John Adams on Common Tones in Simple Time
“Common Tones in Simple Time” was my first orchestral work, written in 1979, after the premiere of “Shaker Loops”. As the title suggests, the compositional and affective concerns were decidedly Minimalist. In the late Seventies there were very few models for an Minimalist orchestral style, so in a certain sense, I felt both the excitement as well as the challenge of venturing in to uncharted terrain. The “common tones” of the title refer to the signal moments of harmonic modulation in the piece, changes of key or mode similar to the “gates” of the two piano pieces from 1977, “Phrygian Gates” and “China Gates.” In this case the “gates” all share a common pitch—they avoid what Schoenberg called “superstrong progression”—and thus create a slow and almost effortless feeling of harmonic evolution. Part of the piece’s charm lies in the fact that underneath the fast surface movement lies a very slow harmonic movement. The resulting effect, at least in my mind, gives the feeling of moving over “terrain” or “landscapes”, as if one were viewing the surface of a continent from the window of a jet plane. This is a formal technique that twelve years later I explored in the purely electronic works of “Hoodoo Zephyr.”
A special interlocking style for two pianos, heard again in “Grand Pianola Music” and “Hallelujah Junction,” makes its first appearance in this piece. The two pianos are essential elements in “Common Tones in Simple Time,” contributing a light, resonant stream of regular pulsation throughout. They rarely stop throughout the 20 minute duration of the piece.
The music also concerns itself with registers, both very high and very low. Bass sound is witheld from the entire first part of the piece, making its appearance, when it finally arrives, a genuinely surprising and gratifying event. Likewise, long areas of similar figuration in the high winds or metallic percussion (glockenspiel and crotales) create their own feeling of formal unity. With its long “camera pans” and hints of aerial photography the music is very much influenced by film techniques. In no other work of mine is the dramatic impulse kept so consistenly reined in in favor of a natural progression of form and materials. “Common Tones in Simple Time” could justifiably be called “a pastoral with pulse.”