John Adams is an American composer who is often associated with the Minimalist and post-Minimalist movements in American music. While Light Over Water features electronics quite prominently (along with brass instruments), Adams has composed many works which are entirely “acoustic” but which are often influenced by electronic means of composition. According to composer Ingram Marshall, who wrote an essay on Light Over Water over at Earbox:
As synthesizers come to mimic the “real thing,” they truly begin to live up to their hitherto inappropriate name. Technology offers the possibility of a truly synthetic orchestra. Thus Adams, who has a natural gift for composing the lyrical and expressive sounds of instruments, found a technology that could augment and reinforce the orchestral traditions of several centuries.
This is the nascent situation of Light Over Water. Essentially electronic, it was nevertheless born out of the world of the orchestra. In previous works, Adams “electrified” his orchestrations. Now he “orchestrates” his electronics.
This tension between traditional orchestral sounds and electronic means of composition can also be seen in one of Adams’ best known works, Shaker Loops which was released along with Light Over Water by New Albion in 1987. Shaker Loops is written for a string orchestra but it’s repetitive structure of loops played by different string instruments harken back to early experiments with tape loops.
Light Over Water was originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1983 as accompaniment for an installation choreographed by Lucinda Childs and featuring set design by Frank Gehry. You can watch a tech rehearsal for the performance, which was entitled “Available Light,” here. You can read more about the performance in this article written to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the performance.
Other notable works by Adams include Nixon in China, an opera based on Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, Harmonium, and The Death of Klinghoffer. The Death of Klinghoffer has been controversial since its debut, as some have claimed that the opera distorts the story of the Palestine Liberation Front’s highjacking of a cruise ship in 1985, and their murder of Klinghoffer in a way which is antisemitic. After 9/11, the Boston Symphony cancelled a planned performance of excerpts from the opera and former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani protested the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Klinghoffer.
You can hear samples of each of these works below:
Nixon in China
The Death of Klinghoffer