AN 2 8732

John Adams - Portrait

Release date February 22, 2011
Album code AN 2 8732
Periods 20th century

Album information

JOHN ADAMS – Portrait

You can’t label me, and I admit that I never think of my music in terms of artistic “strategy.” I would probably prefer, like Steve Reich for example, to take a directional path where new elements deliberately transform the language with an obvious logic. But I can’t stop myself from making sharp turns, about-faces and doing “forbidden things.” (Le Monde, January 28, 1997)

After dedicating two notable Portraits recordings to Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, Angèle Dubeau now turns her attention to the world of John Adams, perhaps the most fundamentally American of contemporary composers. Possessing a unique voice, this self-described melancholy clown, is nevertheless a master when it comes to uniting serious and popular music, or an infectious beat with long static passages. “A compositional idea may come from any source. The composer’s mind is like flypaper, ready at any moment to attract and trap an idea, a single sound or complex of sounds,” he explains in his autobiography Hallelujah Junction. “The creative act is a balance of positive and negative forces, the yin and yang of a subconscious artistic invention that goes hand in hand with a keenly attuned, conscious power of discrimination.”

Growing up in rural Vermont and New Hampshire to the sound of the marching bands he played in as a teenager and the swing bands his father played in, John Adams studied clarinet, conducting and composition at Harvard from 1965 to 1971. His teachers included Leon Kirchner (a disciple of Schoenberg) and Roger Sessions. “Every good composer has a period of struggling to find a voice. If you’re one of the lucky ones and succeed, it’s because you’ve found a way to embrace what you can’t live without and do so in a way that’s novel and original. In my case, during my formative years, I was striving for a language that had these three critical elements without which I couldn’t live: a) pulsation, b) tonality and/or modality and c) repetition,” he explained in an interview with Thomas May.

Though he sometimes borrows from minimalist techniques, such as tonal grounding, progressions of harmonic waves (his very first work, Phrygian Gates, is an eloquent example), the repetition of cells that undergo almost covert metamorphoses, a regularity of pulse, and certain references to the Indonesian gamelan, John Adams stands apart from his predecessors by his choice to not use phasing.

Shaker Loops

Adams’ first emblematic piece, the famous Shaker Loops was composed in 1978 using fragments of his earlier string quartet Wavemaker. Adams had tried to use aspects of his work with synthesizers, an echo of Reich’s use of loops. With Shaker Loops, “I held on to the idea of the oscillating patterns and made an overall structure that could embrace much more variety and emotional range,” explains Adams. Rather than rewriting a new work for quartet, Adams instead used a septet, which gives clarity to the voices and increases the subtle melodic tangling.

The work assigns loops of melodic material of differing lengths to the seven instruments, thereby creating a constantly shifting interplay among the parts. “The ‘loops’ idea was a technique from the era of tape music where small lengths of prerecorded tape attached end to end could repeat melodic or rhythmic figures ad infinitum,” recalls Adams. The outer movements basically play with the shake idea. “The Shakers got into the act partly as a pun on the musical term ‘to shake’, meaning either to make a tremolo with the bow across the string or else to trill rapidly from one note to another.” Adams also talks about a defunct Shaker colony in Canterbury, New Hampshire, not far from his childhood home. The second section features glissandi floating within a nearly static pool of sound. “Part III is essentially melodic, with the cellos playing long, lyrical lines (which are nevertheless loops themselves) against a background of muted violins, an activity that gradually takes on speed and mass until it culminates in the wild push-pull section that is the emotional high point of the piece. The floating harmonics, a kind of disembodied ghost of the push-pull figures in Part III, signal the start of Part IV, a final dance of the bows across the strings that concludes with the four upper voices lightly rocking away on the natural overtones of their strings while the cellos and bass provide a quiet pedal point beneath. […] Shaker Loops, despite its placid harmonies, was loaded with novel, even outrageous ideas, and performing it demanded visibly strenuous activity from the players, an energy that was quickly communicated to the listener. […] This dynamic, almost electrically charged element, so out of place in the orderly mechanistic universe of Minimalism, gave the music its raison d’être and ultimately led to the full realization of the piece.”

John’s Book of Alleged Dances

Composed fifteen years later, in 1994, shortly after his Violin Concerto, John’s Book of Alleged Dances is an essentially playful collection of clockwork etudes for string quartet. The work can be taken apart and played in whole or in part, in any order the performers like. “The dances were ‘alleged’ because the steps for them had yet to be invented (although by now a number of choreographers, including Paul Taylor, have created pieces around them). The general tone is dry, droll, sardonic.” Angèle Dubeau selected the dances that use a recording of loops for prepared piano—an invention of John Cage (one of Adams’ major influences) in which screws, nuts, elastics and other bits of hardware are placed inside the instrument to change its timbre. The work is played here with a double quartet, adding considerably to the challenge of performing the work.

Adams describes “Judah to Ocean” as “a piece of vehicular music, following the streetcar tracks way out into the fog and ultimately to the beach, where I used to rent a two-room cottage behind the Surf Theater.” “Dogjam” is “a hoe-down in twisted hillbilly chromatics. Over a bumpy pavement of prepared piano, the first violin applies the gas and hits the road, never once using the brakes even at the sharpest turns.” After “Rag the Bone,” (a “swinging scat-song for four voices in parallel motion”), “the loops dance the robot “Habanera” while the aging dictator watches from the wings. Too many rafts headed for Miami. Had to give up his beloved cigars. Lament for a season without baseball.” “Hammer & Chisel” describes two of Adams’ contractor friends who do odd jobs around his property. “Hammer is an aging Sixties radical, still loyal to the cause. Chisel keeps his politics to himself. I can hear them arguing while they pound, drill, rout and measure.” This version of John’s Book of Alleged Dances ends with “Standchen,” a serenade that is in both three and four. “The violins and viola set out in an interlocking hiccup of staccato figures while the cello pumps out a counter-rhythm. […] An homage to those ecstatic Beethoven and Schubert finales in 12/8 time.”

Road Movies

Dated the following year (1995), Road Movies, for violin and piano is one of Adams’ rare works of chamber music and turned out to be a special favourite of Angèle Dubeau’s. “My music of the 70s and 80s was principally about massed sonorities and the physical and emotional potency of big walls of triadic harmony. These musical gestures were not really germane to chamber music with its democratic parceling of roles, its transparency and timbral delicacy. Moreover, the challenge of writing melodically, something that chamber music demands above and beyond all else, was yet to be solved.”

Toccata-like in the fast movements, Road Movies demands from the performer finesse, commitment, a sense of repartee and a mastery of swing (second and fourth note of every group of four played slightly late). “Movement I is a relaxed drive down a not unfamiliar road,” explains Adams. “Material is recirculated in a sequence of recalls that suggest a rondo form. In Movement II, the violinist must tune the G string down a major second. Adams describes it as “a simple meditation of several small motives. A solitary figure in an empty desert landscape.” Adams cautions that “Movement III is for four wheel drives only, a big perpetual motion machine called ‘40% Swing.’ […] Relax, and leave the driving to us.”


Angèle Dubeau
Josiane Breault (Shaker Loops, Alleged Dances)
Lyne Allard (Shaker Loops, Alleged Dances)
Lizann Gervais (Alleged Dances)
Andra Giugariu (Shaker Loops, Alleged Dances)
Madeleine Messier (Alleged Dances)
Thérèse Ryan (Shaker Loops)
Élisabeth Giroux (Shaker Loops, Alleged Dances)
Caroline Milot (Alleged Dances)
Double Bass
Stéphanie Domaschio (Shaker Loops)

Louise Bessette (Road Movies)

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