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Beethoven Influences 'John Adams: Absolute Jest & Grand Pianola Music' [REVIEW]

By Steve Nagel s.nagel@classicalite.com on Nov 20, 2015 11:54 AM EST

Diving in as close to an artist's mind as possible is an obsession for most art-lovers.  For musicians, our heroes of composition are especially aloof because of the language they use: a language that exists to say what words could never say. This makes it extremely difficult to get inside their head... yet we always feel like we know them. Composer John Adams seems to feel this way towards Beethoven, as he told Classical NPR's Deceptive Cadence. When examining the influence of Beethoven in John Adams's latest album, Absolute Jest & Grand Pianola Music, the first of its two pieces (his eponymous concerto) could almost be likened to a matryoshka doll, or "nesting" doll.

This is to say, from Adams' larger sound, a substantial mass of Beethoven occupies it from within. Adams, of course, meticulousy planned it that way . But this isn't just another case of reference art; the influence of Beethoven in John Adams' work is in some ways more subtle, and in other ways more heavy-handed. Adams admitted in the interview that while he rarely borrows melodic material directly, he does borrow "harmonic fragments, like fractals, from Beethoven and puts them through the black box of [his] own musical personality."

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Beethoven left behind very little melodic material for Adams or anyone else to borrow, but in listening to the string quartet concerto, Absolute Jest is at least a tasteful exercise in how one can (or should) go about siphoning Beethoven's soul. Without going so far as to say that Adams pulls sparingly, he does leave entire sections open to interpretation, sections where one can forget Beethoven's influence, where Adams' muse lies dormant. Inevitably though, Beethoven reappears, sometimes in an all-too-familiar sense. This might suggest that Adams is intent on playing with our expectations, but for anyone thoroughly familiar with Beethoven's repertoire, the concerto can seem like a 25-minute game of Ludwig von Peek-a-boo. Meanwhile, in the interim, Absolute Jest is a 21st century work through-and-through, neoclassical perhaps, but entirely unfettered.

The second piece, Grand Pianola Music, is another matter. Here, you have to do a lot of waiting in order to hear the influence of Beethoven, and even then you have to lean in. This might be owed to the age of the piece. Written in 1983, NPR's interview with John Adams has him describing how negatively a Beethovian reference would have been received in the day. To put it in perspective, in 1983 composers like Steve Reich owned the show, minimalism was the subject of debate, and indeed there is something very similar about how the two composers were writing. Despite Adams' aversion to the minimalist label and a nod to the generational gap, "Part I" of Grand Pianola Music could comfortably sit on the same program as any Steve Reich work.

By the middle of "Part I", the influence of Beethoven in John Adams' development does begin to shine through, but as Adams said to NPR, only in "small melodic fragments". By the time we get to "Part I - Slow", Adams seems entirely in his own universe, pacing, ruminating, but developing. The movement is focused, preoccupied, and resonates deeply as a result. Strangely, it's the finale of "Part II - On the Dominant Divide" that sees the largest influence of Beethoven in this particular work, specifically in the piano. Though a bit garish in context, dominating arpeggios send the impression that Beethoven was resurrected to play a session with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in place of Marc-André Hamelin. This does much to rouse the piece to a satisfying, though not foregone conclusion. As to its position on the album (Absolute Jest & Grand Pianola Music), while "Absolute Jest" the piece itself may have come across as more of a style-study project -- "Grand Pianola Music" as a composition proved to be a formidable contender after 30 years.

Absolute Jest (the concerto), is, if nothing else, a piece that can be learned from. Since the ability to rework other composers' material is just as valid as re-working one's own, a remix artist might find something familiar in how Adams operates, specifically in how he implements snippets of material he both admires and wishes to pay tribute to. In fact, when prompted, Adams admitted to NPR that his work is "a little like sampling", although he quickly added, "... but I do many different things with it - I transpose the music, I turn it upside down, I extend things, I telescope them. I mix them together."

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TagsJohn Adams, Absolute Jest, Deceptive Cadence, Steve Reich, REMIX, REVIEW

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