Thursday, January 20, 2011

In Which David Writes New Notes For A John Adams Piece

Last summer I wrote my own program notes for Short Ride In A Fast Machine.  The notes explain why.  Afterwards there's a short Q&A with the composer.

The goal of this little essay is to tell you about John Adams' Short Ride In A Fast Machine and to include tips on what to listen for during a performance and also to explain why my own name appears on the final page of the orchestra member's parts and how that led to my writing this essay for the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra performance. The real trick will be to keep it short enough so that reading these program notes takes less time than listening to the piece itself, just over 4 minutes.

Short Ride In A Fast Machine was composed in 1986 for the Great Woods Music Festival in Massachusetts where it was played by the Pittsburg Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. It is subtitled "Fanfare for Great Woods" but Short Ride is really too long for use as an actual fanfare, a ceremonial introductory piece. In 1985 John wrote a companion fanfare called Tromba Lontana. That is as quiet as Short Ride is exuberant.

John explained the title: “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”  (Yes, I certainly remember riding in my brother-in-law's Corvette and swearing never to do it again.) Unlike the famous 1923 musical depiction of a short ride on a steam train, Pacific 231 by Arthur Honegger, Short Ride In A Fast Machine isn't really a tone painting. John Adams' machine is pure musical adrenaline. There are plenty of twists and turns. It starts out a full speed and never even thinks of slowing down. By the end the chances are good you'll want to hear this ride again.

Short Ride is constructed on a rock steady beat played by the lowly woodblock. The other instruments, mostly, try to distract you from this solid foundation. The snare drum is one of the first offenders and then the low brass insist on playing four notes while the woodblock plays only three. My best advice: If you lose track of what's going on, keep listening for that woodblock. Eventually all the brass play longer notes over the charging rhythm and the piece ends with a short recap of the opening.

Short Ride may have a steady tempo but it doesn't have a perceptible meter, the regular alternation of strong and weak musical beats. If you watch the conductor, of course, you can see the meter, but you can't hear it. Short Ride is not in two like a march, or in three like a waltz, or in any meter. Instead there is a constant unfolding of rhythm without obvious downbeats. This feature has become a hallmark of John Adams' musical style.

Short Ride In A Fast Machine is early John Adams. It was composed at the same time he was working on his breakthrough opera, Nixon in China. Just one year earlier, in 1985, John had finished his first large symphony called Harmonielehre. I was asked to help prepare the performance materials, the parts, for Harmonielehre. The job is called "music copying". It's certainly more technical than it is artistic and most concert audiences know nothing about it. The task is to put the information each player needs into their individual parts as clearly as possible. Of course these days it's all computerized but back then everything was done by hand, using fountain pens and straight edges and translucent paper called vellum. The vellums were reproduced in small quantities by an ozalid machine, an ancient beast mainly used for blueprints. Ozalid prints smelled strongly of ammonia.

After I had finished my graduate music studies I managed to support myself as a freelance music copyist. I never suspected it would actually become my career. Because of my work on Harmonielehre John asked me to be his regular copyist, a job I still hold. "What's wrong with you?" he said back then, "You don't make mistakes." (If only.) But being John's copyist was never a full time gig and I felt the need to advertise my talents to other potential clients. In my imagination a good way to do this was directly on the music itself. So I wrote "Copied by David Ocker" at the bottom of the last page of each part. Sometimes I even added my phone number. No extra work ever came my way because of this. Eventually I wised up.

Surprisingly, the parts I copied in 1986 for Short Ride In A Fast Machine appear to still be in use today and my name survives on the last pages. I learned this from Janet Polasky, bassoonist in the Portsmouth Symphony. Janet and I knew each during a previous millennium as undergraduates at Carleton College. We played in a woodwind quintet together. Today we've re-established our friendship, at least in the Facebook sense, and she suggested I write these program notes. I'm happy to oblige. I'll probably reproduce them in my egocentric blog at, which - like this essay - is mostly about me.


MM:  Way back then, how did you feel about my advertising myself at the end of the parts?

JA: I never had a problem with your "advertising." You worked hard and always delivered on time, and if you got some extra jobs as a result, all the better.

MM: Do you remember saying "What's wrong with you, you don't make mistakes."? (it was an answering machine message)

JA: I don't remember anything I said into an answering machine ever---other than "Are you there? I know you're there! Please pick up!!"

MM: Do you agree with Leslie that the first sentence of my program notes was way too long?

JA: No, not too long. I'm the one who writes things that are too long.

Remember that "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" first had the horrible title "Fanfare for Great Woods." I was obliged to use that title for the first performances because it was a request from MTT to compose a piece for him to conduct to celebrate the very first concert ever at a new outdoor pavilion called "Great Woods" in a town about an hour south of Boston. The only thing I recall about the premiere is that the grounds weren't yet finished, that there were Porta-potties in the parking lot, and that the night before there had been a horrific June rainstorm, causing floods of water to muddy up the still unplanted grounds surrounding the auditorium.

And, oh yeah: "Lincoln Portrait" was narrated by Michael Dukakis, then still governor of Massachusetts. He delivered the lines with all the dramatic thrust of someone ordering plumbing fixtures at Home Depot.

We Get Emails:

(Jan. 5, 2011)

Hi David,  Just wanted to let you know what a great laugh I had today whilst practising “short ride in a fast machine” when at the end of the piece I read “David Ocker: Tired Music Copyist”.

All the best from Hamburg, Graham Cox (Keyboards, Bamberger Symphoniker)

The Portsmouth Symphony is NOT the Portsmouth Sinfonia.

John Adams, on his blog Hell Mouth, writes about what really happened when preparing the parts to Harmonielehre.  (Note: I am NOT any of the copyists John mentions nor was I even aware of most of his story - although I did recently leave a supposedly tongue-in-cheek blog comment - for which I apologize.) 

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