Shaker Loops

John Adams

Shaker Loops

About this work

From 1972 to 1982, John Adams worked at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. As head of their new music program, he conducted the Conservatory orchestra and new music ensemble and taught various classes. Adams found the constant interaction with musicians stimulating, particularly his students' reactions to his compositional ideas. To create Shaker Loops, which he regards as one of his first truly characteristic pieces -- and one of the first in which he used the repetitive style known as minimalism -- he used some material he had created for a string quartet called Wavemaker. Dissatisfied with the material, Adams rewrote the music for septet (three violins, one viola, two cellos, and one bass), creating what he called a "modular" score. The loops mentioned in the title are melodic patterns of different lengths that are distributed among the seven instruments and that interact and overlap in various ways. Changes in the patterns are signaled by a conductor. In this form, Shaker Loops was premiered in 1978, by the San Francisco Conservatory's New Music Ensemble under Adams' own direction. He eventually created a through-composed version of the work that doesn't require a conductor. In 1982 and 1983 he also adapted the work for a full string orchestra.

The Shakers referred to in the title are the members of the United Society of Believers, the famed New England-based religious community known for their ecstatic dances of worship (or "shaking"). Adams grew up near an old Shaker community in New Hampshire, and he drew a connection between the shaking and a quick movement of bow across string that marks much of this composition. The work is in four movements, played without pause. The propulsive, almost locomotive-like motion of the first movement, "Shaking and Trembling," forms quite a contrast to the almost static second, "Hymning Slews," with its long slides (or glissandi) over a bed of longer, sustained tones. The mood here is hushed, and the third movement, "Loops and Verses," extends this mood with its simple yet haunting cello lines leading the way. But more agitated music emerges and gains momentum, culminating in what Adams has called a "wild push-pull section" of considerable force. A cloud of pulsating harmonics leads to the energetic fourth movement, "A Final Shaking."Shaker Loops has become one of Adams' most frequently performed pieces. It has also been choreographed several times, and a portion of the first movement was used, albeit briefly, in the 1987 film Barfly.