John Adams ‘The Chairman Dances’: Programmatic Genius

The Chairman Dances by American composer John Adams is a mezmerising display of programmatic mastery in the post-minimalist movement within classical music. Written in 1985 the piece is essentially a by-product of his very famous opera Nixon in China which depicts American President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. With that in mind, The Chairman Dances has its own scenario that goes with it, making it a programmatic piece of music (basically it depicts a scene and tells a story). Peter Sellars (director of the opera) says this about the scenario:

“Chiang Ch’ing, a.k.a. Madame Mao, has gatecrashed the Presidential Banquet. She is first seen standing where she is most in the way of the waiters. After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle and slit up the hip. She signals the orchestra to play and begins dancing by herself. Mao is becoming excited. He steps down from his portrait on the wall, and they begin to foxtrot together. They are back in Yenan, dancing to the gramophone…”1

The Chairman Dances, subtitled ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’ takes the listener on a musical journey which consists of a recurring foxtrot theme based around a major second motif which is first heard in the bassoons at the start of the piece. Adams’ style in this piece really presents a mix of minimalist and romantic writing, which makes it such a clever piece of music. The piece begins with the bassoons and violas, both very woody in tone, playing the major second quaver theme. The upper woodwind then join in with a repeating descending quaver pattern, which is layered in by instruments to slowly create the pulsating texture. Bar 9 sees the basses and cellos enter with a steady crotchet beat on a low B, which then changes between that note and a low F#. This part really gives strength into the foundation of this piece and it offers a new tone to the piece. Still layering up the instruments, Adams introduces the oboes and harp with an off-beat suspended note on A. Subsequent to this the piano, vibraphone and glockenspeil join with this off-beat note which gives a sporadic feel to the piece, as this off-beat interjection theme is layered on top of the relentless major second theme. The violins then join in with this and are the last to be layed in onto this busy texture. One of my favourite things about this piece is that Adams writes in so many small fragments of music for a lot of instruments, but it seems to always lock together and create a rather pleasing sound. I always think of this piece as one of those ‘impossible’ puzzles of the jelly beans, where you think it’d be impossible for those pieces to work together to create one picture, but somehow with some trying it you realise they fitted together all along.

The piece fluxuates a lot between 2/2 and 3/2 time giving it a strong beat throughout the piece, which ties in with its essential foundation themes. The brass enter (muted) with an extended repeated quaver motif which politely sits underneath the other themes that are buzzing around the orchestra. By b.59 there is a change and the main foxtrot theme is now played in a minor mode, which adds so much tonal (or lack of) colour to the piece. The tuned percussion play such an important role in this piece, as they not only add colour, but a new texture to the piece with their relentless off-beat rhythms and their syncopated parts which work with the orchestra to help keep the speed of the piece up. Adams’ style in this piece is not fully minimalistic, but has some tendancies towards that musical period. For instance, the use of repeated rhtyhms is a main feature of minimalist writing as its taking the familiar and working with the bare minimum to achieve a sound/texture that the composer desires. So after this minor-mode foxtrot section, Adams brings back the opening foxtrot theme (sounds familiar right?) the texture becomes thicker a lot quicker at this point but the main theme is there. The high-pitched pizzicato notes from the upper strings really ring through on this reprise section and the upper woodwinds enter with their opposing quaver-movement a lot sooner than the first time. The shrill high octaves of the upper woodwinds and strings really give an exciting air to the piece in comparison to the strong lower-pitched instruments which hone in on the foundation of the piece.

By b.125 the minor mode foxtrot theme returns, this time initiated by the piano and tuned percussion. The piano plays such an important role within this piece as its chordal foundation create a secure pathway for the melodic instruments at this point to fly above. After this section some new material is generated into a violin melody which is played in four. The change in tempo here is very obvious as it goes from a fairly fast tempo to very relaxed and laid-back, which all points towards it being a programmatic piece. This syncopated theme is played by the piano as well and above that the woodwind play off-beat quaver patterns to compliment the other parts of the orchestra. This part of the piece particularly highlights Adams’ use of romantic writing to create a difference in feeling within the piece. The piece becomes quite unstable rhythmically by b.221, which adds to the tension and excitement of this piece. The harps play long glissando’s to create a mysterical air about this section, as well as the violas playing prolonged tremolo notes to create a more chaotic texture. This carries on for a while until we reach what has been named as the ‘slinky’ section of the piece at b.251. This probably one of my favourite sections of the piece, an even slower tempo is played, contrary to the faster tempo just heard. The strings play incredibly high harmonics and all other strings play pizzicato off-beat notes. The woodwind section, with the exclusion of the bass clarinet, play an on-beat quaver pattern to compliment the strings. The bass clarinet joins in with a slightly varied off-beat motif later on.

A transitional section is heard after the slower section, which sees the violins, and then later the upper woodwind, play some very fast demisemiquaver patterns which run into a slower tempo once more which gradually gets faster. This section is pushed on by the tuba and basses, which are complimented by the upper woodwind quaver theme. This section slowly speeds up to a much faster tempo which releases a lot of the musical tension that was heard in the previous sections. This section is also based upon the initial minor mode theme, so the familiarity of this section will be fairly solid now when you listen to the piece. The texture becomes a lot fuller and the whole orchestra are playing varying rhythms to create a very busy sound, which slowly over the next 100 bars or so will die away until only the piano and percussion remain, playing the chord progression of the major mode theme. This isn’t to say that nothing happens in those hundered bars, a lot happens, but its best to listen to this little treasure of a piece to hear its true beauty! When the piano fades off at the end all that is left is the sand block, bass drum and a shaker. This ending is very unusual and it is supposed to represent the gramophone that they’re dancing to. It’s like it’s dying away, like this fantasy they’re dancing in, its very moving when you think of it in conjunction to the scenario that it is depicting.

I was lucky enough to play this piece with my university symphony orchestra, which was a great experience (though very frustrating as the counting was tough!). A good pal of mine, Dom Hartley, conducted us through this wonderful piece which we all worked so hard on as it’s not easy! I’d also like to thank him for his advice and help while I wrote this blog up! This piece is a hidden gem and is well worth a listen, it lasts about 12:30 and is well worth the ride it’ll take you on. A brilliantly clever piece of music that seemlessly mixes minimalism with romanticism to create an incredibly pleasing piece of music!

Recommended recordings:

This recording is by the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Sir Simon Rattle conducting). This is a fantastic interpretation of this incredible work.

 

1 – http://www.earbox.com/the-chairman-dances/

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