John Adams’ Development as a Composer Can Be Charted in String Music

One of the factors that makes composer John Adams stand out in a category all his own is, along with his versatility, the level of quality at which he sustains it.

By Thomas May | From the December 2017 issue of Strings magazine

In the contemporary music world, writing opera tends to generate the sexiest headlines and, at least temporarily, to garner more widespread attention. Not that there’s been any lack of that when it comes to John Adams. But it’s somehow fitting that the grand climax of this year’s celebrations marking his 70th birthday takes place onstage in November, with the world premiere at San Francisco Opera of Girls of the Golden West, his new work exploring some of the darker and lesser-known history of the California Gold Rush. It was almost exactly three decades ago that the epochal Nixon in China, his debut opera, catapulted Adams to international fame.

Yet one of the factors that makes Adams stand out in a category all his own is, along with his remarkable versatility, the level of quality at which he sustains it. His works have made priceless contributions across the spectrum, from opera, musical theater, and sprawling symphonic canvases to the vulnerable intimacy of chamber music. Indeed, given his association with large-scale creations—for the stage and concert hall alike—and despite all of the recent focus on Adams as an opera composer, the lead role he assigns to the stripped-down configuration of the string quartet may come as a surprise.

“I love string instruments, and I think my favorite literature in music is the string quartet,” Adams tells me during a break over the summer, nearing the end of work on his new opera score. “It’s a little ironic that I’ve been so drawn to it, since I don’t play a string instrument.”

Adams was trained as a clarinetist while coming of age in his native New England, and he has been devoting considerable energy in recent years to his efforts as a conductor. The physical challenges alone posed by performing on strings remain something that for Adams is “very mysterious because of how
the fingers fall onto the fingerboard, with the wrist turned over. Given the nature of the way the hand is shaped, nothing is presumably logical. And the bow involves a whole other universe of knowledge one has to gain.”

Still, that alien quality has of late been intriguing the composer more and more. Aside from his playful (and fiendishly virtuosic) John’s Book of Alleged Dances for the Kronos Quartet and tape (1994), over the past decade Adams has produced two “official” string quartets (in 2008 and 2014, respectively)—both for the Stanford-based St. Lawrence Quartet. “It’s exciting to have arguably the country’s leading composer turn to the string quartet late in life,” says Geoff Nuttall, St. Lawrence’s first violinist and co-founder, who also shepherds the acclaimed chamber-music series each year at Spoleto Festival USA. By way of comparison, he cites Camille Saint-Saëns, who waited until he was 64 (in 1899) to write the first of his two string quartets (though Adams had only reached a sprightly 61 when his First Quartet was unveiled in New York).

Of course the mystique of the late-period quartet is most famously connected with Beethoven. Having carefully timed the publication of his first set of quartets (the six of Op. 18) while still establishing himself as a young composer, Beethoven returned to the medium during his final years with obsessive concentration—resulting in what are arguably his most far-reaching achievements.

Nuttall recalls Adams attending a performance of Alleged Book by the St. Lawrence Quartet at Stanford (where they’ve been quartet in residence since 1998). “We worked so hard to try to impress him, and when he came backstage afterward, he said, ‘That was incredible!’ But then we realized he was referring to our performance of Beethoven’s Op. 132, not his own piece. That’s when he told us: ‘I really want to write a quartet for you guys!’”

A quintessentially Adamsian approach to Beethoven is encoded in two works he wrote for St. Lawrence—the Second String Quartet and the work preceding it, Absolute Jest (2012), which develops the unusual scenario of embedding a string quartet within a full orchestra. Both scores recombine isolated fragments from late Beethoven in an astonishing feat of inventive imagination.

“It takes [guts] to start with Beethoven and turn it into your own thing, but that is what he does,” Nuttall remarks. “It becomes pure John Adams, music nobody else could write.”


However intuitively distant stringed instruments may seem to Adams, “the way he writes for string quartet is very John,” says Nuttall. “When you look at the page, it seems very simple, but the rhythmic complexities—the groove, as he describes them—are many. And he’s a stickler for how the groove and tempo are important to create the vibe in playing his music.”

“When you look at the page, it seems very simple, but the rhythmic complexities—the groove, as he describes them—are many.”

—Geoff Nuttall, violinist

This “groove” is often associated with Minimalism, but that label is not only inadequate: It’s outdated. Minimalism is merely one component of Adams’ composing thesaurus (or, to borrow one of his preferred terms “earbox”—the name of his website, alluding to his orchestral work Slonimsky’s Earbox). Moreover, classifying Adams as a Minimalist fails to take into account the harmonically complex polychromatic language he has evolved over decades—especially since Nixon in China (and already even within that opera).

But the piece that first put Adams on the map is more justifiably identified with Minimalism—and, interestingly, was written for strings: Shaker Loops, in which the composer synthesized his early years of free-form experimentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area (which he had made his new home) with “the stripped-down harmonic and rhythmic discourse” he had discovered in “a few of the seminal pieces of American Minimalism in the early 1970s,” as Adams describes it.

Shaker Loops grew from fragments of a failed string quartet (Wavemaker), which in turn had sprouted from a piece for three solo violins involving “consonant intervals energized by fast, repeated bow strokes.” Adams’ initial inspiration was to explore the potential of “waveforms,” which he envisioned as “long sequences of oscillating melodic cells that created a rippling, shimmering complex of patterns, like the surface of a slightly agitated pond or lake. But my technique lagged behind my inspiration.”

The composer’s memoir, Hallelujah Junction, contains a hilarious account of the fiasco premiere of the Wavemaker, which the Kronos Quartet played at the Cabrillo Festival in 1978. On the day of the premiere, Adams managed to walk over a nest of bees in Golden Gate Park and was injected with so much bee venom that he ended up unconscious on an emergency-room bed.

Renaming it Shaker Loops (a double nod to his New England heritage and to Steve Reich’s tape-looping technique, though the piece is purely acoustic), Adams expanded his scoring to include three more strings, which allowed the music to “sustain long harmonic pedals and produce a richer, more powerful sound.” This part of the process took place while he was still teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he had frequent access to a talented group of string players: “I would bring in modules, little repetitive structures, and we would try them out right then and there.” An ideal situation, particularly since that first quartet experience had made Adams keenly aware of how much there was to learn about strings.

The revitalized Shaker Loops remains among his most frequently performed compositions (also in its 1983 version for string orchestra). It has been choreographed multiple times and even used for the soundtracks of such wildly disparate films as Barfly and Io sono l’amore.

Adams has written that already in Shaker Loops he began veering away from Minimalism’s more orthodox procedures and overall aesthetic. The ecstatic dance spirit infusing the piece generates a “dynamic, almost electrically charged element, so out of place in the orderly, mechanistic universe of Minimalism.”


Nuttall says that Shaker Loops is composed with “a flavor that I love, but the range of color and orchestration in the later string quartets is another matter entirely. You really see how he has expanded his palette. You can hear him engaging with Brahms, Wagner, Ravel, Stravinsky, jazz, and rock—and he really has Beethoven on the brain in the Second Quartet.”

Strings—the violin specifically—again provided the vehicle for a key breakthrough in Adams’ musical language during the decade immediately after Nixon in China. To be able to tackle his First Violin Concerto (1993), he realized he needed “to solve the issue of melody,” which had been given short shrift in his earlier style in favor of rhythmic and harmonic elements—though there is perhaps a foreshadowing of his turn toward melody in the elegiac solo violin line that occurs in Nixon’s enigmatic final pages, bringing a strikingly different character to its powerhouse brass and cartoonish, neo–big band sound world.

What had paved the way was the creation of The Death of Klinghoffer (premiered in 1991), based on a terrorist incident from 1985 and still the most controversial of Adams’ works. Finding music adequate to the story’s emotional complexity took the composer down a new path. The First Violin Concerto further consolidated and elaborated this development through Adams’ use of what he calls “hypermelody”: a continuous spinning out of melodic phrases into vast larger structures.

This relationship between Klinghoffer and the First Violin Concerto illustrates a fascinating recurrent feature of Adams’ creativity: the influence (direct or indirect) of his operatic projects on his instrumental music. Specific dramatic situations posed by the former (e.g., the New Mexican desert where the first atomic bomb was tested, as in Doctor Atomic) compel him to expand his musical language in unforeseen directions; he then continues to refine this expressive enrichment in subsequent instrumental works that are not constrained by a dramatic context.

Adams initially wrote the First Violin Concerto for Jorja Fleezanis, a passionate new-music advocate who had recently moved from her position with the San Francisco Symphony to become concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. (Recently, the composer’s daughter-in-law, Helen Kim, was appointed Associate Principal Second Violin of SFS, the very position Fleezanis once held.) “Jorja was no longer living in San Francisco when
I was writing the Concerto,” Adams says. “She had grown up playing Cage and Roger Sessions and figured anything I wrote was her duty to play, and she gave a wonderful premiere. So I had no idea how hard or awkward what I had written was!”

Gidon Kremer soon took up the First Violin Concerto—he made the inaugural recording, with Kent Nagano and the London Symphony—“and he was more outspoken about its difficulties, so I made some little changes.” It also became a specialty of Leila Josefowicz, who has made a new recording of it for Nonesuch with David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony. “She has absorbed it,” comments Adams, “and brings total authority to the piece. It’s a combination of her personal, lyrical power, and this mind-blowing technique.”


Because of what Josefowicz brought to the First Concerto, as well as to his concerto for amplified violin, The Dharma at Big Sur (written for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003), Adams determined to write a new work specifically tailored to the violinist’s fiercely independent, bold musicality: Scheherazade.2, which she premiered in New York in 2015. Having already made the first recording of the piece (again with Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony), which was nominated for a Grammy this year, Josefowicz is also featured on a forthcoming recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under the composer’s own baton—part of a box set documenting Adams’ residency there last season (to be released on the orchestra’s label).

One of the major artistic and critical successes—and most ambitious undertakings—of his past decade, this nearly-50-minute work expands the paradigm of violin concerto to include a wordless drama for the violinist as protagonist: a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra,” in Adams’ Berlioz-tinged subtitle. Scheherazade.2 posits a vague scenario prompted by the composer’s visit to a Paris exhibit about the legacy of the Arabian Nights (only obliquely referencing the heroine’s predicament in the orchestral staple by Rimsky-Korsakov). Here, the solo violin plays the role of a contemporary Scheherazade as she struggles against a world of oppressive and violent men.

Scheherazade.2 reflects some of the darker colors Adams developed for his massive oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012)—as well as his recent focus on the women whose perspective has been suppressed across history, exemplified by that work and by Girls of the Golden West.

Looking ahead, Adams enthuses about the relationship that has blossomed with another string ensemble, the Attacca Quartet: “I met them first when they were barely out of Juilliard, in a workshop run by St. Lawrence.” Their achievements range from a complete traversal of the Haydn quartets to a survey of contemporary writing for the medium. Attacca recorded Adams’ complete string-quartet works as of 2013 on their well-received Fellow Traveler album and have embarked on a new project with the composer.

The interaction promises to be lively, to say the least. When working on his First Quartet and Absolute Jest with St. Lawrence, Adams decided to make radical revisions to both works following their premieres. “What I appreciate about my friends in the St. Lawrence is their willingness to let me literally ‘improvise’ on them as if they were a piano or a drum and I a crazy man beating away with only the roughest outlines of what I want,” Adams has said. “They will go the distance with me, allow me to try and fail, and they will indulge my seizures of doubt, frustration, and indecision, all the while providing intuitions and frequently brilliant suggestions of their own.”

What is it like having the opportunity to work with a living composer, to be present at the creation? “It’s thrilling to see how the mind of a great composer can come up with stuff,” remarks Nuttall. “You get this perfect confidence and at the same time this enthusiasm to try new things, like a kid in a candy store. With John, there’s an amazing combination of knowing what he wants and also being malleable. What fun to be involved in that kind of insider trading when it comes to such a major composer!”