orchestra

In the spring of 1988, shortly after the first series of Nixon in China performances, I began thinking about a new work for orchestra, but found that ideas were slow in arriving. When they did make an appearance I was surprised to see that they were in much the same vein as the Nixon music. Apparently I had more to say in that particular style, although this time it would be purely instrumental music, and the sound would be largely dictated by the Nixon orchestra, a kind of mutated big band, heavy on brass, winds, synthesiser and saxophones. For Fearful Symmetries I added a keyboard sampler playing sampled percussion sounds, two horns and a bassoon. The music is, as its title suggests, almost maddeningly symmetrical. Four- and eight-bar phrases line up end to end, each articulated by blazingly obvious harmonic changes and an insistent chugging pulse. […] “Fearful symmetries”, which is allied to pop and Minimalist rock, is clearly an example of what I call my “travelling music,” music that gives the impression of continuous move-ment over a shifting landscape.

It is surely a seriously aerobic piece, a Pantagruel 9 boogie with a thrusting, grinding beat for at least two-thirds of its length. Perhaps partly for this reason, it’s become my most choreographed work, with over a dozen different versions. What appeals to me most about the piece is the timbre: It mixes the weight and bravura of a big band with the glittering, synthetic sheen of techno pop and the facility and finesse of a symphony orchestra.

Fearful Symmetries is presented here in a film montage by Jérôme Bosc entitled Buster, conceived specifically for this work by Adams, whose sonorities seem a perfect match for the universe of slapstick, and Buster Keaton in particular.

John Adams

Performance