John Adams on Century Rolls
The germinating idea behind Century Rolls was an experience I had late one night listening to a recording of old piano roll music from the 1920’s. I was struck in an unexpected way by the fact that, regardless of the performer or the repertoire–be it Gershwin or Rachmaninoff, Jelly Roll Morton or Paderewski–the technology of the piano roll transformed the music into a realm that could not have been anticipated before what Walter Benjaman called the “age of mechanical reproduction”. So Century Rolls, a concerto requested by my friend, Emanuel Ax, became in part an attempt to recreate that initial response I had received to the sound of the piano as heard via the medium of the piano roll. That conceit is utilized for some but not all of the concerto. In other parts I was conscious of the special gifts of Emanuel Ax, and, particularly in the central slow movement, I attempted to tame my normally clangorous style of piano writing and create something that would fit the sense timbre and lyrical warmth that sets his performances apart from all other pianists.
The concerto takes a kind of polymorphous-perverse pleasure in the whole past century of piano music, both popular and classical. In retropect I see that it owes more than I realized not only to my own Grand Pianola Music (1982), but also to the early studies for player piano by Conlon Nancarrow. The last movement, “Hail Bop” (so named in honor of my misapprehension of the name of last year’s comet, Hale-Bopp) is a kind of homage to Nancarrow’s peculiarly whimsical way of wedding American vernacular music to a spiky, disjunct rhythmic texture.
October 4, 1998