Grand Pianola Music by John Adams

A good number of years ago I was driving home from work listening to BBC Radio3 the classical music station, when I heard a piece of music that grabbed my attention.

It was scored for two pianos, a chamber orchestra of mixed wind / brass, voices and percussion and it was one of those moments when you find somewhere to park your car so that you can concentrate on the music. At the end of the piece I discovered it was by John Adams, an American composer I was unfamiliar with.


John Adams is one of the best known and most often performed of America’s composers. As Andrew Porter wrote in The New Yorker, Adams is the creator of a “flexible new language capable of producing large-scale works that are both attractive and strongly fashioned. His is a music whose highly polished resonant sound is wonderful.” Le Monde says that his music “…gives the impression of a rediscovered liberty, of an open door which lets in the fresh air in great gusts.”

His creative output spans a wide range of media: works for orchestra, opera, video, film, and dance, as well as electronic and instrumental music. Such pieces as Harmonium, Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops, and The Chairman Dances are among the best known and most frequently performed of contemporary American music. In these works he has taken minimalism into a new and fresh terrain characterised by luminous sonorities and a powerful and dramatic approach to form.

Adams’s operas have been among the more controversial and widely seen stage events in recent history. His opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” was boycotted by many Jews who felt he portrayed the Palestinian murderers in a too sanitised light. “Nixon in China” has become his best known opera and has been performed world wide to critical acclaim.

As a starting point for anyone interested in exploring Adams music, I would recommend Grand Pianola Music as it contains driving rhythms, some wonderful melodies and is a piece of music that is difficult to categorise. Neither symphony nor concerto, but contains elements of both, and the use of voices as an integral part of the orchestra. I have posted the second, shorter part or the work………..give it a try!

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