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ClassicsOnline Home » ADAMS: Shaker Loops / Wound Dresser / Short Ride in a Fast Machine
The story of John Adams is a truly American one. Raised in Massachusetts and trained as a composer at Harvard, at the age of 24 he headed west to San Francisco in order to distance himself from his neo-European upbringing. Shaker Loops, written in the heyday of American minimalism, helped to earn him a place as one of the most famous living composers. It borrows the technique of looping fragments of melody from Steve Reich’s early tape experiments, and continues to be one of Adams’ most frequently performed works. Also included on this disc is Short Ride in a Fast Machine, four minutes of pure aural adrenaline, and The Wound- Dresser, a pensive adaptation of Walt Whitman’s poem about his experiences as a nurse during the civil war.
By John J. Puccio
Penguin Guide Key Recording
By Malcolm Hayes
John Adams (b. 1947) Shaker Loops • Short Ride in a Fast Machine • The Wound-Dresser • Berceuse Élégiaque
“Two things particularly excited me about John’s music,” said conductor Simon Rattle. “One was that it always seemed to be moving forward in space, that I would imagine while listening to it that I was in a light aircraft flying rather fast, close to the ground. The other thing is that, in almost all of his best pieces, there’s a mixture of ecstasy and sadness.” This quotation, from one of the world’s pre-eminent conductors, pretty well sums up the appeal on the work of composer John Adams: its immediacy, its speed (even when slow), and its power, like all great art, to give catharsis through despondency, despair, or even through frantic motion.
The story of John Adams is a truly American one, in the vein of the peripatetic journeyman ranging from Johnny Appleseed to Bob Dylan to the former president who shares his name. Raised in Massachusetts, Adams, in 1971, the tail end of the “love generation”, packed his things into a Volkswagen Bug and headed west to San Francisco, the apex of the waning revolution, in order to distance himself from his neo-European upbringing. He was a trained composer, studying at Harvard with eminent mentors like Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici and Roger Sessions, pursuing not only composition but conducting and playing the clarinet as well. However, in order to shuffle off this petit bourgeois training, and to reconcile himself with the wave of popular music in which he felt himself (perhaps in spite of his Ivy League affiliation) swept up, Adams, rather than deny it, ran toward it, to California.
This split explains Adams’ oeuvre very well. Who else but such a polyglot could write both the gloomy, sedate Wound-Dresser, the Rent aspirant opera I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, and the ersatz electronica 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, enduring works like Harmonielehre, Harmonium, The Chairman Dances (a suite taken from his opera Nixon in China) and two of the gems found on this disc, Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Shaker Loops.
Adams went on to become one of the most famous composers in the world, with awards too numerous to mention (though the 2002 Pulitzer Prize deserves special dispensation) and new recordings always being released. He conducts regularly, both his own music and that of others, and has earned his place in the mighty triumvirate of American Minimalist composers alongside Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine is, as the title suggests, a whirling dervish of a piece, where a huge orchestra is juggernauted in to four minutes of high speed life by the insistence of a wood block. Composed as a companion piece to a slow, anti-fanfare called Tromba Lontana, this is four minutes of open throttle fireworks, a concert (or disc) opener if there ever was one. The piece was first performed in 1986 by a young conductor called Michael Tilson Thomas, who would go on to become music director of the San Francisco Symphony, where Adams is composer-inresidence.
Adams’ Nixon, in his opera Nixon in China, was a golden-voiced baritone called Sanford Sylvan, for whom he wrote the gloomy, lamenting Whitman setting called The Wound-Dresser. Whitman was himself a nurse during the civil war, and he wrote, in his inimitable elegiac fashion, 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 and dignity of Whitman’s heroic, unheralded acts of bravery. The music itself, scored for orchestra and baritone, is one of the slowest, most pensive compositions in the Adams canon. 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 the work’s repetition a monodic quality, like a prayer or an atonement, and the words float gorgeously above the orchestra. There is a build (in Adams’ work, there is always a build), but climaxes in this piece are understated and tasteful. This piece is sort of a brother to Harmonium, his setting of three poems of Emily Dickinson. Both deal in the nineteenth 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 in the mid-1970s, when minimalism in New York was peaking, the period of Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts or Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, seminal works both from the same period. The work began as a piece for string quartet called Wavemaker, something he has since withdrawn, and now ends in this version, for string orchestra. He based the piece on “shaking”, translating this to trills and tremolos. “The ‘loops’,” writes Adams, in liner notes to a prior recording, “are small melodic fragments whose ‘tails,’ so to speak, are tied to their ‘heads,’ creating loops of repeated melodies, a technique borrowed from tape music composition.” He is referring here to Reich’s monumental pieces like Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain, where small fragments of tape were played at speeds just different enough to, over time, create a ‘phasing’ effect. He is also, in his title, referring to a religious sect that made their home near his own rural New Hampshire town. “I would try to imagine,” writes Adams, “what a Shaker ceremony must have felt like—those normally stern souls suddenly sprung loose in a rapture of religious ecstasy as they shook in sympathetic vibration with their creator.”
The piece is cast in four movements, called Shaking and Trembling, Hymning Slews, Loops and Verses and A Final Shaking. The first is rapturous and exciting, fast and wildly caffeinated; the second is a break from the frenzy of the first, favoured by glissandi (sliding around on the strings) and pitting intrusions (rounded and mellow) of the high 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-off to the highest, most crystalline register; the fourth, and final movement, makes reference to the first, but in a colder, more controlled way, as the piece dwindles to a calculated whimper.
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