disposal. Some major works composed during this period include Wavemaker (1977); Phrygian Gates for solo piano (1977); Shaker Loops for string septet, later arranged for string orchestra (1978); Common Tones in Simple Time (1979); Harmonium for Large Orchestra and Chorus (1980–81); Grand Pianola Music (1982); Light Over Water: The Genesis of Music, commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles as the score for the collaborative work Available Light, which was choreographed by Lucinda Childs and had a set design by architect Frank Gehry (1983); Harmonielehre (1984–85), The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra, a by-product of Nixon in China (1985), Short Ride in a Fast Machine: Fanfare for Great Woods (1986); and Nixon in China, an opera, in three acts, based on Richard Nixon’s three day visit to Beijing in China on February 21–25, 1972 (1985–87).

The Wound-Dresser (1988) is Adams’s setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, “The Wound-Dresser”, which Whitman wrote after visiting wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) is an opera based on the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and details the murder of a passenger named Leon Klinghoffer, a retired, physically disabled American Jew. The Chamber Symphony (1992) was commissioned by the Gerbode Foundation of San Francisco for the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995) is stage piece with libretto by June Jordan and staging by Peter Sellars that takes place in the aftermath of the earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994. Hallelujah Junction (1996) is a piece for two pianos that employs variations of a repeated two note rhythm.

On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) commemorates those who lost their lives in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. It won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music as well as the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition. Adams was the first composer to have earned the latter award three times, having previously won the award for El Dorado (1998) and Nixon in China (1989). Other works include My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003); The Dharma at Big Sur (2003); Doctor Atomic, an opera in two acts, about Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the creation and testing of the first atomic bomb (2005); A Flowering Tree, an opera in two acts (2006); Doctor Atomic Symphony based on music from the opera (2007); and Fellow Traveler commissioned for the Kronos Quartet (2007).

The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist although while Adams employs minimalist techniques, such as repeating patterns, he is not a strict follower of the movement. Adams was born a generation after Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and his writing is more developmental and directionalized, containing climaxes and other elements of Romanticism. However, like other minimalists of his time (e.g. Philip Glass), Adams began using a steady pulse that defines and controls the music. Then his music of the 1990s slowly starts to incorporate a decidedly tonal slant. The third movement of the Violin Concerto, titled “Toccare”, portrays this transition.

My collection includes the following pieces by Adams:
The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra) from Nixon in China (1985) .
Christian Zeal and Activity from American Standard (1973).
Common Tones in Simple Time (1980).
Two Fanfares for Orchestra (Tromba Lontana, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, 1986).

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