John Adams was born in Massachusetts on 15 February 1947, growing up strongly influenced by New England musical and intellectual culture. He began studying music theory and composition at the age of 10, and was taught the clarinet by his father. During the late 60s he attended Harvard, gaining his MA in music composition. Adams subsequently moved to San Fransisco, becoming involved in its wildly varied musical life, teaching at the Conservatory of Music and producing symphonies for the San Francisco Symphony. He was initially known as a minimalist, although in later works he embellishes with late-Romantic harmonies and orchestral colours, and references a range of styles, from Stravinsky to swing. Working across various media, from orchestra and opera to electronic music, video and dance, Adams is responsible for some of the best known pieces of contemporary American music.
Phrygian Gates was Adams' breakthrough instrumental work of 1977, one which has been hugely influential on subsequent piano minimalism. In Shaker Loops for string ensemble (1978), the modulating, rippling structure captures powerful emotional states with an expressiveness that was uncommon amongst his contemporaries at the time. The 1987 opera Nixon in China is probably Adams' most famous composition, a tragic and comic work of history, politics and American mythology.
The social and political content of Adams' work has at times caused debate. Performances of The Death of Klinghoffer (an opera centred on the hijacking of the Italian cruiseliner Achille Lauro and the killing of passenger Leon Klinghoffer) were picketed in San Francisco, although attitudes have since mellowed due to its balanced depiction of a complex political situation. But despite his heavy themes, Adams is also a composer of musical comedy, pop songs and award-winning television commercials.