John Adams

Chamber Symphony

‘A minimalist bored with minimalism’: this oft-cited definition of the American composer John Adams – straight from the horse’s mouth – may strike one in a literal sense as apocryphal, but in spirit it does indeed conform to the stylistic development within his oeuvre. Adams is a composer with an ‘open ear’, through which new musical styles and traditions continue to enter, demanding their own place in what used to be a strictly minimalist model. Jazz, popular music and American folk music belong to these influences as much as like composers Sibelius and Takemitsu, Mahler and Schoenberg.
Adams explicitly cites Arnold Schoenberg’s Kammersymfonie Op. 9 as the inspiration behind his own Chamber Symphony (1992), a work he frequently conducted. Contrapuntal density, a high energy level and virtuoso soloistic writing are among the common features of both works. The distinctly motoric style, the ever-present pulse, the breathless motives and the many ostinatos in the Chamber Symphony bring to mind not only orthodox minimalism and the mechanical music of pianola composer Conlon Nancarrow, but also the Roaring Twenties. The violin solos cast a knowing glance back at Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat, the big band explosions near the conclusion evoke George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony and the threatening chromaticism - that since the opera The Death of Klinghoffer has spread like an oil spill over Adams’ once consonant harmonies - is more reminiscent of Hindemith than of Schoenberg. Adams himself reveals that the source of his chromatic experiments cannot in fact be traced to Hindemith but rather to the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns (1947) by the Russian-American composer and encyclopedist Nicolas Slominsky. In this respect Adams is in the company of many a respected jazz musician.
Should the listener, dizzy from the frenetic succession and superimposition of musical events and reeling from the work’s slap-happy tempo, be more reminded of children’s cartoons than Schoenberg, then he is not far off the mark. The composer himself describes the ‘shock of recognition’: ‘I was sitting in my studio, studying the score to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, and as I was doing so I became aware that my seven-year-old son Sam was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the 1950’s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores for the cartoons mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic and not a little aggressive, and I realized suddenly how much these two traditions had in common.’


Scratchband, to be sure, is no Chamber Symphony, but the family resemblance is evident: once again Adams created a perpetuum mobile dominated by the selfsame cartoon-like restlessness, extrovert vitality and instrumental virtuosity. But the difference in the titles’ connotation is no less salient, because while the one piece aims explicitly at the symphonic illusion, with all its compositional complications, the other work – half as long and in a single movement – gives priority to clarity above intricacy, to cliffhanger above climax, and to an open end rather than an irreversible conclusion. Scratchband (1996) is also more for ‘band’ than ‘orchestra’, with its electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboards, piercing woodwinds and ‘brass lung’ – an orchestration that not coincidentally resembles that of Adams’s ‘rock opera’ I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky (1995). Scratchband’s fundamental tone is one of unshakeable and infectious optimism: the melodic garlands that make up most of the piece whiz by, from the first moment to the last, like skyrockets shooting into the musical firmament.

Duke Ellington

The Tattooed Bride

John Adams’s grandfather owned a dance hall in central New Hampshire, where for decades big bands from all over America appeared. Duke Ellington’s band – the big band of the day – was no exception, and Adams’s father, himself a clarinettist, took his young son to hear it. ‘It was one of those undubitable experiences which I never got over,’ recalls Adams, and Ellington became once and for all his ‘primary influence’. No wonder, then, that Adams included works by Ellington in his 50th birthday concert in 1998 in the Netherlands and Belgium.
            The Tattooed Bride was first performed in 1948 at a concert Ellington gave at Carnegie Hall in New York. Two years later it was issued on vinyl, entitled ‘Masterpieces by Ellington’, along with three classics from the 1930’s: Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady and Solitude. The combination of four numbers with an average duration of just under 12 minutes was no coincidence: the production was intended for pressing on a modern LP, which offered the possibility of longer uninterrupted blocks of music compared to the old 78-rpm records. The Tattooed Bride set the tone, compositionally speaking, for four ‘uncut concert arrangements’. ‘The modern thinking of The Tattooed Bride,’ according to the original liner notes, ‘is echoed again and again in these arrangements of the earlier numbers, broadening their scope as both popular music and as music with recognizable claims to serious attention.’ Ellington explained that the number’s cryptic title refers to the combination of familiar and unfamiliar elements: only on his wedding night does the groom discover, to his surprise, the tattoos on his new wife’s body.

George Antheil

Ballet mécanique

‘If the public still thinks of me at all,’ wrote George Antheil in 1945 in his autobiography Bad Boy of Music, ‘it probably thinks of me as the composer of this damned Ballet Mécanique.’ That ‘bad boy’ had by then – twenty years later – become a ‘good boy’ who regarded his career as a futuristic composer-pianist as a thing of the past. It all began in 1922, when the young Antheil first set foot in Europe and was quick to establish a controversial reputation in Germany and France as an advocate of ‘ultramodern’ American and French music, in particular his own compositions with fearsome titles like Sonata sauvage, Death of the Machines and Airplane Sonata. Soon enough he was discovered by the poet Ezra Pound, who in 1923 published a pamphlet about Antheil, presenting the young rebel as the only genius alongside Stravinsky who harboured a truly innovative spirit. Antheil and the treatise on harmony is rather puffed-up prose full of brilliantly unrealistic nonsense, but is all the same entertaining and typical of the contemporary Parisian artistic climate.
In October 1923 Antheil announced that he was working on a new large-scale composition, the sole work that would make its way into the history books: Ballet mécanique, a message ‘in a strange, cold, dreamlike, ultraviolet-light medium (…) streamlined, glistening, cold, often as “musically silent” as interplanetary space, and also often as hot as an electric furnace.’ He completed the work two years later and another year later, in 1926, organized its first complete performance in the Paris salon of a young American patroness of the arts. In a single room stood eight grand pianos, in an adjacent room and on the staircase the percussion was assembled, and conductor Vladimir Golschmann led the performance from atop the middle piano. Some 200 guests reclined on, under and behind said pianos, and even one dangled from a chandelier. The premiere was a thundering success.
The same cannot, however, be said of the first American performance, a year later in Carnegie Hall. Set against the backdrop of 1927 jazz-mad America, this extravagant spectacle included twice as many grand pianos as in Paris, plus a collection of anvils, saws, claxons and an airplane propeller with wind machine. The piece flopped and Ballet mécanique became Antheil’s worst nightmare.
There is no surviving printed score to the original version. The basic concept behind this ‘mechanical ballet’ was a mechanical instrument, the player piano, undoubtedly inspired by the pianola part Stravinsky had included in the unfinished 1919 version of Les noces. The remainder of the Ballet mecanique orchestra was modelled after the definitive version of Les noces, with its four pianos and expanded percussion section.
Antheil told Nicolas Slominsky: ‘I personally consider that the Ballet mécanique was important in one particular and that it was conceived in a new form, that form specifically being the filling out of a certain time canvas with musical abstractions and sound material composed and contrasted against one another with the thought of time values rather than tonal values (…) My ideas were the most abstract of the abstract.’ In a certain sense the most extraordinary measures of the original Ballet mécanique are the measures of rest: ‘I did not hesitate to have absolutely nothing on my piano rolls for sixty-two bars.’ Nor did Antheil hesitate to have the entire orchestra fall mute as well. This general pause lasts longer than any other such moment in music prior to 1960.
It was exactly this eternity of fifteen seconds’ silence that Antheil cut out in his 1953 revision, whose instrumentation was brought back to four pianos, two xylophones, electric doorbells, an airplane propeller and sundry white noise. But even this abridged pianola-less version still succeeds in capturing the sensation of the 1920’s.

(original Dutch text: Elmer Schönberger)