Wednesday, 7 March 2018

An American Beethoven on Acid: John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music

‘The last of my trips was pure Monty Python. It took place a year later in the idyllic surroundings of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. I wandered into a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and watched he great Austrian pianist Rudolf Serkin play a gleaming black Steinway that stretched out in front of him from nine feet to twelve feet, and then to twenty feet and so on, à la R. Crumb, until it became the world’s longest stretch limousine. That image may have been what gave birth years later to my piece Grand Pianola Music’ – John Adams [1]

The above quote describes Adams’s final trip on hallucinogenic drugs and the subsequent musical influence it gave. This trip eventually resulted in Grand Pianola Music (1981), a work scored for three singers, two pianos, woodwind, brass, and percussion. Another dream, this time not coupled with psychedelic drugs, further inspired Adams: ‘when I had a dream that I was driving along a lonely stretch of California highway as two black Steinways loomed up from behind and zoomed by in the passing lane at breakneck speed, gushing forth volleys of E-flat and B-flat major arpeggios as they roared passed. These were the triads of the “heroic” flat keys of Beethoven – of the “Eroica”, of the “Emperor” concerto and of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata. In Grand Pianola Music I evoked this absurd scenario and mixed into it all other kinds of musical detritus’.[2] This strange mashup of Beethoven and Americana comes together within the work, showing elements of Adams’s stylistic eclecticism, humour, and mastery of minimal techniques, to create what K. Robert Schwartz called an ‘antic, parodistic, and downright camp a work as Adams ever penned’.[3] This will also lead to a brief discussion to his oeuvre as a whole, and how Grand Pianola Music contains elements of his musical past and future. 

The musical idioms Adams embraces in Grand Pianola Music can be broadly placed in two categories: Beethoven and Americana. The Beethovenian touches come mostly in the tonic key of the work, E-flat major, as well as the prominence of the pianos; David Schawrz calling the second movement ‘On the Dominant Divide’ an ‘example of a texture of sonorous enclosure opening into a conventional passage of acoustic mirroring that is a veiled reference to the pianistic passagework of the classical piano concerto’; [4]  this parallel’s Adams’s dream, evoking the “Emperor” concerto. E-flat major as a key is deeply rooted in modern understandings of Beethoven, as it is seen as his “heroic” key. The harmony of Grand Pianola Music is also largely conventional; ‘On the Dominant Divide’ is essentially a series of perfect cadences in E-flat major and its related keys, primarily A-flat major and C major. Bar 94 onwards however, clearly confirms the E-flat tonic, followed by the most virtuosic piano passages of the entire piece, as well as a statement of the primary theme. 

The music has a trance-like quality, which might be a reference to its psychedelic origins. The opening movement starts with a clear crotchet pulse, but this later becomes obscured as the crotchet motion disintegrates into drones and sustained patterns going against one another (see below); the crotchet material of the opening then becomes more and less prominent as the first part progresses, which can be perceived as going in and out of the hallucinations described above. This trance-like state acts as an almost psychedelic situation; the Beethoven and the Americana, which are most prominent in the second movement ‘On the Dominant Divide’, exist within the hallucination created by the previous two movements. The elements of Americana come in the references to rock, pop, and jazz. ‘On the Dominant Divide’ opens with trombone glissandi, a reference to the big band music of his youth, where he played clarinet with local ensembles. The theme of ‘On the Dominant Divide’ is repeated in a similar fashion to a pop/rock song chorus, the music (alongside jazz) which Adams fell in love with at Harvard, despite the main composition focus being upon total serialism and new complexity.
Score extract from bar 61 of Grand Pianola Music, showing the gradual decay of the crotchet pulse

 Another element which plays into the aesthetics of Americana in Grand Pianola Music is minimalism. Although not an exclusively American genre, it is often characterised by American composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Timothy A. Johnson identifies five main components to minimalism:
1.    ‘A continuous formal structure
2.    An even rhythmic texture and bright tone
3.    A simple harmonic pattern
4.    A lack of extended melodic lines
5.    And repetitive rhythmic patterns’.[5]
Nearly all these elements can be found in Grand Pianola Music. The continuous formal structure manifests in harmonic organization and the slow transformation of musical ideas throughout. As a work, it utilizes rhythmic potential throughout, most notably in the percussion and piano parts. The harmony is simple and tonal; while it is not always functional, in the most obvious Beethoven references, it uses clearly defined tonic-dominant relationships. The only one of Johnson’s criteria which does not apply to Grand Pianola Music is ‘A lack of extended melodic lines’; there are clear and extended melodic lines in the second movement. Another way in which Adams differs from Reich or Riley is his lack of engagement with non-Western music; as a conductor and clarinettist, he was most familiar with Western classical music, particularly 19th century Romantic works, yet another reason for the Beethoven allusion. In his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, the opening of chapter four is dedicated to his love of tonal harmony and the 19th century music of Schumann and Wagner; within this chapter, he also explains his love of jazz and swing, especially jazz’s use an manipulation of the norms of tonal harmony through blue and additive chords.[6] These small deviations from what is expected of minimal music in Grand Pianola Music can be seen as an element of psychedelia (a warping of what is expected), as well as form part of a wider trend in Adams’s music: humour.

Adams has frequently defended his music’s less serious elements; he has said that ‘one of the truly tiresome things about contemporary music has been its incredibly dour, humourless quality’, and ‘one of the things music can do better than any other art form is convey a sense of humour’.[7] This sense of fun is evident even in the descriptions of the works inspiration: a heady collage of high and low art, with a hint of the psychedelic. It also is a part of Adams’s rejection of total serialism and its philosophy. However, this rejection drew criticism from the contemporary music scene at the time; a review in a publication from IRCAM, one of Pierre Boulez’s main outlets, accused Grand Pianola Music of obvious ‘consumerism’ and went as far to compare it to Disney and McDonalds.[8] However, this critique misses the point of the work; it is meant to be this drug trip-esque journey through music, raising popular genres and placing them alongside perceived “high” art. K. Robert Schwarz sees this piece as combining Beethovenian heroism with trombone glissandi, pop song melodies, bombastic rock-esque percussion and allowing them to ‘rub shoulders with delirious glee’.[9] Grand Pianola Music is essentially Adams’s varied musical tastes and experiences combined into one grand musical statement, proclaiming that music is music, and thus should be embraced by all. 

John Adams (Source:
It is also worth mentioning how the elements discussed in Grand Pianola Music can be seen to form many of Adams’s key musical traits. His engagement with Beethoven did not stop with this work; Absolute Jest (2012) is a concerto for string quartet and orchestra that dissects various Beethoven string quartets, most notably Op. 131, 135, and the Große Fuge. He also engages with other composers, as his dramatic symphony Scheherazade.2, re-engages with Rimsky-Korsakov’s work Scheherazade and places the story within a modern context. Adams’s humorous side can be seen simply in the title of Harmonielehre (1985), named after Schoenberg’s treatise on harmony; to honour the father of serialism, Adams opens the work with around thirty seconds of just an E minor chord, constantly and powerfully repeated. Adams’s engagement with American culture goes well beyond just music. American history is dramatized in his operas, most notably Nixon in China (1987), and On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) memorialises the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His minimalist works are mostly confined to his early career; Shaker Loops (1978) combines minimalist tropes with an evocation of the Shakers (an American religious sect) while Phrygian Gates (1977). His deviations from minimalism have also continued, towards a further embrace of lyricism and melodic construction that is present in ‘On the Dominant Divide’; The Dharma at Big Sur (2003), scored for six-string electric violin and orchestra, attempts to capture the grandeur of the California coast through sweeping melodies and a heightened neo-Romantic colour palette.

Cover for the San Francisco Symphony's album of Adams's Beethoven works. Note how the humor is also present in the artwork (Source:

Grand Pianola Music is Adams at his most Adams; humorous, lyrically minimal, unashamedly American, and with a sense of history through allusion to past composers. These tropes would later become cornerstones of his musical style, and Grand Pianola Music shows these in their purest form. Yet, despite this, they combine into a hallucinogenic trip through the cornucopia of music available in the 20th century, and how composers can easily utilise them within their own art.

Sam Buttler

Adams, John. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, (Faber and Faber, 2008)
Cahill, Sarah. ‘Grand Pianola Music (1982)’ in May, Thomas (ed.). The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer (Pomtpon Plains, NJ: Amadeus, 2006).
Fink, Robert. Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 
Johnston, Timothy A., “Minimalism: Aesthetic, style or technique?” The Music Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 4 (Winter, 1994), pp. 742-773.
Sanchez-Behar, A. (2014). ‘Symmetry in the Music of John Adams’. Tempo, 68(268), 46-60.
Schwarz, David. 'Listening Subjects: Semiotics, Psychoanalysis, and the Music of John Adams and Steve Reich', Perspectives of New Music, 31/2 (1993) 24-56. 
Schwarz, K. Robert. Minimalists (London: Phaidon, 1996), Chapter 6, p169-192

[1] John Adams, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, (Faber and Faber, 2008), p46.
[2] ibid, p117.
[3] K. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists (London: Phaidon, 1996), p183.
[4] David Schwarz, 'Listening Subjects: Semiotics, Psychoanalysis, and the Music of John Adams and Steve Reich', Perspectives of New Music, 31/2 (1993) p40.
[5] Timothy A. Johnson, “Minimalism: Aesthetic, style or technique?” from The Music Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 4 (Winter, 1994). p751.
[6] Adams, 2008, p100-107.
[7] Adams, quoted in K. Robert Schwarz, 1996, p184.
[8] Adams, 2008, p118.
[9] K. Robert Schwarz, 1996, p183.

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