ADAMS: John's Book of Alleged Dances (1994). String Quartet (2008). Fellow Traveler (2007).
Attacca Quartet.
Azica Records ACD71280 TT: 67:12.
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Excellent. This CD contains, as far as I know, all the music for string quartet by American composer John Adams. Except for the short Fellow Traveler (it receives its recording premiere here), based on material :from Son of Chamber Symphony and Nixon in China, the works have been previously recorded on Nonesuch, Adams's "home label": the dances by the Kronos and the quartet by the St. Lawrence.
An update on John Playford's English Dancing Master, in essence an early fake book of popular tunes, John's Book of Alleged Dances capers delightfully. Adams calls the dances "alleged" because "the steps to them have yet to be invented." Nevertheless, we can discern the footprints of such popular dances as Latin rock, swing, tango, barn-dance fiddling, and so on. Adams lays out the piece for string quartet and tape loops of sounds electronically sampled from a "prepared" piano -- that is, a piano modified by inserting screws, other hardware, paper, and erasers among the instrument's strings and hammers. Used in most of the movements, the loops supply a steady beat which frees the quartet from a strict adherence to the metrically strong beat and allows the players to generate complex cross-rhythms. Yet the work retains a virtuosic rhythmic sharpness. Adams leaves the sequence of movements to the players. My favorite section is the "Pavane: She's So Fine." Adams gives the following description:

A quiet, graceful song for a budding teenager. She's in her room, playing
her favorite song on the boom box. Back and forth over those special moments,
those favorite progression. She knows all the words. On her bed are books
and friendly animals. High, sweet cello melodies for Joan Jeanrenaud [original
cellist of the Kronos], who's so fine.

The piece has both poetry and fun. Adams had created a light work which nevertheless has substance, like Dvorák's Carnival Overture, one of the most difficult things a composer can bring off.

On the other hand, I had difficulty trying to crack Adams's two-movement String Quartet since I first heard it from the St. Lawrence String Quartet. I vaguely sensed that the late Beethoven quartets somehow lurked in the background (particularly because of the peculiar proportions of the work and the occasional interruptions in its flow), but the first movement in particular, twice as long as the second, simply foxed me. I've kept at it, however, and I must credit the Attacca players for making the score more comprehensible to me. I now see the first movement as three in one: something like a sonata-allegro, a scherzo, and a slow movement. That's an immense help and allowed me to determine the thematic arguments. The first movement remains dense, and I'll be at it a long time. At least I have a solid basis on which to stand. The second movement features Adams's pulsing, familiar to those who know his Shaker Loops and Nixon in China. Intricate counterpoint generates cross-rhythmic energy. It's how I imagine the electric jolts in the power lines sing and dance.

Praise to the Attacca Quartet who surpass their predecessors. They seem to take bigger risks in John's Book of Alleged Dances than the Kronos, who sound way too suave in comparison. The Attacca give the dances a bit of street dirt. As I said, they opened up the String Quartet for me. The St. Lawrence in comparison seem like pioneers struggling against the wild. Azica's engineering is superb, giving superb separation among the individual voices so you can more or less follow Adams's mind-blowing counterpoint, but without sounding as though each instrument had its own recording booth. The entire sound is chamber-natural.


S.G.S. (September 2014)