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CD Review

John Adams

  • John's Book of Alleged Dances
  • Gnarly Buttons *
Kronos Quartet
* Michael Collins, clarinet
* London Sinfonietta/John Adams
Nonesuch 79465-2 60:48
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Ooooohhh, Johnny B. Goode!

John Adams just gets better and better, without ever standing still. The Death of Klinghoffer moved him from my merely "interesting" to my "wow" category. In fact, for me it shed new light on his earlier works as well. However, prepared as I was, the violin concerto caught me completely off-guard. It's one of my top five favorite post-war concerti, a masterpiece any way I care to look at it – from pure compositional technique to the expansion and deepening of a personal idiom to its emotional power. On this CD, we hear Adams in a lighter vein. I'm glad to know he has both serious and light, leaded and unleaded, since music speaks to all parts of our lives, mundane and higher, and we don't live on an exalted plane all the time. Besides, it's incredibly hard to write something simultaneously light and worth hearing more than once, but the really good composers have managed. Bartók gives us both the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and the Divertimento, Schoenberg both the String Trio and the Suite in G.

John's Book of Alleged Dances strikes me as a modern equivalent of John Playford's English Dancing Master, in effect an early fake book of popular tunes for musicians. Playford printed just melodies from which "head" arrangements were probably made. Recently, it became the fashion among early music groups to provide complex realizations of these tunes, realizations probably far more sophisticated than anything heard during the Dancing Master's vogue. Adams has done roughly the same. I love the tension between "high" and "low" in Adams's work. "Dances," of course, implies rhythm. Rhythm certainly stands out here. In his beautifully written liner notes for the album, Adams claims that he uses the term "alleged," "because the steps for them have yet to be invented." Nevertheless, we can hear snatches of dances: bluegrass fiddle, "slow dancing" from the Fifties, jazz riff, habanera or Latin rock, and so on. Adams scores the work for string quartet and tape loops, derived from samples of prepared piano, where essentially one places paper and assorted bits from the hardware store on the piano strings to get clicks, plinks, and buzzes. The loops function like a pop rhythm track, and here the piece gets interesting. Adams frees the quartet from the beat, so much so that the beat becomes ambiguous, yet at the same time retains rhythmic sharpness. Often the meter seems to fluctuate between triple and duple time, which transforms the rhythmic emphases of the loops. This, of course, is a feature of most American black vernacular music. Consider this description from Donald Clarke's Rise and Fall of Popular Music (London: Penguin Books. 1995):

While European music has often been polyrhythmic as well as polyphonic (as for example in Italian and English madrigals), it divides its rhythms by means of bar lines. The African was unrestricted by sheet music, and loved to add rhythms in a different way. Western musicologists discovered that a chorus of several percussion instruments in an African piece, if noted in the style of western orchestral music, would have bar lines that do not coincide vertically, as they would in a European manuscript. In their dancing, in their minstrelsy and then in ragtime, black Americans were insisting on setting European-style music free by refusing to be restricted to a ground beat.

I've not heard it put better.

At any rate, the loops accompany six of the movements. Adams allows any sequence of movements. In this performance, the Kronos reprise the opening "Judah to the Ocean" (Judah's a Bay area streetcar) as the finale. My favorite of the ten movements is the very beautiful (loopless) "Pavane: She's So Fine." Adams describes it so:

A quiet, graceful song for a budding teenager. She's in her room, playing her favorite song on the boom box. Back and forth over those special moments, those favorite progressions. She knows all the words. On her bed are books and friendly animals. High, sweet cello melodies for Joan Jenrenaud, who's so fine.

The dances are fun and poetic at the same time. Kronos plays beautifully. Indeed, this is one of their best turns. So often, they just seem to stomp through a work. Here, they show themselves capable of wonderful give-and-take.

I admit to slight disappointment at my first hearing of Adams's clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons, but mainly because I read Adams's liner notes first, which invoked the name of Benny Goodman. It raised and set my expectations, because few concerti supposedly inspired by Goodman actually capture that fascinating, idiosyncratic playing – not Copland's concerto, not Gould's Derivations. Bernstein's Prélude, Fugue, and Riffs and Jay Weigel's clarinet concerto recreate much of the Goodman bounce and bubble, but that's mostly it. The Bernstein – one of the most successful adaptations of swing to concert music – lasts only a few minutes, and the Weigel so far remains unavailable to most listeners. At any rate, I didn't hear much of Goodman in the Adams work, so I actually had to listen again to discover its own terms.

The concerto greatly abstracts popular and classical Americana sources: a shape-note hymn in the first movement ("The Perilous Shore"), Copland's Billy the Kid in the second, despite the title ("Hoe-down [Mad Cow]"), and pop ballad in the last ("Put Your Loving Arms around Me"). The scoring, exquisite and economical, consists of the clarinet, English horn, bassoon, trombone, banjo (doubling on mandolin and guitar) – further ties to American vernacular sources – strings, and two samplers. Mainly, Adams uses the samplers as tuned percussion, although he also samples clarinet and accordion (and at least one surprise, which I won't give away), which contributes a great tonal ambiguity to the role of the real clarinet in this piece. The first movement explores the melodic and structural implications of the minor third, much like the first movement of Adams's violin concerto. It's like reading a long poem that mines every nuance from one basic image. Here we see Adams's minimalist past, but the music is much more than process or mere repetition. It's really a musical argument in the sense that Schoenberg or Bartók – or even Beethoven, for that matter – would have understood it. It really does travel from here to there with a sense of transformation. The second movement, in triple rhythm, is Copland "big shoulder" music trimmed to the chamber ensemble. It's a symphonic dance, like Ravel's La Valse, a study in the erasure of the bar line while keeping a steady pulse.

The first movement engages the mind. The second movement takes over the body. The third movement, a slow song, moves the heart. It begins very tenderly, becomes increasingly "gnarled and crabbed," in the words of the composer, as if the singer becomes confused and frustrated at the confusion, and goes out lovingly again. In a way, its close cousin emotionally is the second movement to the Ravel G-major. Adams cites his father, a clarinetist, as the inspiration of this work. He describes how his father's Alzheimer's manifested itself, among other ways, in an obsession with and disassemblage of his A and B Flat Major instruments. Knowing this, we can see how deeply the composer's sorrow has buried itself in the piece. It's a goodbye as moving as Mahler.

Adams, Collins, and the ensemble do well, perhaps a shade too efficiently. The ensemble is perfect, the last movement a knockout, and the recording superb, but I can't help imagining an even better performance, one that finds all the poetry there. This is, after all, a first recording. The piece is strong enough to engage the interest of other clarinetists and should hang around for a while. Nevertheless, I urge you to make your acquaintance early with one so-fine work.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz