By that time, Adams was well on his way to becoming among the most influential and widely performed American composers since Copland. In early works, such as Phrygian Gates (1977) for piano and Common Tones in Simple Time (1979) for orchestra, Adams' musical language was most heavily influenced by the stripped-down harmonic palette and motoric pulse of minimalism. Even in these works, Adams' trademark rhythmic vigor and sense of large-scale architecture were already in evidence, and a lively humor rooted in juxtapositions of borrowed styles proved a consistent crowd-pleaser. The wild stylistic clashes of Grand Pianola Music (1982) provoked sharp critical disagreements in just the thing to benefit a young composer's career. Adams' affinity with the orchestra and his ability to fill a large canvas became fully apparent with Harmonielehre (1985), a work that fuses motoric repetitions, harmonic conciseness, and lush, textured emotionalism. Other Adams compositions of this period that continue to find places on symphony programs are the exhilarating overture Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) and the chugging, machine-like Fearful Symmetries (1988).
Adams really seized public attention with his stage works, however, and some consider his operas his most important contributions to musical literature. He tended to rip his subjects out of the headlines and of recent American history, with sometimes controversial results. The operas Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990-1991), the latter set amidst a terrorist attack, elicited both praise and controversy. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995) followed a diverse group of Angelenos in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. His large-scale song The Wound-Dresser (1988), set to Walt Whitman's war poetry, demonstrated great emotional depth and development. Through the 1990s, Adams continued to draw on increasingly diverse sources of musical inspiration, from the electronics of Hoodoo Zephyr (1992) to cartoon music in the Chamber Symphony (1992) to the old-time American music of John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994). In 1995, Adams received music composition's most lucrative honor, the Grawemeyer Prize, for his Violin Concerto. His music was frequently recorded, generally on the Nonesuch label. Adams has also been active as a conductor, championing challenging twentieth century works by composers such as Conlon Nancarrow and Frank Zappa.
In the new millennium, Adams continued to compose music addressing major national and international events. El Niño, an oratorio on the subject of the birth of Jesus, marked the turn of the millennium itself. This multimedia work, originally presented by the San Francisco Symphony, featured a silent film and on-stage dancing in conjunction with the music, and the movement of the vocal soloists was also choreographed. Adams faced perhaps his most difficult commission in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: On the Transmigration of Souls, for adult and children's choirs, orchestra, and taped sounds, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered on September 19, 2002, and issued on the Nonesuch label the following year. With its readings of the names of survivors and of passages from the missing-persons posters that appeared around New York in the immediate wake of the attack, mixed with quotations from Charles Ives
' The Unanswered Question, the work, in Adams' words, sought "to create what I would call a meditative space for the listener to bring one's emotions and memories, as if you would go into a cathedral." On the Transmigration of Souls earned Adams the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2003.
By the mid-2000s, Adams seemed almost an unofficial American composer laureate, and he continued to address major themes of American culture in his next major work, Doctor Atomic. An opera based on the life and career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead designer of the U.S. atomic bomb, it spawned an instrumental Doctor Atomic Symphony. Another opera, A Flowering Tree, merged ideas from Mozart's The Magic Flute, including its themes of moral transcendence, with those from a southern Indian folktale; the work was commissioned for performance in an Austrian Mozart celebration, and Adams' fame was becoming increasingly international. Adams remained active and in high demand in the late 2000s. His string quartet Fellow Traveler, in honor of his chief theatrical collaborator, director Peter Sellars, was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.