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Guide to Strange Places

About the Work

John Adams
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Quick Look Composer: John Adams
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, Conducting/Midori, Violin Dec. 5 - 7, 2002
© Philip Clark
Untitled Document

John Adams composed this work in 2001 under a joint commission from the Dutch broadcasting company VARA (for its Amsterdam concert series, Matinée op de vrije Zaterdag ), the BBC, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia. The work was given its first performance by the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, conducted by the composer, on October 6, 2001, and is receiving its American premiere in the present concerts.

The score, dedicated to Linda Golding (who until June 2001 was president of the U.S. office of Boosey & Hawkes, whose Hendon Music division publishes Adams's music), calls for piccolo, 2 flutes and second piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, roto-toms, Almglocken (6 cowbells), marimba, glockenspiel, chimes, claves, cowbell, suspended cymbal, triangle, high triangle, wood blocks, 3 suspended triangles, piano, celesta, harp, and strings. Approximate duration, 24 minutes.

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The acronym shown above--VARA--represents the Dutch words Vereniging van Arbeiders Radio Amateurs, translatable as "Workers' Society for Amateur Radio." This long-lived and productive enterprise has commissioned a good deal of music over the years for its series of free concerts at Amsterdam's famous Concertgebouw on Saturday afternoons called Matinée op de vrije Zaterdag --"Matinée on the Free Saturday." Apart from the specially commissioned works, the programming for these concerts, for which the Netherlands Radio Orchestra has served more or less as resident ensemble, has traditionally been characterized as adventurous and imaginative.

The title of the present work refers to a book John Adams happened to come across during a vacation with his family at a farmhouse in Provence. The book's title is Guide noir de la Provence mystérieuse --"A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence." The composer explains:

It was one of those typically French guides--minutely detailed and bristling with information and odd facts about the area (Provence). In this location there was a strange geological formation; in another, unusual climactic occurrences; somewhere else a horrific historical event had taken place or perhaps a miracle had been witnessed. A chapter was dedicated to paysages insolites --or "strange places." Each classification came with its own special identifying icon. It set my imagination off. . . . In a sense, all of my pieces are travel pieces, often through paysages insolites -- it's the way I experience musical form.

While the title of this work, and even the composer's words (if to a somewhat lesser degree), might suggest a kinship with such essentially good-natured earlier works of Adams's as Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Slonimsky's Earbox, and the clarinet concerto Gnarly Buttons, the music quickly establishes itself as something quite a bit darker in its substance. "There's a danger," Adams remarked, "that the origin of the title might suggest a rather lightweight piece. It's certainly not that; the piece contains some very intense music." Philip Clark quoted that remark in his comprehensive program note for the work's British premiere (given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, again under the composer's direction, last January 20), pointing out early on that the Guide to Strange Places is

peculiarly different [from] anything else Adams has written. The composer himself confesses to being shocked at some of the sounds that he has unleashed, and compares its composition to psychoanalysis--"You start with what you know, and use that genetic information to reach something you don't." It's a piece of psychological drama in sound, that jump-cuts between different states of mind and provokes extremes of colliding orchestral colors: it's strange, odd, and delightfully contrary.

As Mr. Clark had direct access to the composer in preparing his note, what he wrote about the Guide to Strange Places may be regarded as authoritative as well as comprehensive. The rest of it is reprinted here with his kind permission.

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Rather than a literal "strange place," Adams had in mind late 19th-century composers whose music conjured up fantastical images. He cites Mussorgsky, Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice and the "fauvist colors" of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique as examples, but also "modernist" composers . . . one wouldn't normally associate with him. The bleak, slowly evolving landscapes of Harrison Birtwistle's orchestral music were at the back of Adams's mind, as was the psychologically taut world of Ligeti's Atmosphères and Lontano . If Guide to Strange Places has any lineage in American music, then it's with the reality-once-removed vision of Ives's Central Park in the Dark and the pioneering idealism of Henry Cowell's piano music. Though none of these models is explicitly stated, they provided Adams with a context and ideas to bounce off.

Adams also describes the work as a "descent into an imagined, unexpected underworld" which might bring to mind the weirdly scenic atmosphere of Varèse's Arcana and Déserts . This descent begins in a blaze of bright colors and bounding energy from strings and marimba, but sharp stabs from the lower brass and double basses set up an underpinning level of a darker mindset. As Adams adds layers of bright woodwind and glistening mallet percussion, two bass drums incite terrific tension as their forceful interjections puncture the smoothly flowing texture.

The music suddenly changes direction and takes on a skipping, dance-like quality as the bass drums suddenly melt into the distance. A triangle becomes the prominent percussion voice and woodwind, celesta and cascading strings all pirouette around one another. Out of this emerges an obsessive wolf-whistling piano tune–reminiscent of Bernstein or Copland–which is heard against a droll theme in the strings. As the bass drums re-enter, Adams cranks up the tension, but the music can't help but roll over on its back again. Playful figurations start to poke out of the woodwind and the structure of the piece seems to snap. Long pauses appear as the woodwinds repeat their joke. Again Adams makes the structure buckle, as rapid string figurations and zany piano and woodwind lines appear from nowhere. Sustained brass chords materialise and ricochet around the orchestra, after which the narrative flow of the music crumbles for the final time. As Adams develops the brass stabs which hung over the opening moments, the bass drums come back for more and the music takes on a fragmented and more menacing tone. Birtwistlian fragments of strained, damaged woodwind lines push at the edge of the orchestral frame and the rest of the orchestra dislocates into pulsating patterns that push against one another. Eventually spiky piccolo and flute lines hover like bees in a hive, as giant orchestral slabs of noise grind against their frenetic buzzing.

The piece ends like no other Adams work. Glutinous and ponderous brass chords snarl as the timpani and bass drums growl. The music has been through so many psychological states, it's worn itself out. What's left is an exhausted carcass that can only go through the motions before turning in on itself and dying.