John Adams, Shaker Loops

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 06.30.11 in Reviews

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams’s hugely successful stage works — Nixon In China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic among them — have changed the operatic landscape, but there was a time when he was a little-known figure working on the margins of San Francisco’s new music scene. This recording, released in 1987, revisits two early works that announced the arrival of a major new voice on the American music scene.

Early works that announced the arrival of a major new voice in American music

“Shaker Loops,” for seven strings, a work from 1978, is Adams’s first masterpiece. Inspired by the ecstatic rituals of the American religious sect known as Shakers, and the repetitive/modular music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, “Shaker Loops” builds to a frenzied climax through a steady accumulation of minimalist patterns. In 1983, Adams produced “Available Light,” a three-way collaboration with choreographer Lucinda Childs and architect Frank Gehry. The original dance score was built around the rapidly evolving sound of the synthesizer, but once into the recording studio, Adams added a brass ensemble — often used so subtly that it is not even heard, but simply adds an organic sheen to the electronic sound. He called this version “Light Over Water,” a three-movement symphony that also uses looping and repeating musical patterns in an almost oceanic play of fast and slow, light and dark. This piece too builds to a grand finale, as the brass are freed from their support role and send the music soaring to its conclusion on a wave of trumpet calls and major chords.