* John's Book of Alleged Dances
* Gnarly Buttons*
Michael Collins, clarinet*
London Sinfonietta/John Adams*
Total Time: 60:48
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. Bartok 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
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 Prelude, 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 Bartok - 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 clarinettist, 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 instruments. Knowing
this, we can see how deeply the composer's sorrow has buried itself in the
piece. It's a goodby 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.