Nonesuch Records is releasing a new CD of my two most recent chamber works on May 31. The String Quartet was written for the St Lawrence String Quartet, who have by now played the piece some seventy times. And “Son of Chamber Symphony” in a spanking new performance by ICE also gets its first recorded version. Here are the notes I include on the album’s liner.
“Son of Chamber Symphony,” composed in 2007, bears an unmistakable family resemblance to its predecessor, the 1992 “Chamber Symphony.” Both are written for an ensemble of solo instruments roughly fifteen instruments; both are cast in a three-movement fast-slow-fast form; and both share a highly animated, in-your-face kind of cheeky buoyancy. This might strike one as surprising, given the lineage of the “chamber symphony” as a musical form, the begetter of which was that fearsomely serious party pooper of all time, Arnold Schoenberg.
What is a “chamber symphony,” anyway? Judging from the two the Schoenberg composed, it is a piece of symphonic scale written for a large group of virtuoso soloists. As ensemble in live performance the “chamber symphony” provides all sorts of challenges, not only to the performer, but also to the listener. Balances are always in danger of going seriously out of whack. Individual string instruments can easily by buried by an overly loud clarinet or, in my case, an enthusiastic drummer. But when acoustical issues have been sorted out, the combined sound of a dozen or more skilled soloists can afford a musical experience that combines the intimacy of chamber music with the breadth and scale of a full orchestra.
What drew me to the Austrian composer’s eponymous Opus 9 Chamber Symphony of 1906 were its explosive energy and the staggering, acrobatic virtuosity of its instrumental writing. Schoenberg’s bounding, fast moving themes weren’t so much “stated” as they were launched like some daredevil circus performer shot out of a canon. The hyperlyricism of its melodies sounded as if all of “Tristan” had been compressed into a tiny plutonium sphere, just one neutron short of going super-critical.
Well, OK, perhaps my metaphors need to be reeled in, but there is no mistaking the attraction of this format to a composer like me who normally operates on the large canvas of orchestral and operatic forms. Where my two chamber symphonies differ from Schoenberg’s is in the addition of brass, percussion and electronic keyboards. The 1992 symphony features a drummer on a trap set and a synthesizer. The “Son” includes a celesta, a set of orchestral chimes and, in the first movement, a keyboard sampler playing samples I made of a prepared piano, the “boing” of which sets the tone for the first movement.
I knew that “Son of Chamber Symphony” would be turned into a ballet by Mark Morris, the genius choreographer who twenty years earlier had created the dance for “Nixon in China” and later for “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
Knowing that Mark is one of the few choreographers since Balanchine whose choreography mirrors the formal and metric structure of the music, I thought long and hard about how to design the musical structure. In truth I didn’t have visual images in my head while composing—I rarely do—but I was nonetheless surprised when “Joyride,” the title of the Morris ballet, turned out to be one of his most severely abstract creations. Mark largely passed over the humor and occasional wackiness of the piece in favor of a geometrically complex, constantly morphing interplay of eight dancers, all dressed in tight, Spandex body suits, each sporting on his or her chest an LED digital readout of random numbers.
The first movement begins with a dropping octave “dactyl” rhythm (long-short-short), a musical idea so basic that it ought not to be “owned,” but alas is—by the composer of the Ninth Symphony. Other instruments join in, confounding the perception of pulse until the activity reaches a cadential moment that leads into the first tutti, a boisterous unison melody for high instruments accompanied by jabs and pecks from brass and percussion. From here the music thins out, passing through a sequence of sudden stops and starts, the unexpected nature of which was cleverly incorporated into the choreography of Morris’s “Joyride.”
With its driving pulse, bouncing motives and spikey, and bright-edged surfaces, the opening movement bears the closest resemblance to the earlier 1992 Chamber Symphony. The second movement contrasts this hectic virtuosity with a long, lyrical cantilena for flute and clarinet sung over a quietly strumming continuum in celesta and pizzicato strings. This long “endless” melody is followed by a different but equally lyrical one played by the solo violin and cello, voiced three octaves apart, accompanied by a gently modulated tapestry of trills and shakes in the winds and percussion. The opening cantilena melody returns, but this time it appears in a parody version, with staccato barbs interrupting and mocking it. This interrupting material finally taking center stage, highlighted by an absurd dotted figure (in prosody a “trochee”) that manically hops and skips while the opening melody struggles to make do, as if coping with a rude, uninvited dancing partner.
I toyed with calling the finale “Can-can” but at the last moment my better judgment took hold. The Wikipedia, unimpeachable source of all my higher learning, describes the can-can as a “high-energy and physically demanding music hall dance, traditionally performed by a chorus line of female dancers” featuring high kicking and suggestive, provocative body movements.” But I decided against using the title because I could not accurately distinguish this from the description of a “galop,” to which, so suggests Wikipedia, the can-can is related but in a degraded, decidedly downscale version.
Those listeners familiar with “Nixon in China” will remark another family resemblance here—this time with the “News” aria sung by the President at the beginning of Act I. For a brief time the third movement is a kind of snarky gloss on that aria, but it soon departs from the script, taking along only the driving, quarter note patter of the bass line as it ventures into new terrain with passages that include a short parody of the opening of “Harmonielehre” (is nothing sacred?) and a final ride-out that features a delicately pulsing trash can lid.
The String Quartet of 2008 was composed for the St. Lawrence String Quartet, whose performance of my only other work for quartet, “John’s Book of Alleged Dances,” stimulated my imagination to write something tailored to their exceptional blend of rhythmic drive and high-drama lyricism. The quartet—violinists Geoff Nuthall and Scott St. John; violist Leslie Robertson and cellist Chris Costanza—possess a style of playing, perfectly balanced between the instinctual and the intellectual, that greatly appealed to me. Their performances of Haydn and late Beethoven convinced me that they would be ideal performers of my music (and indeed they were, to the point where, several years later, I composed a further piece for them, a concerto for quartet and orchestra, “Absolute Jest,” based on fragments from Beethoven).
Normally impatient with traditional titles, I uncharacteristically defaulted to “String Quartet” for this one. The only other time I’d employed such a generic title was with the 1993 Violin Concerto. It may be that the choice of such an unadorned name for both works reflected a certain awe that I felt in approaching the medium. Historically speaking, both the violin concerto and the string quartet represent for me the epitome of the union of musical form and content. The models from the past, be they from the classical period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, from the Romantic period of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms or from the twentieth century—from Schoenberg, Berg and Bartòk all the way up to Ligeti and Carter—constitute a compendium of those composers’ most eloquent and Apollonian statements.
My quartet is cast in a uniquely asymmetrical form: a single long first part and a much shorter second. The first part is itself divided into four distinct sections that, taken together, create a fully formed musical structure. Opening with a rippling 16th note figuration punctuated by the offbeat plucking of the cello, the music rapidly evolves into a sequence of intensely lyrical episodes that ride the engine of a regular pulsation, an easily identifiable vestige of my minimalist past.
A passage of becalmed stasis provides a relief from the restlessness of the opening; and this is followed by the eruption of a jaunty scherzo section, characterized by fractured dance steps and high-wire melodies for the violins. The energy winds down, and Part One concludes with a slower, muted music, similar to the opening in its restless inner movement. Only in its very last minute does the energy, now sounding as if blanketed by a layer of heavy cloth or snow, finally settle down to a short-lived slumber.
Part Two begins with bouncing octaves (not unlike the opening of Son of Chamber Symphony), a high-strung, nervous staccato that charges the entire remaining movement with a driven energy that will only occasionally break for pockets of espressivo that recall the earlier movement. The frequent appearance of the opening bars’ Morse Code figuration at critical structural points anchor the music’s growth. Its use might even suggest to some listeners a vestigial version of rondo form. A final coda pushes tempi and activity to the extreme. I make the kind of ensemble and emotional demands on the players that are only possible in that exhilarating and Utopian world of virtuoso chamber music.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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