Adams: Absolute Jest (SACD review)

Also, Grand Pianola Music. St. Lawrence String Quartet; Michael Tilson Thomas; John Adams; San Francisco Symphony. SFS Media SFS 821936-0063-2.

It is isn't hard to see why American John Adams (b. 1947) is among the world's most-popular living classical composers. Wikipedia says "The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist although in interview he has categorised himself as a 'post-style' composer. While Adams employs minimalist techniques, such as repeating patterns, he is not a strict follower of the movement." No, more likely, people don't really categorize Adams; they simply like his stuff. He produces a kind of modern music that, dare I say it, audiences actually enjoy. I tease, of course, but it seems like a lot of modern classical composers resent listeners liking their music; it smacks too much of populism. What am I doing wrong? People like it.

Well, Adams seldom does anything musically wrong, and here he gives us one of his newest works, Absolute Jest, along with another piece in a similar vein from thirty-odd years earlier, Grand Pianola Music. Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in the newer work, while the composer himself leads the orchestra in the older one.

The first work on the album is Absolute Jest (2013), which Adams describes as "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." Then music historian Larry Rothe adds, "Absolute Jest is post Minimalist Adams. The seed came when he heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct Pulcinella, in which Stravinsky recast works by eighteenth-century Italian composers in his own musical language. Adams conceived a similar scheme, riffing on Beethoven scherzos. Beethoven's scherzos may be jokes, but Adams emphasizes they are jokes on a high plane. He loves the word 'jest,' derived from the Latin 'gesta,' a notable deed. A jest is not therefore by definition a thigh-slapper, nor is Absolute Jest a comedy." Rothe goes on to quote Adams: "To Beethoven, a scherzo is this inspired sense of movement and happiness. I wanted my work to be invested with that happiness."

Although Adams may not have intended Absolute Jest as a comedy, one cannot help but smile when the music breaks out into familiar bits and pieces of Beethoven. And Tilson Thomas does not shy away from the music's wittier passages, making it sound like high, good fun.

Michael Tilson Thomas
Adams wrote the piece in eight movements for orchestra and string quartet, the "Beginning" a lengthy, spacious, swooping affair, with intermittent hints of Beethoven, the most obvious coming from the Ninth Symphony. The remaining movements last about one to five minutes each, most of them more animated than the opening section, except for the somewhat eerie, haunting fourth segment. The music is easily accessible, and Tilson Thomas and company make it highly enjoyable.

The second work on the disc is the Grand Pianola Music from 1982. Adams says of it, "...from the start I knew that I would have to shape my own language and find a way to get around Minimalism's rigor and endless pattern-weaving and form a language that was more dramatic and emotionally complex. ...Grand Pianola Music does it in a way that is not only meditative and trance-like, but also brash and picaresque."

Adams divided this one into three parts (fast, slow, fast), although the entire work is about six minutes longer than the newer one. It appears a tad simpler and more repetitive than the newer work, too, with traces of Ives and even Copland in its structure and wordless vocals interspersed with piano solos and accompaniment (Orli Shaham). Like the music of Ives, you'll hear a little of everything here, from the aforementioned vocals and piano to marches, gospel, and church hymns. Of the final movement, Adams explains that it yields up "a tune that seems like an 'oldie,' the words for which no one can quite remember." It's quite a lot of fun, actually.

Producer Jack Vad and engineers Roni Jules, Gus Pollek, Jonathan Stevens, and Dann Thompson recorded the music live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA in May 2013 and January 2015. They recorded it in 96kHz/24-bit audio (Absolute Jest) and PCM 192kHz/24-bit (Grand Pianola Music) for hybrid SACD two-channel stereo or multichannel playback. I listened to the two-channel stereo SACD track.

Before I talk about the sound, however, I suppose for the benefit of those of you interested in live recordings, I should say a word about audience noise. For the most part, there isn't any. But there is applause. I say "but" because some listeners don't mind it, while for me it tends to draw my attention away from a performance. In this case, the disc's producers have edited out any applause between the two major works but left it in at the end. So, for me it's still annoying but at least not as annoying as it could have been.

Now, to the sound: It's slightly less close than usual in a live recording, and hall reflections and long decay times appear more in evidence. If anything, the sound seems softer than I've heard it before from this venue and ensemble, and even more natural and easy on the ear. The orchestral spread is quite wide and natural, with a reasonable amount of depth; and the frequency response, while not exactly reaching the heights of the treble or depths of the bass sound more than adequate for the occasion.


To listen to 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