ADAMS: Shaker Loops / Wound Dresser / Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Marin Alsop/ Nathan Gunn/ Tim Handley) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559031)
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John Adams (b. 1947)
Shaker Loops Short Ride in a Fast Machine The Wound-Dresser Berceuse ?ëlegiaque
\Two things particularly excited me about John's music,"said conductor Simon Rattle. "One was that it alwaysseemed to be moving forward in space, that I wouldimagine while listening to it that I was in a light aircraftflying rather fast, close to the ground. The other thing isthat, in almost all of his best pieces, there's a mixture ofecstasy and sadness." This quotation, from one of theworld's pre-eminent conductors, pretty well sums up theappeal on the work of composer John Adams: itsimmediacy, its speed (even when slow), and its power, likeall great art, to give catharsis through despondency,despair, or even through frantic motion.
The story of John Adams is a truly American one, inthe vein of the peripatetic journeyman ranging fromJohnny Appleseed to Bob Dylan to the former presidentwho shares his name. Raised in Massachusetts, Adams, in1971, the tail end of the "love generation", packed histhings into a Volkswagen Bug and headed west to SanFrancisco, the apex of the waning revolution, in order todistance himself from his neo-European upbringing. Hewas a trained composer, studying at Harvard with eminentmentors like Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici and RogerSessions, pursuing not only composition but conductingand playing the clarinet as well. However, in order toshuffle off this petit bourgeois training, and to reconcilehimself with the wave of popular music in which he felthimself (perhaps in spite of his Ivy League affiliation)swept up, Adams, rather than deny it, ran toward it, toCalifornia.
This split explains Adams' oeuvre very well. Who elsebut such a polyglot could write both the gloomy, sedateWound-Dresser, the Rent aspirant opera I Was Looking atthe Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, and the ersatzelectronica of Hoodoo Zephyr? When he got to the coast,his career blossomed, and he created pieces for all media:from film scores and operas to symphonies, concertos,string quartets, and think pieces for orchestra, enduringworks like Harmonielehre, Harmonium, The ChairmanDances (a suite taken from his opera Nixon in China) andtwo of the gems found on this disc, Short Ride in a FastMachine and Shaker Loops.
Adams went on to become one of the most famouscomposers in the world, with awards too numerous tomention (though the 2002 Pulitzer Prize deserves specialdispensation) and new recordings always being released.
He conducts regularly, both his own music and that ofothers, and has earned his place in the mighty triumvirateof American Minimalist composers alongside Philip Glassand Steve Reich.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine is, as the title suggests, awhirling dervish of a piece, where a huge orchestra isjuggernauted in to four minutes of high speed life by theinsistence of a wood block. Composed as a companionpiece to a slow, anti-fanfare called Tromba Lontana, this isfour minutes of open throttle fireworks, a concert (or disc)opener if there ever was one. The piece was first performedin 1986 by a young conductor called Michael TilsonThomas, who would go on to become music director of theSan Francisco Symphony, where Adams is composer-inresidence.
Adams' Nixon, in his opera Nixon in China, was agolden-voiced baritone called Sanford Sylvan, for whomhe wrote the gloomy, lamenting Whitman setting calledThe Wound-Dresser. Whitman was himself a nurse duringthe civil war, and he wrote, in his inimitable elegiacfashion, of these terrible times, speaking bluntly about the"stump of arm" or "perforated shoulder" or "crush'd head",all horrid sights he bore witness to while doing his duty.
Adams, in making his piece, accents the solemnity anddignity of Whitman's heroic, unheralded acts of bravery.
The music itself, scored for orchestra and baritone, is oneof the slowest, most pensive compositions in the Adamscanon. Strings dominate, in sparse (but somehow heavy)textures, and though the text is quite brutally dramatic,Adams does not soup it up; his admirable restraint gives thework's repetition a monodic quality, like a prayer or anatonement, and the words float gorgeously above theorchestra. There is a build (in Adams' work, there is alwaysa build), but climaxes in this piece are understated andtasteful. This piece is sort of a brother to Harmonium, hissetting of three poems of Emily Dickinson. Both deal in thenineteenth century (in different ways), and both poets are,like Adams, at root, salt-of-the-earth New Englanders.
Many think of Shaker Loops, a piece Adams wrote inthe mid-1970s, when minimalism in New York waspeaking, the period of Glass's Music in Twelve Parts orReich's Music for 18 Musicians, seminal works both fromthe same period. The work began as a piece for stringquartet called Wavemaker, something he has sincewithdrawn, and now ends in this version, for stringorchestra. He based the piece on "shaking", translating thisto trills and tremolos. "The 'loops'," writes Adams, in linernotes to a prior recording, "are small melodic fragmentswhose 'tails,' so to speak, are tied to their 'heads,' creatingloops of repeated melodies, a technique borrowed fromtape music composition." He is referring here to Reich'smonumental pieces like Come Out and It's Gonna Rain,where small fragments of tape were played at speeds justdifferent enough to, over time, create a 'phasing' effect. Heis also, in his title, referring to a religious sect that madetheir home near his own rural New Hampshire town.
"I would try to imagine," writes Adams, "what a Shakerceremony must have felt like--those normally stern soulssuddenly sprung loose in a rapture of religious ecstasy asthey shook in sympathetic vibration with their creator."The piece is cast in four movements, called Shakingand Trembling, Hymning Slews, Loops and Verses and AFinal Shaking. The first is rapturous and exciting, fast andwildly caffeinated; the second is a break from the frenzy ofthe first, favoured by glissandi (sliding around on thestrings) and pitting intrusions (rounded and mellow) of thehigh strings against the lush chords of the lower ones,ending with a collective shimmer; the third is a slow burn,picking up where the second left off and running far afield,moving slowly from a low, throaty cello melody to a shake,to a scamper, to an all out blast, and ending with a sluff-offto the highest, most crystalline register; the fourth, and finalmovement, makes reference to the first, but in a colder,more controlled way, as the piece dwindles to a calculatedwhimper.Daniel Felsenfeld