Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music

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Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony join forces with America’s most-performed living composer, John Adams, in a colossal album featuring Adams’s Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music. Hear Adams’s inspired and witty take on Beethoven’s spirited scherzos in this first-ever recording of his SFS-commissioned Absolute Jest. Also featured is Grand Pianola Music, with its tongue-in-cheek allusions to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, written for and premiered by the SFS. Both works speak to the deeply personal and vital relationship of some of the top musicians of our time: John Adams, MTT, and the SF Symphony.

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Thirty-one years separate the two works on this album. Grand Pianola Music dates from 1982, when I was living
in a flat in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and composing in a tiny room that looked out over the rooftops of that funky and infamous neighborhood. Absolute Jest, from 2013, is the work of a composer in his sixties revisiting and reimagining signal works from his youth—in this case Beethoven—through the lens of a more evolved and, one hopes, more subtle compositional language.

It’s easy to forget how the arrival of Minimalism had bitterly divided the classical music world in the 1970s and ’80s. Minimalists were asking listeners still struggling to come to grips with the dense atonal style of Elliott Carter or

John Cage’s chaotic chance experiments to forget all that. Instead they offered a musical experience of shocking directness and accessibility based on simple harmonies, regular pulsation, and repetitive structures that, when these devices worked, created a trance-like state of suspended time.

I was drawn to Minimalism because I’d never abandoned tonal harmony and, as one who grew up listening to jazz and rock, I never could imagine a music that didn’t have a beat.

But from the start I knew that I would have to shape my own language and find a way to get around Minimalism’s rigors and endless pattern-weaving and form a language that
was more dramatic and emotionally complex. Some early pieces such as Shaker Loops and Harmonium addressed that concern in a serious way. Grand Pianola Music does it in a way that is not only meditative and trance-like, but also brash and picaresque. It begins with a leisurely fabric of dappled woodwinds and pianos that slowly evolves in the typical “gradual process” manner of Minimalist pieces of that era. A trio of “sirens” coos wordlessly over the rippling sound surface. And then the whole vehicle suddenly gives way to a Niagara of piano cascades in the “hero” keys of B-flat and E-flat major. Then follows a coda featuring “scat”- like syllables for the singers, short, staccato dots that strike me now as a kind of musical analogue of a Georges Seurat painting.

After a reflective middle movement, generally tranquil except for one fortissimo outburst, “On the Dominant Divide” begins, so called because it rocks back and forth between tonic and dominant, yielding up a tune that seems like an “oldie,” the words for which no one can quite remember.

Absolute Jest is a colossal twenty-five-minute scherzo in which I take fragments of Beethoven’s music and subject them to my own peculiar developmental techniques, some of which I’ve derived over years of using “radicalizing” musical software.

The Beethoven ideas, mostly from the quartets Opus 131, 135, and the Grosse Fugue, are compact and succinct, lending themselves naturally to fantasy and invention. A swinging 6/8 figure reminiscent of the Seventh Symphony launches the piece, but this is interlaced with some famous “tattoos” including the Ninth Symphony scherzo. Another passage combines two fugue themes (from the Grosse Fuge and from Opus 131) in counterpoint with the orchestra. A final passage features the solo quartet furiously riffing over the opening chord progression of the Waldstein Sonata.

String-quartet-plus-orchestra is a risky proposition.
The high-strung intensity of the quartet can be lost amid the sprawling mass of the orchestra. (It’s no surprise
that the medium is pretty much a repertory black hole.)
If the combination of solo and tutti forces in Absolute Jest succeeds, it’s likely due to the fact that the solo quartet’s music is firmly anchored in Beethoven’s original gestures, creating a dynamic tension with its orchestral counterpart.

—John Adams 


Absolute Jest
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
San Francisco Symphony
St. Lawrence String Quartet

Grand Pianola Music
John Adams, conductor
San Francisco Symphony
Orli Shaham, piano
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Synergy Vocals