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Fellow Traveler: The Complete Music for String Quartet
John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994), String Quartet (2008),
Fellow Traveler (2007)
The Attacca Quartet
Review By Max Westler

 

  John's Book of Alleged Dances, written in 1994 just after the Violin Concerto, calls for string quartet and, (in six of its ten movements), pre-recorded rhythm loops sampled from a prepared piano. The result is one of the composer's loopiest creations (pun intended). In ten short movements that range in duration from 74 seconds to almost five minutes, these dances cover an incredible range of musical styles, past and present: from Second Viennese School expressionism to swing, jazz and folk music. The music is a volatile mix and full of surprises. Characteristically, Adams gives each "dance" an unlikely title and an even unlikelier program. In "Alligator Escalator," for example, the composer wants us to picture a "long, sluggish beast…ascending from the basement level of the local Macy's all the way to the top of the store and then back down again." "Pavane: She's So Fine" summons up "a budding teenager in her room playing her favorite song on a boom-box. She knows all the words. On her bed are books and friendly animals."  "Judah to Ocean" is "a piece of vehicular music, following the streetcar tracks way out into the fog and ultimately to the beach where [Adams] used to rent a two-room cottage behind the Surf theater." Although these descriptions make the work seem like so much whimsical fun (and it is, very much so), the score itself is a devil to play, rife with daunting technical demands. One can sense those challenges in some of Adams' descriptions. In "Toot Nipple," he asks for "furious chainsaw triads on the cello, who rides them like a rodeo bull." In "Dogjam." the first violin "applies the gas and hits the road, never once using the brake even at the sharpest turns." "Rag the Bone" is "a swinging scat song for four voices in parallel motion" in which "flying trochees... bounce from a bungee cord."

It is not surprising that John's Book of Alleged Dances is dedicated to the Kronos Quartet, or that they gave the work both its premiere and its first recording. After all, for the past forty years, the Kronos has been "probably the most famous new music group in the world," playing, promoting, and commissioning new works of every kind. The Kronos recording of the Alleged Dances followed soon after their premiere, and has pretty much had the field to itself. But now, surprisingly, comes a new recording by the up-and-coming Attacca Quartet that's even better. It's not often the Kronos is bested in performances of new music, but that's exactly what's happened here.

The Attaca Quartet was formed in 2003 by four Julliard graduates and now consists of Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga (first and second violins), Luke Fleming (viola), and Andrew Yee (cello). From the various postings on YouTube, the group looks very young indeed, thirty-somethings at most. Be that as it may, they play well beyond their years. In addition to solid musical instincts and an uncanny precision and unanimity, the Attacca brings to this genuinely idiosyncratic score a youthful sense of risk-taking and impetuosity. From its cool, ironic perspective, the Kronos gives us a detailed map of the terrain; the Attacca gives us adventure. Those "furious chainsaw triads," for example, will stop your breath. In Dogjamthe "hoe-down in twisted hillbilly chromatics" threatens to spin wildly out of control, but miraculously avoids going over the edge. The "Pavane" is not just "quiet and graceful," but emotionally exposed and vulnerable. The "Habenera" is appropriately "serpentine" and exotic; but at the Attaca's slower, more insinuating tempo, it's also seductive and sexed-up. The up-close recording is very much in your face, as vivid and vibrant as the performances.

As for the String Quartet, I'm going to quote violist Luke Fleming's informative notes: "The first movement is massive in scale and because of this and the wide variety of the music it contains, it functions as the traditional opening allegro, scherzo, and slow movement of the standard string quartet form. The quartet begins in John's very recognizable quasi-minimalist style, but eventually opens up into some of the more emotionally expressive directions John had explored in his operatic works. From there the music takes on a jazzy, sardonic edge before closing with fluttering figurations over sweeping melodic gestures. The much shorter second movement harkens back to the style of the quartet's opening, and is full of excitement and energy." This is a major quartet that can stand comparison with any by Bartok or Shostakovitch. If in the Alleged Dance, Adams is mostly just fooling around (but ah, what inspired fooling around!), the quartet is serious and complex, full of surprising turns and non-stop invention. Though I do not have another recording to compare it to, I find it hard to imagine this incredibly demanding music being better played than it is here. The Attacca bring the same level of concentration and imagination to their performance, and the result is just as extraordinary. Fellow Traveler is an unpublished single-movement piece that was conceived as a fiftieth birthday present for Peter Sellars, Adams' long-time friend and collaborator. If you're familiar with either Shaker Loops or Short ride in a Fast Machine, you'll have no trouble responding to this busy, frenetic, and most enjoyable score.

I'd love to be able to tell those of you who already own the Kronos performance that they don't really need to acquire this one also, but I can't. If you're as hooked on the Alleged Dances as I am, the Attaca is a necessary purchase. And as a very considerable bonus, you also get the String Quartet, one of Adams' greatest compositions. Highly and urgently recommended. 

 

 

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