No Hesitation: Recording John Adams’s Music for String Quartet
According to their violist, the Attacca Quartet’s decision to record the complete string quartet works of John Adams was one of the easiest they’ve ever made.
“So, why John Adams?” This seems to be the most common question I and the other members of the Attacca Quartet get asked these days, following the digital release earlier this month of Fellow Traveler: the Complete String Quartet Works of John Adams. We are not specifically a new music quartet, and in fact, though we also play a fair bit of new music, our programs are far more often centered around the standard string quartet literature. Clearly, it strikes many people as odd that for our first commercial album we would choose to focus on the work of John Adams, who himself professes that chamber music is not his “forte” (forgive the really bad pun), especially with all the other incredible music we play in the string quartet canon. But for us, this choice was as natural as bringing a pencil to rehearsal—in fact, it may be one of the few decisions we have made as a group where no argument was required!
The 2012-2013 concert season marks the tenth anniversary of the Attacca Quartet, and the release of our first commercial album has been a very meaningful way to commemorate this milestone. We have developed a close relationship with the music on this disc over the past few years. They are works that we love to perform and audiences love to hear. How we have learned it, recorded it, and chosen to program it is an interesting story.
The first of the three works we encountered was actually the one written the most recently—String Quartet (2008). John Adams composed it for the St. Lawrence String Quartet after hearing them perform his Book of Alleged Dances. The String Quartet was commissioned by The Juilliard School, and the St. Lawrence gave the premiere in January 2009. At that point, I was not yet a member of the Attacca Quartet, and in fact, the Attacca were no longer students at Juilliard. Leading up to the premiere, the St. Lawrence was scheduled to coach one of Juilliard’s student ensembles on the String Quartet in preparation for an informal performance of the first movement by the student group. Because of this movement’s immense size and difficulty, however, none of the student groups felt they could take on the challenge in the short amount of time given.
It was at that point that Ara Guzelimian, provost and dean of The Juilliard School and dedicatee of Adams’s Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), called the Attacca Quartet and asked if they would be willing to step in at the last minute as alumni performers. After working on the String Quartet with the St. Lawrence, the Attacca Quartet’s performance was met with great excitement by the composer himself, who subsequently asked the Attacca to give its Alice Tully Hall premiere in December of that year.
Consequently, when I joined the Attacca Quartet in November 2009, I was thrust into a one-month “trial by fire,” learning this incredibly challenging and complex piece along with all the other repertoire on our upcoming concert programs! It is for this very reason, however, that the String Quartet has retained a particularly special place in my heart. The performance itself was a great success, and Adams graciously gave us permission to perform the piece for the next year (before it was available to the general public). Since then, we have performed the quartet all over the world—from various cities in the United States to Japan, Australia, England, and Mexico—and the piece has been unanimously greeted by enthusiastic audiences. In fact, we grew so attached to the work over the two years following its premiere that we took it to the Melbourne Chamber Music Competition in 2011, and, though it was an unconventional repertoire choice, we were told by many members of the jury that our performance of it was essentially what got us into the finals.
My first experience with John Adams’s music had been in high school when I attended the Interlochen Arts Camp. For the final concert of the summer, one of the pieces we in the World Youth Symphony Orchestra performed was The Chairman Dances (1985), an orchestral piece John himself describes as an “outtake” from Act III of his opera Nixon in China (1987). Though I knew some of the music of Philip Glass and Terry Riley, I had never heard this treatment of minimalist-based composition before, and I was completely floored by the effect it had on me. Over the years leading up to my joining the Attacca Quartet, I had also played other orchestral works by him, such as the ever-popular Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), Chamber Symphony (1992), and Son of Chamber Symphony. Since Interlochen, I have always loved listening to and playing his music.
Ultimately, our feelings about the String Quartet and about John Adams’s music in general were the catalyst for choosing the repertoire for our first commercial album. We perform and listen to a lot of new music; much of it is great, and a lot is not. John Adams’s String Quartet, however, is something special—a piece that will stand the test of time as one of the great works of the time period in which it was written. As Béla Bartók’s six string quartets are generally recognized as the most important ones of the early to mid-20th century and now virtually every serious quartet performs them, our quartet feels strongly that John Adams’s String Quartet should (and will) eventually become an integral part of the standard string quartet literature.
In the fall of 2011 (almost two years after first performing the String Quartet), we were approached by Alan Bise at Azica Records to record a studio album. We knew Bise’s work from his beautiful recording of the Brentano Quartet’s late Beethoven, which was used in the film A Late Quartet, for which we were all consultants and actors (minor cameos only!). With no hesitation, we decided that we had to include Adams’s String Quartet on the album. But what to pair with it? Pairing John Adams with a piece of standard repertoire such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Ravel can work really well on a concert program, but on a CD such a pairing could potentially let down either composition with the inevitable comparisons that would result among listeners.
Luckily, we were all huge fans of John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994), a collection of ten (mostly) short dances, six of which are accompanied by pre-recorded “rhythm loops.” Though the Alleged Dances was his first successful work for string quartet, it was not his first attempt at a composition for this instrumentation, which he has admitted still takes him a bit out of his comfort zone. In 1978, the Kronos Quartet gave the only performance of a piece of his called Wavemaker. While Wavemaker was not successful as a string quartet—he writes an amusing story of its catastrophic premiere at the Cabrillo Festival in his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction—he eventually transformed it into a work for string septet. The result, Shaker Loops (1978), remains one of his best-known compositions.
With the addition of the rhythm loops perhaps offering a way of approaching the medium with greater comfort, John’s next venture into this genre came in 1994 with the Alleged Dances, also written for the Kronos. The Kronos Quartet had also recorded the work back in 1994, and though we knew that other groups such as the St. Lawrence had performed the work, no other recordings existed. Having performed the String Quartet quite a bit already, we were looking for an avenue through which we could learn and perform the Alleged Dances with some frequency before actually recording the piece.
Thankfully, as winners of the 2011 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition, we had been given the opportunity to tour Japan and were scheduled to take two different concert programs to ten Japanese cities over the course of three weeks. While Japanese audiences tend to be fairly conservative in terms of programming preferences, we managed to sell the presenters on the inclusion of the Alleged Dances as a part of one of the programs. Despite their initial hesitation, our performances of the work went over very well, and even received a glowing review in American Record Guide when one of its contributing writers showed up at a concert in Tokyo’s Tsuda Hall.
Alleged Dances has unique difficulties in a performance setting—especially on a tour—mainly because of those six dances that include the pre-recorded “rhythm loops” track. These are all made from samples of prepared piano sounds, and essentially function as a fifth member of the group onstage. While in a recording studio this aspect can obviously be manipulated and added in with some flexibility, a live performance presents a number of challenges: setting speakers to appropriate levels; managing sound delays between what the onstage performers hear vs. what the audience hears; dealing with the different acoustics of different halls, etc.
Thankfully, Adams gives the indication that these ten dances “may be performed in any order, and may be excerpted.” This gives us considerable leeway in structuring a live performance, regarding both length restrictions (in Japan, we omitted two dances for this reason) and personal preference on how the lineup of dances should affect the audience’s listening experience. And if a hall does not have the capability of handling the electronic requirements of performing the accompanied dances, we simply program the four unaccompanied dances as a 13-minute John Adams segment in the concert. The order we chose for the album is our current favorite, but nothing like the order we used for our Japan concerts. In fact, we are likely to put together many new combinations as we continue to program the piece.
Adams explains the title of this work with his characteristic good humor: “These dances…are ‘alleged’ because the steps for them have yet to be invented. They cuss, chaw, hock hooeys, scratch and talk too loud. They are also, so I’m told, hard to play.” (We can certainly vouch for the last part of that statement!) Here, the style of writing is rarely in his more recognizable minimalist vein; he more often veers in the direction of swing, jazz, and folk music. The individual dances are enigmatically (and sometimes hilariously) titled, with the various meanings behind them ranging from the literary to the absurd (“Rag the Bone,” “Toot Nipple,” and “Alligator Escalator,” to name a few). Clocking in at just over a minute, “Toot Nipple” actually shows up as an encore at the end of our concerts with some frequency, in part just because we like to announce its title to the audience (though this is a bit more difficult during children’s concerts…). Each of the dances is wonderfully unique, and we have had a blast both recording and performing this piece.
As for the final work on the album, all I can say is that we completely lucked out on that one. After we had made the decision to do an album of the String Quartet and the Alleged Dances, we decided to call the album “The Complete String Quartet Works of John Adams,” which had never been put together on one disc. But after talking to people at his publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, we discovered that he had written one other short work for string quartet that had never been recorded: Fellow Traveler (2007).
We immediately got to work on including the piece on the album since the recording was scheduled to happen in only a few short months, and now we wanted to make the album a vehicle for Fellow Traveler’s premiere recording. After presenting the recording project to John Adams and getting his go-ahead, we hurriedly cut and pasted together individual parts from the full score (which was all that was available at the time), and we gave our first performance of it at the Kennedy Center in January 2011, just two months before we recorded the piece at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.
Fellow Traveler is an unpublished single-movement piece, conceived as a 50th birthday present for John’s longtime friend and collaborator, the opera and theatre director Peter Sellars. The title is doubtless a nod and a wink in the direction of Sellars’s restless globetrotting as well as his absorption with the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the principal character in the Adams-Sellars opera Doctor Atomic (2005). Oppenheimer was a scientific genius who during his lifetime was hounded by the FBI, who suspected him of being a “fellow traveler,” i.e., a secret communist sympathizer.
The music of Fellow Traveler is largely a gloss on the final movement of Adams’s Son of Chamber Symphony, woven together with two moments from the earlier Adams-Sellars creation, Nixon in China (1987). Die-hard John Adams fans will be amused, and those who have never heard his music will be given an exciting introduction to Son of Chamber Symphony and Nixon in China, two of his great compositions. Like everything else on this disc, it is a piece we love to perform, and it is a fitting conclusion to an album of the music of one of the great composers of our time.
And now, where do we go from here? We are currently about halfway done with a long-term project called “The 68,” on which we are performing all 68 of Haydn’s string quartets in New York. This project has expanded to its inclusion on a concert series in Ontario, and it has been incredibly rewarding for us to survey the lifetime of work Haydn put into making the string quartet genre what it is today. Our next recording project will most likely be an album of our favorite Haydn quartets.
We certainly have no plans to stop performing John Adams’s music: for a recent concert at UCLA, we programmed the four unaccompanied Alleged Dances and the second movement of the String Quartet as an “Adams medley,” something we are doing more and more often in smaller halls without the electronic capabilities required for the other six dances. After doing the official release event of the album at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC with Adams speaking, we are also playing the String Quartet and Alleged Dances at the John Adams Festival at the Library of Congress in May, again with the composer in attendance.
John has also recently written the quirky, inventive, and ultimately mind-blowing Absolute Jest (2011), a concerto for string quartet and orchestra we can’t wait to dive into, with performances in Madrid with the Spanish National Orchestra in negotiation at this very moment. With the String Quartet in 2008, John Adams showed himself to be far more formidable a composer of chamber music than he may have once thought. We would welcome any of his future forays into the genre!
Soon after making his solo debut in Alice Tully Hall in 2009, violist Luke Fleming joined the internationally acclaimed Attacca Quartet. Among his many festival appearances have been the Marlboro Music School and Festival, the Steans Institute at Ravinia, and the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. He holds an Artist Diploma, Doctor of Musical Arts, and Master of Music from the Juilliard School, a Graduate Diploma with Distinction from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and a Bachelor of Music summa cum laude from Louisiana State University.