8) John Adams: City Noir | Top 10 – Modern Classical Music

In this series of articles, I offer a top 10 list of my favorite works of modern classical music, focusing on orchestral pieces composed during the last 25 years.


I have been following the career of composer John Adams for fifteen years. My first discovery was his minimalist works. The first piece that really hooked me was Shakers Loops, which in my opinion is one of the few success stories of the minimalist genre.

John Adams’s style has continued to evolve since that period when he was composing purely minimalist works. In his most recent pieces, the clean repetitive foundation typical of minimalism is still there, but it is literally buried under a ton of more diverse and varied musical ideas.

City Noir is the perfect example of this evolution, the point where his work may even begin to seem very complex. By listening carefully, we can always pick out the underlying minimalist influences. The last two minutes of the work take us elsewhere, into a universe that is much more simple and repetitive:

A symphony on a grand scale, City Noir evokes the dark atmosphere of Los Angeles in the 30s. We especially find in it clear evocations of the jazz of that era. The third movement ends with a euphoric cacophony, percussive and repetitive, that never fails to make me smile.


Title: City Noir
Composer: John Adams
Year of composition: 2009
Structure: Work in 3 movements
Playing time: 35 min

The video below was shot at the world premiere of the work (Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, October 8, 2009). City Noir makes up the first 37 minutes of the concert. A special treat is when John Adams comes on stage at the end of the performance.

This piece is also available on Spotify and iTunes.


To appreciate the evolution of John Adams’s style, I suggest that you also listen to Shaker Loops, a minimalist work composed 30 years earlier, in the version for string septet.

What do you think?

I would appreciate hearing your thoughts about this work by John Adams. Did you like it?

The ranking continues next week with the 7th place entry in this top 10.

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