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John Adams, “Chamber Symphony” and “Grand Pianola Music”

Artist: Adams, John
Title: "Chamber Symphony" and "Grand Pianola Music"
Release Date:

John Adams, Chamber Symphony and Grand Pianola Music, released 1994 by Elektra Nonesuch Records

Chamber Symphony (1992), performed by the London Sinfonietta; John Adams, conductor
1. Mongrel Airs
2. Aria with Walking Bass
3. Roadrunner

Grand Pianola Music (1981), performed by the London Sinfonietta; John Adams, conductor
1. Part IA
2. Part IB
3. On the Great Divide
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I believe that Adams’s Chamber Symphony marks something of a break in his choice of musical language; in classic minimalist style, he wrote strongly diatonic music until his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, after which his harmonic language is much more wide-ranging and elusive, his gestures more angular and aggressive. Yet while he consciously wrote his Chamber Symphony with Schoenberg in mind (Schoenberg’s own Chamber Symphony is considered one of the great [and unplayable] works of the 20th century), this piece is much more reminiscent of Charles Ives’s glorious jumbled cacophonies and Carl Stalling’s cartoon music.

Throughout the entire piece, it sounds as if every instrument is doing its own thing independently of the others: in its own key, at its own tempo, even in its own musical style. Polyrhythms and multiple tonalites abound. And yet, rather than sounding like a hideous mess, the effect is more one of celebrated idiosyncrasy…like being at a party and drifting from conversation to conversation; you’re listening to a couple of people talk when all of a sudden someone else says something that catches your attention, but you can still hear what you were first listening to in the background, etc., etc.

“Mongrel Airs” is a lovely confusion. Every player is clamoring for attention, trying to play over everybody else, refusing to walk in step. Random things just happen, and Adams somehow manages to control it, has it make a fun kind of sense. “Aria With Walking Bass” is supported by an ungainly, lumbering bass line over which everybody else jostles for position, shoving each other out of the way, often mocking one another in the process. “Roadrunner” is a little more focused, concentrating on a kind of breathless forward motion as everyone seems to hone in on the same goal…though they each want to do it their own way. It’s also hellaciously fast and jumpy, constantly pushing ahead, getting a little bit out of control — maybe like trying to push a car downhill. After a weird interruption by the solo violin and then some thumping by low synth and double bass, things start building and building…and suddenly stop.

The final climax is bit of a disappointment, actually. I think it would have been really satisfying for all the instruments to join hands and do something as one, even for just a little bit. Then again, I’m not John Adams.

Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun.

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An older piece from Adams, Grand Pianola Music is much more hardcore diatonic…and less successful. The piece begins with some delicate pulsing from the pianos, and some high, arpeggiated tinkling by the winds and pianos. It sounds more New Age-y than profound, pretty but incidental. Then the sopranos join in, singing wordless harmony above the orchestra, and the cheese starts to pile up. I mean, it just doesn’t work. When the brass finally join in to give body to the texture, it’s more of an eye-roller rather than a revelation, trying to manufacture drama where there is none. Add on top of that the fact that the harmonic progression is pretty standard and uncreative, basic mid-19th-century theory (using mediant and submediant modulations to create tension), “Part IA” is just kind of dull, and ever so slightly embarrassing. There is a section just before the end in which everything quiets down and it’s just the sopranos’ hushed singing over the piano pulses which is really lovely, though. Then things begin to build, leading into

“Part IB”, which starts as a slow, quiet movement, but as a pretty standard one. Then, the solo melodies are suddenly interrupted by loud, dramatic blows by the full orchestra, and it’s quite surprising and effective. The pounding dies away, and things get soft again, with the low winds softly supporting some flute and piano meandering in the high register. It’s nice enough, but five minutes of it is too much.

“On the Great Divide” gets us back into the cheese-fest of “Part IA”. A fairly insipid melody forms the basis of this movement, repeated again and again, changing slightly every time, Bolero-style…and we’re also into really basic chord changes again, kid stuff. The sopranos come back, as do the big brass. And it goes on for a while, swelling and receding, trying to grow and ramp up and prepare us for a big payoff at the end, sending us soaring into the sky…but the end isn’t an epiphany; it’s a relief.

So, while there are some really great moments in Grand Pianola Music, overall I think it’s pretty unsuccessful. It sounds forced and clich├ęd; Adams seems to expect us to feel payoffs and arrivals that are, in the end, unsatisfying.
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(1) I don’t mean to say that to be worthwhile, a piece has to be harmonically complex, sophisticated beyond the reach of mere mortal ears. But, I mean, come on. Even though you may have loved Hippos Go Berserk! as a kid, you wouldn’t read it 20 years later and think it great literature, right?