The musical breakthrough of John Adams’ ‘Shaker Loops’.

The score of ‘Shaker Loops’ by John Adams.

         By Jason Hazeley

One Wednesday forty winters ago at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, an audience first heard a piece that has become a fingerpost on the musical map: the string septet Shaker Loops by John Adams.

Adams, now one of world’s most performed living composers, had several starts. As director of the Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble in the 1970s, he tried and abandoned pieces for tape (Heavy Metal, Studebaker Love Music, Onyx) and for electronics (Ktaadn, Grounding, Schedules of Discharging Capacitors). Meanwhile, his works for more conventional instrumentation kneaded and plaited the American vernacular into something not altogether concise, such as the piano rag Ragamarole (1973-5), and the Cornelius Cardew-inspired American Standard (1973) – a triptych of reimagined musical tropes comprising a Sousa march, a hymn, and a Duke Ellington ballad.

None of it has survived the composer’s erase head except the middle panel of American Standard, ‘Christian Zeal And Activity.’ It’s an ultra slo-mo version of Onward, Christian Soldiers for chamber orchestra and ‘pre-recorded tape, with some thematic connection to the music,’ which suspends animation in a way that suggests nothing of the urgency in either title.

In 1978 these three approaches finally negotiated their way to common ground when the composer completed Shaker Loops. The piece, now an unquestionable part of the repertoire, was the third iteration of the same idea. The first, Wavemaker (1976) for three violins, contained the grain of something worth pursuing; the second, also called Wavemaker (1978) for string quartet, ‘crashed and burned at its premiere,’ in the composer’s own recollection.

The piece takes its title, as Adams’s compositions often do, from a collision of notions. The Shakers, or the ‘United Society of Believers’, were a religious sect known for their expressions of physical religious ecstasy, a colony of which once lived up the road from the composer’s childhood home in New Hampshire. (In a deliciously trivial non-sequitur, they are now better known for their pleasingly unfussy furniture).

But a ‘shake’, in American musical terminology, is a trill the ornamentation of a note by alternating it rapidly with a neighbouring note – while ‘loops’ are a staple of tape composition: found sounds on a recorded medium repeating themselves, as in Steve Reich’s Come Out (1966), The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, or any number of hip-hop records.

These three substrates – fervour of belief, a musical flourish and a compositional technique – inform Shaker Loops. It is, loosely, minimalistic: driven by pulse, repeated patterns and slow rates of harmonic and textural change. But it is also dramatic, lyrical and, in its climactic passage, visceral in a way that bawls with human agency, as the musicians drive faster and faster through enormous, repeated chords.

The late 1970s was, broadly speaking, a time of consolidation in American classical music. Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest (1977), for instance, took thirteen texts and, in one sitting, dished up ballad, chorale, serialism, jazz, opera – and bags of national pride.

But Shaker Loops sounds as though it emerges more from the same vapour as Brian Eno’s albums of the time. The connection may be more than coincidence: Adams’s first music to be commercially recorded was American Standard, released on Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 along with pieces by Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs.

‘[Shaker Loops] has probably been my most painstakingly revised piece,’ Adams told Charles Amirkhanian in 1987. ‘I’ve changed it over and over again. Among the changes, I’ve made it about ten minutes shorter, and I’ve also made a version of it […] which can be played by a full string orchestra of 50 or 60 players, instead of seven.’

The work is divided into four sections, played without a break. In its original version, each contains highly structured elements alongside aleatory, or chance, music. Passages – even micro-passages – are subject to whim. Modules consist of smaller (repeated, or looped) submodules, varying in length, which are assigned to the instruments by indication from the conductor.

The first part, ‘Shaking And Trembling’, establishes the pulse motif in its opening moments. Two violins play double-stopped fourths in unison semiquavers: a consonant, open, familiar sound. These violins have submodules four beats long; a third violin joins them with an eleven-beat submodule, before moving to one of six beats, while the viola adds a nine-beat loop, the first cello a fifteen-beat loop, and the second cello a twenty-four-beat loop.

Such chance elements need some sort of restriction, but the score’s rubric says nothing more than ‘the overall length of the piece should not exceed 30 minutes’. A typical performance comes in at around 26 minutes.

The vivid, pulsing opening of Shaker Loops is a statement of intent that persists in much of Adams’s work. These first bars owe much to Terry Riley, whose In C made an enormous impact on the young composer. But the landscape of ‘Shaking And Trembling’ is a shifting one – and other elements gradually join the frantic party: long glissandi and high, ethereal artificial harmonics that sound like wine glasses (a relatively modern technique in which the player reaches beyond the usual upper register of the instrument by tricking its strings into behaving as if they were shorter).

At the climactic point of the first part, Adams adds to the score the unconventional direction ‘Shake!’ – a reminder, more to the reader than the player, that this is a physically exhausting piece for seven musicians to perform. ‘Orchestral string players,’ he said, ‘tend to play in a very relaxed half-drive, never really giving their all. They couldn’t: they would have tendonitis within a month.’

The second part, ‘Hymning Slews,’ is conventionally notated in 7/4 – though this is close to impossible to discern, because the music seems to float, free of pulse, in a bright ozone layer. It is exceptional string writing, as original as Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima or the ‘Murder’ cue from Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho. Even four decades later, there is little in the composer’s considerable output anything like this: the strings shimmer, pipe, slither and shudder their way into their very highest registers. The occasional bubble of light even bursts on the surface of the double bass. It may be the high watermark of Adams’s early output.

The third part, ‘Loops and Verses,’ comprises a sustained build-up of energy that releases itself in a series of gigantic, relentlessly accelerating push-pull chords. And the fourth, ‘A Final Shaking’, is the passive twin to the active first part – a gradual wind-down, the bows dancing across strings with the same intensity as at the piece’s opening, but with toes in place of heels. A lacy, delicate icing around the hefty fruitcake announced on the opening pages.

After Shaker Loops ballooned in popularity, the composer re-notated it conventionally – starting on the first page and finishing on the last, with everything between formally laid out. He has since withdrawn the earlier version, putting chance behind him. Such is success.

Though John Adams has abandoned much of the grammar of the early Shaker Loops, the piece is a template for much of what was to follow. There is ‘musical inspiration in earnest, unquestioning beliefs – not organized religious doctrine, but simple, pure, emotional faith,’ as Pierre Ruhe has observed – just as with the PLF terrorists of Adams’s controversial opera The Death Of Klinghoffer (1991), or the Pulitzer Prize-winning On The Transmigration Of Souls (2002). There is unarguable statement of intent. There is pulse; there is consonance; there is centrifugal drive.

Shaker Loops was the piece that established Adams, not only in the public eye, but in his own. It codified his voice and his technique. After so many tentative starts, the composer had arrived at himself. He would go on to compose Common Tones In Simple Time (1979), the ravishing, spangling, orgiastic Harmonium (1981) for the San Francisco Symphony and, that same year, the still contested cartoon-with-a-pastorale Grand Pianola Music. 

2017 was Adams’s 70th birthday year, celebrated by orchestras and opera houses the world over. Tributes were paid to him in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Lyon, Stockholm and San Francisco. That March, I went to Berlin for a performance of his oratorio The Gospel According To The Other Mary (2012).

On the flight back to London, sitting six rows ahead of me, was Adams. I wish I’d thought to tell him he was the reason I was on that plane at all.

Jason Hazeley is a writer and musician. He is the co-author of the Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups series and anything with the word Cunk in the title, and is an occasional member of Portishead. He divides his time between London and the pub. Byline picture is copyright Idil Sukan.