One of the John Adams' albums I've got is called The Chairman Dances.
The first track on the piece is The Chairman Dances itself and it's subtitled, A Foxtrot for Orchestra, but for the 12 and a half minutes of its duration, it’s more like a train traversing the country, maintaining an almost constant speed, click-clacking over the rails, and hitting bridges and viaducts and long stretches of plain, where only the telegraph poles passing provide any variation. That’s not to say it’s dull: for something that maintains such constancy, it’s full of detail and variety, seldom staying around the same pitch or chord for more than a few beats. There’s are patches where the rhythmic approach varies, but underneath there’s still the same basic pulsing, and invariably it takes over as the main focus within a short time. Finally things do wind down a bit, and fade away into the distance.
Christian Zeal and Activity begins its ten minutes with slow movements from the strings, takes a breath for a moment, continues, and then eventually a preacher’s voice comes in. It’s looped, but edited, so that it makes sense and so that there’s emphasis on certain statements. This is a very warm piece.
Two Fanfares for Orchestra consists firstly of Tromba lontana – in other words, the trumpets sound distant, reminiscent of that frequently used idea of military trumpets blowing away over a battlefield. And secondly of Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Unlike the much longer Chairman Dances, which it resembles in its constant pace, it lacks musical interest, but it’s quite exciting – probably more so in the concert hall, I’d think.
Common Tones in Simple Time is rather wandery and waffly to my ear. Things happen, but seem to lack some of the direction and motivation of the other pieces I’ve mentioned so far. There’s a lot of hanging around in one particular spot, like the music just can’t get up and dance; it’s got sort of stuck in a rut. The pianist(s) have a bit of a painful time hammering away at short phrases – think there must be two of them gradually getting out of synch with each other a la Steve Reich. Anyway, this track goes on for twenty minutes until it dies a kind of long, slow, lingering death.