I've been on a "pick random CDs from my local library's collection and give them a listen" kick, and with that I bring you a review of John Adams: Century Rolls / Lollapalooza / Slonimsky's Earbox.
Weirdly, we talk about John Adams in this blog fairly regularly (well, what counts as "regular" for us, anyway). In case you haven't caught on, he's a prolific modern American composer who usually writes in a minimalist style. His stuff isn't the epitome of classical music, but rather often a fun excursion into the many things that music can simply do. That, and he writes operas about such personalities as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Nixon, which makes him way cool in my book.
This particular CD is most notable for the piano concerto Century Rolls, performed by none other than Emanuel Ax and the Cleveland Orchestra. Listening to this work is truly a musical experience; the first movement, aptly named "First Movement", is inspired by a mechanical piano, featuring the orchestra acting like percussion instruments beating a solid, robotic backdrop to the piano solo. The second movement, "Manny's Gym", could not be more different. It is a romantic song in 3/4 (I think!), with a free tempo and beautiful expression by both Ax and the orchestra. My favorite movement, however, was the third -- "Hail Bop", named after a mishearing of the name of the "Hale-Bopp" comet. It has a jazzy feel to it at times, combined with frenetic tempos and disconcerting brass punctuation. Sometimes, it feels like an eight-minute-long musical chase scene.
Lollapalooza, for orchestra and a kickass low brass section (I just made that up, although writing that in the score would probably be helpful), was the highlight of the CD for me. As a linguist, I love it when composers try to play with language in their musical themes. In this piece, the main theme is a five-note loud brassy thing that mimics the stress pattern in the title word. It comes out at expected times, and some unexpectedly as well. It's almost a cacophony of themes interwoven, but make no mistake -- the brasses are in charge of this piece, even though the timpani has the last word with a single stoke in silence at the end. I would dearly love to see this piece played live.
The last piece, Slonimsky's Earbox, didn't really catch my interest. It is a tribute to Nicholas Slonimsky, who wrote a book of scales and modes called The Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which Adams says influenced his work. It has a number of scalar themes and modal games, which might interest those of you with an ear for theory. I did enjoy the wild ending, but the rest of the piece pales in comparison to the other offerings on the disc.
I would highly recommend giving this CD a listen if you're in the mood for some musical fun. This isn't a relax-around-the-house CD, nor is it something I'd want to do spring cleaning to, but if you've got an hour to experience some work by a modern composer, definitely check this one out.