John Adams on Grand Pianola Music
When Grand Pianola Music was first performed in New York (in 1982 in a festival of contemporary music organized and conducted by the composer Jacob Druckman) the audience response included a substantial and (to me) shocking number of “boos.” True, it was a very shaky performance, and the piece came at the end of a long concert of new works principally by serialist composers from the Columbia-Princeton school. In the context of this otherwise rather sober repertoire Grand Pianola Music must doubtless have seemed like a smirking truant with a dirty face, in need of a severe spanking. To this day, it has remained a weapon of choice among detractors who wish to hold up my work as exemplary of the evils of Postmodernism or–even more drastic–the pernicious influences of American consumerism on high art. In truth I had very much enjoyed composing the piece, doing so in a kind of trance of automatic recall, where almost any and every artifact from my musical subconscious was allowed to float to the surface and encouraged to bloom. The piece could only have been conceived by someone who had grown up surrounded by the detritus of mid-twentieth century recorded music. Beethoven and Rachmaninoff soak in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa.
But Grand Pianola Music genuinely upset people, doubtless due to the bombastic finale, “On the Dominant Divide,” with its flag-waving, gaudy tune rocking back and forth between the pianos amid ever-increasing cascades of B-flat major arpeggios. I meant it neither as a joke nor a nose-thumbing at the tradition of earnest, serious contemporary music nor as an intended provocation of any kind. It was rather, in its loudest and most hyperventilated moments, a kind of Whitmanesque yawp, an exhilaration of good humor, certainly a parody and therefore ironic. But it was never intended, as has since been intimated, as a “political” statement about the state of “new music.” Nevertheless, I was alarmed by the severity of its reception, and for years I found myself apologizing for it (“I’ve got to take that piece down behind the barn and shoot it”). Now, though, I’m impressed by its boldness.
As with Harmonielehre, which began with a dream of a huge oil tanker rising like a Saturn rocket out of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Grand Pianola Music also started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate Route 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world’s longest Steinway pianos…twenty, maybe even thirty feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of Bb and Eb major arpeggios. I was reminded of walking down the hallways of the San Francisco Conservatory, where I used to teach, hearing the sonic blur of twenty or more pianos playing Chopin, the Emporer Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf Rag and much more.
Despite the image that inspired it, and despite the heft of its instrumentation, Grand Pianola Music is, for the most part, a surprisingly delicate piece. The woodwinds putter along in a most unthreatening fashion while waves of rippling piano arpeggios roll in and out like slow tides. Three female voices (the sirens) sing wordless harmony, sometimes floating above the band in long sostenuto triads while at other times imitating the crisp staccato of the winds and brass.
The principle technique of the piano writing was suggested to me by the behavior of tape and digital delays, where a sound can be repeated electronically in a fraction of a second. The two-piano version of this kind of delay was accomplished by having both pianists play essentially the same material, but with one slightly behind the other, usually a sixteenth or an eighth note apart. This gives the piano writing its unique shimmer.
Grand Pianola Music is in two parts, the first being in fact two movements joined together without pause. Of these the second is a slow serene pasture with grazing tuba. The finale, “On the Dominant Divide”, was an experiment in applying my Minimalist techniques to the barest of all possible chord progressions, I-V-I. I had noticed that most “classical” Minimalist pieces always progressed by motion of thirds in the bass and that in all cases they strictly avoided tonic-dominant relations, relations which are too fraught with a pressing need for resolution. What resulted was a swaying, rocking osciallation of phrases that gave birth to a melody. This tune, in the hero key of Eb major, is repeated a number of times, and with each iteration it gains in gaudiness and Lisztian panache until it finally goes over the top to emerge in the gurgling C major of the lowest registers of the pianos. From here it is a gradually aceelerating reace to the finish, with the tonalities flipping back and forth from major to minor, urging those gleaming black vehicles on to their final ecstasy.