Campus & Community

Composer Adams to be awarded Arts Medal

3 min read

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams ’69, M.A. ’72 will return to Harvard to accept the 2007 Harvard Arts Medal as a part of the Arts First weekend festivities (May 3-6). Adams will take part in a variety of forums that will provide opportunities to learn about his artistic accomplishments firsthand, including a lecture by the composer in Paine Hall and a discussion with the actor John Lithgow ’67, as part of the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers series. Using clips of his operatic works “Nixon in China” (1987), “The Death of Klinghoffer” (1991), “Dr. Atomic” (2005), and “On the Transmigration of Souls” (2002), Adams will also discuss the theme “Music and the American Mythology” at the Radcliffe Gym.

A clarinetist from youth, Adams focused on composition during his graduate studies at Harvard. Since then, he has created works in a variety of genres, which have been performed across the world. Although his works have often been classified as minimalist, Adams has said, “Whenever serious art loses track of its roots in the vernacular, then it begins to atrophy.” Consequently, he also considers himself “the first composer to grow up in the LP era” and has cited influences as disparate as Bach, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mahler, and The Beatles.

Many of Adams’ best-known pieces have been operatic examinations of historical events. “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” and “Dr. Atomic” were all created in collaboration with director and previous Harvard arts medalist Peter Sellars ’80.  Although these works deal with landmark incidents and characters, Adams believes that “What’s fundamentally important is that composers write the music that means something to themselves, and that they don’t try to tell other people what’s right and what’s wrong.”

In 2002, Adams was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the victims of Sept. 11. He expressed his goal to “create a musical space for reflection and remembrance, of meditation on an unanswerable question.” He composed the operatic piece “On the Transmigration of Souls,” which debuted on the one-year anniversary of the attacks. His creation received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for music, and has become a monument in sound performed each year by orchestras across the United States.

Adams will be the 13th distinguished Harvard or Radcliffe alum or faculty member to receive this accolade for excellence in the arts and contributions to education and the public good through the arts. Previous recipients include playwright Christopher Durang ’71, cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, and filmmaker Mira Nair ’79.