John Adams (b. 1947)
Shaking and Trembling from Shaker Loops
1978 / 1983 | 6 mins
The unique creative exchange between John Adams and the San Francisco Symphony spans four decades and represents one of the most significant success stories in the collaboration among contemporary American composers, orchestras, and audiences.
Shaker Loops is among Adams’s most frequently played works. Describing the 1978 genesis of its chamber version, Adams wrote that “I gradually developed a scheme for composing that was partly indebted to the repetitive procedures of Minimalism and partly an outgrowth of my interest in waveforms.” The fruit of this inspiration was a string quartet titled Wavemaker, which, he continued, “crashed and burned at its first performance. The need for a larger, thicker ensemble and for a more flexible, less theory-bound means of composing became very apparent.” After much revision, the work re-emerged as a string septet titled Shaker Loops. In that form the score was modular, with the many changes among the voices signaled by the conductor. Adams explains: “The ‘loops’ idea was a technique from the era of tape music where small lengths of prerecorded tape attached end to end could repeat melodic or rhythmic figures ad infinitum. (Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain is the paradigm of this technique.) The Shakers got into the act partly as a pun on the musical term ‘to shake,’ meaning either to make a tremolo with the bow across the string or else to trill rapidly from one note to another.” But it was also a nod to “my own childhood memories of growing up not far from a defunct Shaker colony near Canterbury, New Hampshire. . . . The term ‘Shaker’ … summons up the vision of these otherwise pious and industrious souls caught up in the ecstatic frenzy of a dance that culminated in an epiphany of physical and spiritual transcendence. This dynamic, almost electrically charged element, so out of place in the orderly mechanistic universe of Minimalism, gave the music its raison d’être and ultimately led to the full realization of the piece.” In 1983 this work took a further step when Adams created a version for string orchestra, effectively replacing the original “modular” version. This version can be played either by a string orchestra of any size or a septet of soloists, as it is here. “There are partisans who favor the clarity and individualism of the solo septet version,” says Adams, “and there are those who prefer the orchestral version for its added density and power.”—From notes by Michael Steinberg