Review of the Piece:

“John’s Book of Alleged Dances strikes me as a modern equivalent of John Playford’s English Dancing Master, in effect an early fake book of popular tunes for musicians. Playford printed just melodies from which “head” arrangements were probably made. Recently, it became the fashion among early music groups to provide complex realizations of these tunes, realizations probably far more sophisticated than anything heard during the Dancing Master ‘s vogue. Adams has done roughly the same. I love the tension between “high” and “low” in Adams’s work. “Dances,” of course, implies rhythm. Rhythm certainly stands out here. In his beautifully written liner notes for the album, Adams claims that he uses the term “alleged,” “because the steps for them have yet to be invented.” Nevertheless, we can hear snatches of dances: bluegrass fiddle, “slow dancing” from the Fifties, jazz riff, habanera or Latin rock, and so on. Adams scores the work for string quartet and tape loops, derived from samples of prepared piano, where essentially one places paper and assorted bits from the hardware store on the piano strings to get clicks, plinks, and buzzes. The loops function like a pop rhythm track, and here the piece gets interesting. Adams frees the quartet from the beat, so much so that the beat becomes ambiguous, yet at the same time retains rhythmic sharpness. Often the meter seems to fluctuate between triple and duple time, which transforms the rhythmic emphases of the loops. This, of course, is a feature of most American black vernacular music.”

John Adams the composer.

Musical style

The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist although in interview he has categorised himself in typically witty fashion as a ‘post-style’ composer. While Adams employs minimalist techniques, such as repeating patterns, he is not a strict follower of the movement. Adams was born a generation after Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and his writing is more developmental and directionalized, containing climaxes and other elements of Romanticism. Comparing Shaker Loops to minimalist composer Terry Riley’s piece In C, Adams says,

rather than set up small engines of motivic materials and let them run free in a kind of random play of counterpoint, I used the fabric of continually repeating cells to forge large architectonic shapes, creating a web of activity that, even within the course of a single movement, was more detailed, more varied, and knew both light and dark, serenity and turbulence.[4]

Many of Adams’s ideas in composition are a reaction to the philosophy of serialism and its depictions of “the composer as scientist.”[5] The Darmstadt school of twelve tone composition was dominant during the time that Adams was receiving his college education, and he compared class to a “mausoleum where we would sit and count tone-rows in Webern.”[6][page needed] By the time he graduated, he was disillusioned with the restrained feeling and inaccessibility of serialism.

Adams experienced a musical awakening after reading John Cage’s book Silence (1973), which he claimed “dropped into [his] psyche like a time bomb.”[7] Cage’s school posed fundamental questions about what music was, and regarded all types of sounds as viable sources of music. This perspective offered to Adams a liberating alternative to the rule-based techniques of serialism. At this point Adams began to experiment with electronic music, and his experiences are reflected in the writing of Phrygian Gates (1977–78), in which the constant shifting between modules in Lydian mode and Phrygian mode refers to activating electronic gates rather than architectural ones. Adams explained that working with synthesizers caused a “diatonic conversion,” a reversion to the belief that tonality was a force of nature.[8]

Minimalism offered the final solution to Adams’s creative dilemma. Adams was attracted to its pulsating and diatonic sound, which provided an underlying rhetoric on top of which Adams could express what he wanted in his compositions. Although some of his pieces sound similar to those written by minimalist composers, Adams actually rejects the idea of mechanistic procedure-based or process music; what Adams took away from minimalism was tonality and/or modality, and the rhythmic energy from repetition.
John Adams, Phrygian Gates, mm 21-40 (1977)

Some of Adams’s compositions are an amalgamation of different styles. One example is Grand Pianola Music (1981–82), a humorous piece that purposely draws its content from musical cliches. In The Dharma at Big Sur, Adam’s draws from literary texts such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Henry Miller to illustrate the California landscape. Adams professes his love of other genres other than classical music; his parents were jazz musicians, and he also listens to rock music. Adams once claimed that originality wasn’t an urgent concern for him the way it was necessary for the minimalists, and compared his position to that of Gustav Mahler, J. S. Bach, and Johannes Brahms, who “were standing at the end of an era and were embracing all of the evolutions that occurred over the previous thirty to fifty years.”[9][page needed] The music of Adams is defined by his ability to integrate different styles, especially elements of Americana, and can thus be more accurately compared to Aaron Copland’s style in the 1940s and Leonard Bernstein’s in the 1950s rather than to Reich or Glass.[citation needed]
[edit] Style and analysis
John Adams, Fearful Symmetries, mm 197-202 (1988)

Adams, like other minimalists of his time (e.g. Philip Glass), used a steady pulse that defines and controls the music. The pulse was best known from Terry Riley’s early composition In C, and slowly more and more composers used it as a common practice. Jonathan Bernard highlighted this adoption by comparing Phrygian Gates, written in 1977, and Fearful Symmetries written eleven years later in 1988.[10]