New Music at Carnegie Hall: Carnegie Hall Commissions
Commission at a Glance
Son of Chamber Symphony
John Adams
Recorded on February 28, 2008
at Zankel Hall Stage



Notes on the Work

John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992) exhibits Nancarrow’s influence more strongly than any of his prior works. Whereas Ligeti’s encounter with Nancarrow’s music helped him re-imagine his already extraordinarily complex music around a core pulse, John Adams’s music had always been built on pulse: his prior works focused on pulsing rhythms and the “massed sonorities” of many instruments speaking as one. With Chamber Symphony, his first work for chamber orchestra, Adams instead chose to treat the ensemble as a “democratic” group of soloists. This required an approach to pulsation that could embrace a multitude of distinct voices. Through Nancarrow-like rhythmic layering, Adams’s many parts seem to move independently while sharing at their foundation the same unifying pulse.

Written nearly 15 years later, the first movement of Son of Chamber Symphony heads into similar territory, with lines suggesting different downbeats and contradictory feelings of the meter. However, the frenetic energy of the original Chamber Symphony’s first movement is replaced here by a confident swagger: this is lean, concise music with a heavy and funky groove. Nearly the entire movement is built out of the three-note motive from which Beethoven constructed the Scherzo to his Ninth Symphony. Like Beethoven, Adams spends the entire movement re-using the same tiny lick to myriad ends.

In contrast to the first movement’s obsession over small rhythmic cells in many layers, the second movement focuses on a single, slowly unfolding melody. As in his related movements from Naive and Sentimental Music and Gnarly Buttons, Adams develops a set of melodic turns and gestures that allow the tune to spin on, without ever quite coming to rest or repeating itself. Here, too, there is a sense of layering: as the movement unfolds, Adams juxtaposes starkly different and wholly independent music against the original tune, which becomes a sort of protagonist always appearing in new situations.

The third movement of Son of Chamber Symphony is a classic Adams finale: a driving beat over which the composer imagines a kaleidoscope of short rhythmic motives. Although the movement draws most explicitly on Nixon in China, this sort of simmering, contagiously energetic rhythmic texture is central to many of his other works as well, and is one of Adams’s most successful and identifiable signatures. Each gesture seems to pull the music in a different direction, to assert its own sense of meter or tempo, but the effect of Adams’s high-speed arrhythmia is one of overwhelming momentum.

Alan Pierson