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John Adams—the composer, not the ex-president—is spending a week in residency at the Library of Congress this month. It isn’t his first time; he’s had other visits, though not always as a performer. When writing his 2005 opera about Robert Oppenheimer, Doctor Atomic, Adams came to the Library to search for sound files.
“It was a little bizarre. They make you sign in and then put you in a tiny room by yourself with a loudspeaker, kind of a no-hands-on experience,” says Adams, speaking from his home in California. “But I understand they’ve improved the process since then.” Adams is probably mistaken.
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Around the Library of Congress, Adams gets star treatment. “People refer to [Adams] as the voice of America,” says Library of Congress concert producer Anne McLean. In 1995, the Library’s McKim Fund commissioned Road Movies, Adams’ piece for violin and piano. It went on to be performed widely by violinists Leila Josefowicz and Jennifer Koh, the latter of whom will perform for the festival being held for Adams during the week of May 20 to 26. The following weekend he moves to the Kennedy Center, where he will lead the National Symphony Orchestra in his three-movement City Noir symphony.
Adams, who achieved fame by writing an opera about Nixon that most critics hated, feels a certain kinship with Charles Ives, the supremely weird turn-of-the-20th century American composer and estate planner. Coincidentally or not, Adams began to reject traditional composition around the time LSD hit Harvard, his alma mater. After casting about for a while, Adams came to be associated most with minimalism, the stripped down repetitive style pioneered a decade prior by Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. If most people didn’t get it—even his parents were perplexed by his work—that was OK. “Any really serious artist does what he or she wants to do and risks having no audience for it,” says Adams. “Many of the best modern-day composers, like Ives, had no audience in their own lifetimes.”
Yet despite Adams’ best efforts, just the opposite happened. He became arguably the best-known contemporary composer in the country. (If anyone could contest that title, it would be Glass.) Nixon in China is by now considered a landmark in American opera. Adams was tapped by the New York Philharmonic to write a memorial piece for the Sept. 11 attacks, On the Transmigration of Souls, which won a Pulitzer and Grammy. He achieved this stature without writing for Hollywood films or video games, two of the few reliable meal tickets for composers today (though his music has been used in both). Adams claims to be relatively inept at self-promotion, though he maintains a blog and writes widely. “I realize how transient that is,” he says. “You can spend so much time promoting yourself that you don’t have time for your music. It’s trite to say, but in the end, all that matters is having a really great body of work.” Maybe, but Charles Ives also could have used some good PR in his day.
The Library of Congress’ John Adams residency and festival takes place at the Library of Congress and Atlas Performing Arts Center from May 20 to May 26. Tickets are free but required. Adams conducts the National Symphony Orchestra with pianist Jeremy Denk May 30 to June 1 at the Kennedy Center. $10–$85.