Skip to page content

About this Piece

The composer provided the following note for the recording of Century Rollsrecently released on Nonesuch Records:

Century Rollscame into the world bidden by the pianist Emanuel Ax, who wanted me to create a concerto for him and the Cleveland Orchestra. The impetus for the piece was a sudden realization I had one night while listening in a drowsy state to a CD of player-piano music from the 1920s. Perhaps because I was half asleep my mind began to focus on the actual reproduction of the music rather than its ‘content.’ I was struck by how the medium of the piano roll itself left an indelible mark on the music, radically altering its essence in a way that later recording techniques like the tape recorder did not do. Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ sprang to mind. It didn’t seem to matter whether the content of these pianola rolls was hot jazz or Chopin, whether the performer was Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Josef Hoffman or Sergei Rachmaninov. In all cases the resulting sound emerging from the mechanically controlled instrument shared a certain bright, edgy quality and a rhythmic alertness that could only have been the result of the mechanical black box through which it was channeled.

“This minor epiphany provided the first and most important musical image for what was to become Century Rolls– that of an orchestra and solo piano tightly but happily aligned amongst the cogs and wheels of a bustling rhythmic machine. Perhaps because the inspiration came from this ‘era of mechanical reproduction’ I also found myself drawn to the energy and musical imagery of the earlier part of the twentieth century, and hence the ‘century’ made its way into the title. The music came out as a kind of automatic re-writing of the pianola music of the century. Even the casual listener will be able to detect homages to Fats Waller, Gershwin, Zez Confrey and even to Ravel and Debussy, all of whom shared the experience of hearing their music transformed by the medium of the piano roll.

Century Rollsbegins with a chirping, lightly pulsating twittering machine that unfolds in a gradual and regular manner. The piano enters in the low register with a reiterated figure in equal eighths in what is probably the most ‘mechanical’ of all the material in the entire concerto. Eventually a more extroverted mood takes over the foreground with a succession of brashly rhythmic, often jazzy, motives, one giving birth to another. Listening to this movement several years after its composition I am struck by how it gives the feeling of ‘sonata’ form – or perhaps the ‘aftertaste’ of it. In fact it lacks the traditionally opposed dialectic characteristic of sonata-allegro, but there is nevertheless an unmistakable feeling of old-fashioned ‘development’ in the long central section, one in which the piano courses over a varied terrain of modes and harmonies, always impelled forward by the inner clock of the orchestra. (Some of these ‘developmental’ ideas had first appeared in miniature in my string quartet from the previous year, John’s Book of Alleged Dances.)

“This insistent energy eventually spends itself, giving in to a delicate transitional passage with bells, light metallic percussion and resonant piano chords. What follows is a gently rolling, amiable music for piano, low clarinets and plucked strings and harp. Whereas the opening movement seemed urged on by some kind of pace-maker electrical pulse, the music now seems to roll gently of its own free will, stopping now and then to linger on a note or a chord.

“This relaxed music itself grows even more reflective and independent of the bar line, eventually ushering in a slow gymnopédiein 3/4 time (‘Manny’s Gym’). The simple, repeated bass line and the harmonies it spawns control the shape of the entire movement. Even the figurations and passagework for the piano are all derived from the exceedingly simple material of this gymnopédie.

“When in 1997 I overheard two people on a street corner talking about the much anticipated arrival of the famous comet of that year, I mistook the name they mentioned. What I thought I heard was ‘Hail Bop,’ and that seemed to me a great name for an astronomical event. Only later did I learn that it was named after the two astronomers who had discovered it, Dr. Hale and Dr. Bopp (Ph.D., presumably). So ‘Hail Bop,’ although it couldn’t be a comet, came to be the last movement of Century Roll. It is music full of the jabbing, stabbing syncopations characteristic of Bebop piano playing. In retrospect I realize also how much it was influenced by my exposition to the Studies for player piano by Conlon Nancarrow. Nancarrow’s brilliant, punchy piano sound is another manifestation of ‘art in the age of mechanical reproduction.’ ‘Hail Bop’ is certainly an homage to that sound, although I eschew the inevitable rhetoric of canonic imitation that is the hallmark of the Nancarrow composition, opting instead for a kind of fractured rondo form. The movement is centered around a Bop-flavored melody which, in fact, is lifted from a song in my 1995 music theater piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky: ‘Song About Law School as a Natural Follow-up to Jail.’

“The piano moves in and out of precipitous situations with the ease of a roadrunner, and in one particularly climactic moment, the orchestra seems at its heels like a barking terrier. The contrast with the previous movements is stark but amusing. Where the first movement runs on a knock-free regularly pulsating engine and the second movement floats freely in the ether, ‘Hail Bop’ lurches forward in great seizures of manic energy only to come to a stubborn halt and then start up all over again.

“Emanuel Ax, a pianist mostly known for his lyrical touch and poetic approach to Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin did one of those rare acts of service for a new work by playing Century Rollsin as many cities as he could during the first few years after its premiere. With each performance the piece seemed to gain coherence and unity while at the same time Manny relaxed into the music and developed an ease and command that one rarely hears in the playing of a new concerto. I am indebted to him for his enthusiasm and his artistry as I am also to my friends and colleagues in the Cleveland Orchestra, who gave the work not one, not two, but many performances before making this recording.”

       — John Adams (Berkeley, CA, September, 2000)

piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (chimes, crotales, high bongo, vibes, wood block, xylophone), harp, celesta, keyboard glockenspiel, strings, and solo piano.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances.