October 7, 1997
[Music of] John Adams. Chamber Symphony; Shaker Loops; Phrygian Gates for solo piano. Ensemble Modern, Sian Edwards, conductor. (RCA CD # 09026-68674-2) 1977.
It is said that John Adams (b. 1947) is the most widely performed living American composer. It is also said that his early and late music are more like the output of two entirely different composers. This new album from RCA contains two works from 1978 and one from 1992 that show the contrasts between Adams early and late work. The three works are performed by the German group Ensemble Modern, of Frankfort, described as "the first professional solo ensemble."
Shaker Loops, one of the early pieces (Phrygian Gates is from the same year), is by now available in this country in a number of versions. Shaker Loops, and to some extent Phrygian Gates as well, were among the first works "to reconcile the austerity of minimalism with mainstream classical music." Everyone might not agree that the reconciliation was complete, but Adams' work from that period did bring together the two strains. The American "minimalist" movement of the 1970s was in part a reaction to "the rigid structures and relentless dissonance" of the group of composers following and extending the principles of Schoenberg's serialist techniques. Adams was identified with the minimalists -- most of whom hated the term -- but he "was never satisfied with minimalism's self-imposed limitations. During the 1980s Adams took his brand of minimalism "as far as it could go both in terms of harmonic implications and the abandonment of repetition." And with the Chamber Symphony of 1992 Adams in some says had come full circle -- back to Schoenberg.
Schoenberg's own Chamber Symphony, Opus 9, from 1906, is obviously one of the models for Adams' own Chamber Symphony, but so, according to Adams, are elements of contemporary popular
culture, including the music of children's animated cartoons -- the title of the third section of Adams' work is "Roadrunner."
From the liner notes: "The atonality that pervades the Chamber Symphony...is not the rarified soundworld of integer permutations but rather the cacophony of contemporary city life -- a polyphonic tapestry of sound-bytes competing for attention. The omnipresent driving pulse that defined the sound of Adams's most minimalist works is still here but is now much more menacing.... It is simultaneously a work that would not have been possible before the aesthetic victory of minimalism and a work that has rendered minimalist orthodoxy obsolete."
The work is hugely enjoyable. The first movement is full of energy and movement, very short on direction. The second movement, "Aria with Walking Bass," is an abrupt change of pace, with a witty and effective use of both walking bass and percussion. "Roadrunner" combines the elements of the first two movements with echoes of earlier works such as Nixon in China.
You can hear Chamber Symphony by John Adams on WHIL-FM (91.3) at 7:30 PM, Thursday, October 16 as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.
-- J. Green