Absolute Jest & Grand Pianola Music
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.
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... Grand Pianola Music does this 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.
—John Adams, excerpt from liner notes