John Adams – “Alleged Strings!”

John’s Book of Alleged Dances
Shaker Loops (original septet version)

Smith Quartet
with Andrew Storey (violin), Sophie Harris (cello) & Corin Long (double bass)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 20 January, 2002
Venue: St Giles, Cripplegate

This performance of John’s Book of Alleged Dances adhered to Adams’s published order and differed from that in the programme, taken from the Kronos Quartet’s recording on Nonesuch 7559-79465-2. For the record, Adams’s order is Hammer & Chisel, Dogjam, Alligator Escalator, Pavane: She’s So Fine, Toot Nipple, Habanera, Stubble Crotchet, Rag the Bone, Ständchen: The Little Serenade and, finally, Judah to Ocean. Six are accompanied by pre-recorded “rhythm loops” played on a prepared piano for which, at times, the Smith Quartet donned headphones.

Varied and eclectic as Adams’s characteristic titles are, this performance was sabotaged by bizarre amplification. I was sitting in the fourth row, slightly left-centre, the Quartet about fifteen feet away from me – the sound I heard was not from four individual string instruments, but from the speaker directly in front of me. Yes, there had to be amplification for the “rhythm loops”, but is it beyond the wit of sound engineers and performers to match acoustic instruments with amplified tape?

Much more engrossing, and in real, non-amplified sound, was Shaker Loops. Mesmeric in its four sections, it melds various musical ideas – the repetition of small cells, the nature of oscillation – with the fascination, present from Adams’s childhood, of how the religious community of Shakers would wind themselves into spiritual fervour that, literally, left them shaking.

In a performance that seemed faultless, the Smith Quartet – Ian Humphries and Charles Mutter (violins), Nic Pendlebury (viola) and Deirdre Cooper (cello) – was joined by Andrew Storey (replacing Katherine Shave), Sophie Harris and Corin Long; together they achieved a rapt, unanimous line that seemed ideally suited to the ambience of St Giles.

  • Shaker Loops – septet version – RCA 09026 68674 2
  • Shaker Loops – string orchestra version – John Adams conducting, NONESUCH 7559-79360-2

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