This morning I immersed myself in early period John Adams, listening to the two versions of Shaker Loops back-to-back and watching an old documentary about Harmonium.
It’s funny to look back to the early 80’s and see what an institution Adams had already become. The filmmakers tried desperately to romanticize him and his music, and he seemed to handle it well, posing for the camera in picturesque situations, composing in his impeccable mountain cabin or gazing thoughtfully over the San Francisco bay. Pretty banal stuff, though Adams did have some interesting things to say, including his own handy definition of Minimalism: “A vast reiteration of smaller units to create a larger architecture”. He plays some licks from Nixon in China on his wonderful old clavinova to demonstrate this. It was also fun to see the 1980’s choristers struggle with Harmonium’s hemiola rhythms, which sound so staid now, precisely because Adams and others have reiterated those gestures to the point of cliché.
The piece itself, though, is still resoundingly successful. The epic crescendo/accelerando into “Wild Nights” must have sounded incredibly daring in 1982, and it still never fails to move me. Though it strikes me as a subversion of the poem, not to mention a manipulation of the audience, to emphasize the line “were I with thee” as much as Adams does by repeating it dal niente in the final section. It makes the ending sadder and more poignant, but is it true to the meaning of the text? I suppose that’s why so many composers set Emily Dickinson, because she can’t very well complain.
Though the original septet version used a quasi-aleatoric system of looped phrases and cues, Shaker Loops is always heard today in its later through-composed scoring. (I love looking at weird, unknown versions of familiar pieces, seeing how composers thought differently about their own music as it continued to evolve.) That said, in the way it sounds, the original version resembles the written-out version closely. The entire middle of the piece, including the entire second and most of the third movements, has no indeterminate notation whatsoever. It’s as if Adams started composing using the idea of loops, then as he became more involved with the music he was writing, abandoned the idea in favor of increased control. I suppose this was a learning experience for him, because he was progressing closer toward the type of music he has become known for. There are a few details that are lost with a massed string texture, however; for example, the trills in the second movement become more of a textural effect, whereas the solo strings articulate them as florid ornamental lines. Contrary to Adams’s own statements, I think the main advantage of the written-out version is not increased compositional control, but increased confidence on the players’ part, simply because the notation is more traditional. This results in tighter and more controlled performances, even without a conductor (but with plenty of head-banging).