It's one of the stranger realities of John Adams' career that his plangent, questioning operas and concert pieces have been hard to hear over the arguing they've provoked. Born in Massachusetts in 1947 and trained at Harvard, the clarinetist-conductor-composer left the East for California in 1971. There, after working in a warehouse, he taught music and led concerts. In the mid-1970s Adams discovered minimalism, the repetitive, rigorously controlled reactions to 12-tone music instigated by composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Adams has said that the discovery "open[ed] the door for me into a garden of almost endless delight and invention."
As a movement, minimalism scared and baffled critics, musicians and audiences. It set off years of shouting and finger-pointing, and Adams' work received its share of the incomprehension and resentment. When I first heard his "Shaker Loops" (1978), for example, the radio announcer introduced it almost apologetically. Yet the charming album contained the watermarks of Adams' budding aesthetic: a blossoming lyricism, a delight in the sonority and colors of the orchestra; a sense of timing ready to surprise and challenge.
For an Adams initiate, the best point of entry on his 10-disc, 20-year retrospective, "Earbox," might be "Harmonium," his choral setting of poems by Emily Dickinson and John Donne. The swell of sonic tenderness in those works is nourishing and remarkable. Later compositions, like "Harmonielehre," Chamber Symphony and Violin Concerto, mature with increasing virtuosity, a rapturous taste for harmony and unpretentious influences -- from big band to movie thrillers to classical.
The well-packaged, carefully made box set -- a testament to a fruitful and rare composer-label relationship -- also includes excerpts from two of Adams' operas. "The Death of Klinghoffer," more cantata than opera, is a more troubling work than the witty, sparkling "Nixon in China," but both deserve serious, repeated listening for Adams' commanding scoring and Alice Goodman's exquisite poetry. (Both operas, complete, are still in Nonesuch's catalog.)
"Earbox"'s survey of Adams' canon sometimes flags. For example, "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky" sinks beneath mortifyingly trite lyrics. But the box also contains several first recordings of recent works, and every performance sounds as if given by musicians caught up in the scores' challenges.
In the end, "Earbox" proves that Adams has never been a hard-line minimalist, nor a shallow opportunist. His career of just over 20 years already glimmers with indelible moments: the resounding middle movement of Violin Concerto, the sleepless voices of Nixons and Maos concluding "Nixon in China," the heroic horns shouting through the "Harmonielehre" finale. Unlike most minimalism, Adams' music has never felt motionless, and its pleasures, at any volume, are drowning out objections more convincingly as time passes.