Shaker Loops, John Adams

Shakers dance in Martha Clarke’s ‘Angel Reapers’, photo by Sara Davis
The US composer’s piece for strings is a hyper-sensual kaleidoscope of rhythm and tempo in which time is a plastic, sculptable material.

“It’s all about momentum,” a friend once told me. And I tend to agree; in fact, it was that one simple observation that finally opened John Adams’ music to me in its sparkling fullness. Or reopened, I should say. For, years before, the benign grandeur of orchestral scores like Harmonielehre (1985) had been particularly well-targeted towards my teenage weakness for sentimentalism and wonder, as had the emotive tenor of the post-9/11 On the Transmigration of Souls (2002). But I soon realised that, were I serious about cultivating my nascent modernist credentials – which, by Stockhausen, I sure was – I’d have to limit my acquaintance with the US minimalists to Reich, and early Reich at that. Certainly off limits was Shaker Loops (1978) which, more than any other Adams piece, just sounded a bit too much like good fun.

And it still does sound a lot like fun, it’s just that that word doesn’t make me recoil that way it once did. The same goes for Adams, I’m sure: in his music “popular” – taboo for many a contemporary composer – is no more a dirty word than “tonality” or “prettiness”. Or, indeed “momentum”: Shaker Loops is a kaleidoscope of rhythm and tempo in which time becomes a plastic material to be sculpted, expanded and contracted. The instruments of the all-string ensemble spiral outwards, inwards – somehow both and neither – continually pushing and pulling, destabilising any sense of fixed perspective. I’m sure compositionally it’s all very clever, and I might even care were it not so compulsive. For, however clever Shaker Loops might be, this is music that operates on a resolutely superficial level. But the lack of heft – of any sense of substance – feels less like a deficiency than an abundance, the music glistening, hyper-sensual, brilliantly weightless.

Hearing Adams’ music again after all that time – allowing myself to turn back and embrace its shimmering surfaces – felt something like coming up for air. And it’s a joyousness mirrored within his music, too. For what is Adams’ music if not a return, coming after modernism’s long period of rejection? What is his music if not an exuberant uttering of the word “yes” after years – decades – of a resounding “no”? Riding on the crest of postmodernism, Adams was composing at a time when the post-war avant-garde’s triumphant jettisoning of tradition finally seemed to be running out of steam, its imperative towards progress and intellectualism beginning to be questioned. A piece like Shaker Loops, then, enacts a reformulation of the terms – the structures, the rules – within which contemporary music is created and received. It’s light, it’s literal, it’s unironically nice, it’s pretty, it’s bland, it’s sweet. No more, but also no less.

Listening notes: Of course, momentum is most forcefully felt when it’s unexpectedly changed, just as it is towards the end of the third movement ‘Loops and Verses’ (at 4:50). The shimmering, mostly static cloud of sound that begins to build at around 3:04 is thrust into forward motion as the musical texture opens onto a procession of accented downbeats. From here, the process is repeated, the music travelling upwards to reach the high repeated violin tones that end the movement.

Image: Shakers dance in Martha Clarke’s ‘Angel Reapers’, photo by Sara Davis