About this work
While his minimalist colleagues Steve Reich and Philip Glass came to prominence via electronic works and works for their own repertory ensembles, John Adams made his earliest impact on the contemporary music world primarily as an orchestral composer. Calling for an ensemble of winds, percussion, sopranos, and two pianos, Grand Pianola Music (1982) recalls the music of Charles Ives in its creative synthesis of various musical styles. The listener is greeted with a wide spectrum of sonic allusions, ranging from band marches to gospel tunes, from Beethoven's sonatas to melodramatic movie-hall stylings. The result is a work that walks the line between sincerity and irony.
Grand Pianola Music is divided into three movements. The first is intense and pulsing, blocks of harmonic stasis giving rise to angular yet lush melodies. The second maintains an underlying rhythmic drive from the first, its harmonies growing ever more intriguing as the movement progresses. It is here that Adams employs the "pianola" effect: the two pianos are given identical figures slightly out of sync with one another, creating a glimmering echo. Gradually, the pulsing chords of the movement's opening are replaced by sustained harmonies in the voices and winds, bringing the work to its most reflective moment. The third movement unfolds as a driving, entertaining finale with a sweeping, late-Romantic grandeur and a gospel-music energy marshaled by Adams' characteristically brilliant orchestration.