Adams: Absolute Jest

John Coolidge Adams was born on February 15, 1947, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and currently resides in Berkeley, California. He composed Absolute Jest in the summer and fall of 2010 on a commission from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony with support from the Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for New Works of Music, and by Carnegie Hall. It was first performed March 15, 2012, by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Geoff Nuttall, Scott St. John, Lesley Robertson, Christopher Costanza). A revised version with an entirely new 400-bar opening was given its first performance December 1, 2012, by the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, conducted by the composer and also featuring the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The score calls for solo string quartet, two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, percussion, harp (special tuning), piano (special tuning), celesta, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

More than three decades have passed since the San Francisco Symphony gave its first world premiere of music by John Adams (the choral-orchestral Harmonium in 1981). The event marked the beginning of a longstanding relationship between composer and orchestra that has resulted in the commissioning of several landmark works: Adams’s breakthrough orchestral composition, Harmonielehre, El Dorado, the millennial “nativity oratorio” El Niño, the opera A Flowering Tree, and My Father Knew Charles Ives.

In Absolute Jest, commissioned to mark the Symphony’s centennial season, Adams indulges his life-long affinity for the music of Beethoven. Comprising a large, widely spanning single movement, Absolute Jest incorporates more than a half dozen Beethoven fragments, mostly from the late string quartets. These fragments, however, are not simply rearranged “quotations” but provide the raw material for a score that could be by none other than John Adams.

The unifying factor is the composer’s attraction to what he calls “the emphatic energy of Beethoven.” As Adams points out, Beethoven “was the master of taking the minimal amount of information and turning it into fantastic, expressive, and energized structures.” He compares what Beethoven achieved with the Fifth Symphony’s famous four-note motto to “atomic theory” in action and to the construction of complex compounds out of basic molecules.

But it was a later composer who provided the catalyst for the underlying concept of Absolute Jest. And that is a story best told by John Adams.

Thomas May

The Composer on Absolute Jest

The idea for Absolute Jest was suggested by a performance by Michael Tilson Thomas of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a piece that I’d known all my life but had never much paid attention to until hearing MTT conduct it. Hearing this (and knowing that I was already committed to composing something for the San Francisco Symphony’s 100th anniversary), I was suddenly stimulated by the way Stravinsky had absorbed musical artifacts from the past and worked them into his own highly personal language.

But there the comparison pretty much ends. Stravinsky was apparently unfamiliar with the Pergolesi and other Neapolitan tunes when Diaghilev brought them to him. I, on the other hand, had loved the Beethoven string quartets since I was a teenager, and crafting something out of fragments of Opus 131, Opus 135, and the Grosse Fuge (plus a few more familiar “tattoos” from his symphonic scherzos) was a totally spontaneous act for me.

“String quartet and orchestra” is admittedly a repertory black hole—is there a single work in that medium that is regularly heard? And there are good reasons for why this is. The first is a simple issue of furniture: The problem of placing four solo players in the “soloist” position but still in front of the podium (so that they can follow the conductor) is daunting. The inner players, the second violin and viola, are frequently lost to the audience both visually and aurally.

But placement on the stage aside, the real challenge is in marrying the highly charged manner and sound of a string quartet to the mass and less precise texture of the large orchestra. Unless very skillfully handled by both composer and performers, the combining of these two ensembles can result in a feeling of sensory and expressive overload.

At its premiere in March of 2012 the first third of the piece was largely a trope on the Opus 131 C-sharp minor Quartet’s scherzo and suffered from just this problem. After a moody opening of tremolo strings and fragments of the Ninth Symphony signal an octave-dropping motif, the solo quartet emerged as if out of a haze, playing the driving foursquare figures of that scherzo, material that almost immediately went through a series of strange permutations.

This original opening never satisfied me. The clarity of the solo quartet’s role was often buried beneath the orchestral activity, resulting in what sounded to me too much like “chatter.” And the necessity of slowing down Beethoven’s tempo of the Opus 131 scherzo in order to make certain orchestral passages negotiable detracted from its vividness and breathless energy.

Six months after the premiere I decided to compose a different beginning to Absolute Jest—a full 400 bars of completely new music, replacing the “quadrangular” feel of the Opus 131 scherzo with a bouncing 6/8 pulse that launches the piece in what is, to my ears, a far more satisfying fashion. The rolling 6/8 patterns recall the same Ninth Symphony scherzo but also summon up other references—of the Hammerklavier Sonata, of the Eighth Symphony, and other archetypal Beethoven motifs that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage.

The high-spirited triple-time scherzo to the F major Opus 135 Quartet (Beethoven’s final work in that medium) enters about a third of the way through Absolute Jest and becomes the dominant motivic material for the remainder of the piece, interrupted only by a brief slow section that interweaves fragments of the Grosse Fuge with the opening fugue theme of the C-sharp minor Quartet. A final furious coda features the solo string quartet charging ahead at full speed over an extended orchestral pedal based on the famous Waldstein Sonata harmonic progressions.

Absolute Jest had elicited mixed responses from listeners on its first outing. Quite a few reviewers assumed, perhaps because of its title, that the piece was little more than a backslapping joke. (One Chicago journalist was offended and could only express disgust at the abuse of Beethoven’s great music.)

There is nothing particularly new about one composer internalizing the music of another and “making it his own.” Composers are drawn to another’s music to the point where they want to live in it, and that can happen in a variety of fashions, whether it’s Brahms making variations on themes by Handel or Haydn, Liszt arranging Wagner or Beethoven for piano, Schoenberg crafting a concerto out of Monn or, more radically, Berio “deconstructing” Schubert.

But Absolute Jest is not a clone of my Grand Pianola Music or Chamber Symphony. Of course there are “winks,” some of them not entirely subtle, here and there in the piece. But the act of composing the work (one that took nearly a year of work) was the most extended experience in pure “invention” that I’ve ever undertaken. Its creation was for me a thrilling lesson in counterpoint, in thematic transformation and formal design. The “jest” of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, “gesta”: doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of “jest” as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention.

John Adams

Thomas May, who compiled and edited The John Adams Reader (Amadeus Press), is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

More About the Music
Recordings: Harmonielehre, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)  |  My Father Knew Charles Ives, coupled with The Dharma at Big Sur, the composer conducting the BBC Symphony (Nonesuch)  |  El Niño, with Kent Nagano conducting the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin (Nonesuch, also available on DVD)  |  El Dorado, Kent Nagano conducting the Hallé Orchestra (Nonesuch)  |  String Quartet, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, coupled with Son of Chamber Symphony  (Nonesuch)

Reading: Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, John Adams’s recent memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)  |  The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer, edited by Thomas May (Amadeus Press)  |  John Adams’s website is  |  Hail Bop! is Tony Palmer’s documentary on John Adams (Kultur DVD).