"You have to be careful not to think too much about Beethoven's mastery. Otherwise it's like staring into the sun."—John Adams"You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?" That's how contemporary composer John Adams described Short Ride in a Fast Machine. One of his most famous pieces, it premiered on today's date in 1986, played by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Adams reveals the concepts behind Ride and other signature works (such as the opera Nixon in China) in Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. If you've been leery of modern classical music, maybe it's time to get your feet wet!
Adams also writes a blog about music and sundry other themes called "Hell Mouth." I half wish I hadn't discovered it, because the first entry I read had me hooked (just what I need, more reading material!). "Is opening with a bald quote from the Ninth Symphony not unlike Duchamp painting a goatee on the Mona Lisa?" he asks, in talking about using themes from Beethoven's late quartets in a piece called Absolute Jest.
It’s a provocation, for sure, but Duchamp appears to have been making an art-historical comment about values. I am “jesting,” but overall my piece is a serious jest, born of love for the material I’ve chosen to use.Having trouble seeing videos on The Daily Glean? Click through for troubleshooting help from our IT manager.
By choosing Beethoven I was yielding to an obsession—maybe even a compulsion— a subliminal connection with the driving energy and rhythmic concision of his music. Returning over and over to it, especially to the piano sonatas and the quartets, has provided a force for renewal ever since I began making my own music.
The raw material: From the Opus 131 C# minor quartet I use two motifs from the scherzo and the fugue theme that opens the first movement. That scherzo, by the way, has what must be the fastest quarter notes ever written. The first part of Absolute Jest is mostly devoted to this material. This, by the way, is “square” music—in other words the phrases and beats are in two or four. The “round” music, the very fast ¾ themes from the Opus 135 F major quartet, appears later. It’s very different music. The C# minor scherzo is intense and driven, whereas the latter, the superfast ¾ scherzo, feels to me like a bouncing ball. It is, by the way, in its original form some of the most difficult string writing ever conceived.
Can we imagine what string players of Beethoven’s day must have thought when they first took a look at these fiendishly difficult quartets? They must have been convinced that, due to his deafness, Beethoven had lost touch with musical reality.
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