Adams: Shaker Loops (CD review)

Also, The Wound-Dresser; Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Nathan Gunn, baritone; Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559031.

It’s not hard to understand why composer John Adams’s (b. 1947) Shaker Loops is one of this modern composer’s most popular works. As conductor Simon Rattle has explained, Adams’s music has “always seemed to be moving forward in space, that I would imagine while listening to it that I was in a light aircraft flying rather fast, close to the ground.” Very true. Adams’s tunes have a wonderful forward momentum, and in Shaker Loops, especially, a strong rhythmic beat.

The present album contains four works quite different from another, particularly for a composer best known as a minimalist. The disc begins with a real barnburner, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” Two minutes into this thing and I felt as though I were back on Northern California’s coastal Highway 1 in my 350Z. It’s very exhilarating (the music, as well as the Z), Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony with all stops open. Following this high-octane piece are two downers, “The Wound-Dresser” and “Berceuse elegiaque,” both slow and rather gloomy affairs, the former a musical setting for Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name. Can’t say I enjoyed either work too much, but maybe I was in a bad mood before I started. If I wasn’t, these two numbers would have assured it.

The main piece of music on the disc is the four-movement Shaker Loops from 1978, which has rightly made Adams famous. “The Loops,” writes Adams, “are small melodic fragments whose ‘tails,’ so to speak, are tied to their ‘heads,’ creating loops of repeated melodies....” The “Shaker” part of the title derives from Adams’s attempt to recreate the feeling of a Shaker religious ceremony as they shake in religious ecstasy and divine meditation. The final movement has always reminded me of the film music of Bernard Hermann, something out of Psycho, for instance.

The Naxos engineers capture all of the shaking and trembling and pulse of the music, much of it percussive, in one of their very best recordings. They miked the orchestra fairly closely, producing excellent definition and impact. Indeed, listeners with playback systems too bright or too hard may not appreciate the immediacy of the recording, but those with generally well-balanced systems should find the recording eventful, to say the least.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa