Minimalism in contemporary music


Doctor Atomic is an opera composed by the contemporary, American composer John Adams. It premiered at the San Francisco Opera on October 1 in the year of 2005. This opera was a very special opera because it was talking about the physical project “Manhattan Project”. The work focuses on the great stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos while the test of the first atomic bomb was being prepared. The error is getting smaller and smaller, their inner struggling has become more and more intense. This kind of anxiety was from the sense of morality, and also came from the fear of this kind of weapon that can destroy the earth.

When I listened to this opera the first time, I could feel the tension, anxiety and stress. For example, the first act takes place about a month before the bomb is to be tested. In order to render the tension of the entire opera, Adams made a great use of sharp sounds of the orchestra. For instance, in the orchestral part, the composer always used the high range of strings to create a tense atmosphere. The sounds of brass-wind instruments were a little bit ear-piercing and sharp, which made the audience feel pressured and nervous. In addition, the percussion instruments in a fixed rhythm, which made me feel like I am in a battlefield.

John Adams, the composer of Doctor Atomic, is the greatest American opera composition in the contemporary era and also the representative personage of Minimalism. His compositions combined part of Romanticism and Minimalist music. Besides Doctor Atomic, the opera Nixon in China is also one of the most famous operas in the 20th century. Although widely attributed to Minimalism, Adams’ music is still quite different from the Philip Glass who is also a Minimalist composer. In his music, the audience can hear a kind of mechanical speeding sound that mingles with the contemporary high-speed life instead of the subtle rhythm. We can know these typical characters of Adams’ music obviously in his orchestral work Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

Minimalism music is a brand-new music form that emerged in the 1960s in the northeast of the United States. Similar to the Sonata, it cannot be defined distinctly as a style, a technique, or a genre. But, if Minimalism is mentioned, people can almost know which kind of music it is. In one word, the meaning of “Minimalism” is not just “simple” but refers to a composition technique that composer used as simplest music materials as possible, and made the materials keep changed by expanding and shrinking, so the music continued to develop. We learn the similar stuff before such as Phillip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach. In fact, Minimalism is of great importance for contemporary popular music and film music nowadays, and I believe that almost everyone can think of some popular songs with accompaniment parts using the repetitive music materials. It is obvious that the influence of Minimalism can be said to be ubiquitous and profound to our contemporary music.

Yuelu Cui


Miller, Malcolm. Amsterdam, Nederlands Opera: Doctor Atomic and Wagner dream
October, 2007.

Fleming, John. OPERA ON THE BIG SCREEN; Metropolitan Opera’s Doctor Atomic will be simulcast locally

Torrance, Kelly Jane. ‘Doctor Atomic’; John Adams and the quest for American opera
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