John Adams: "Shaker Loops," Minimalism Through the Late 20th Century

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An analysis of John Adams' orchestral work, Shaker Loops, the 1982 version. Born in 1947, Adams is a timeless figure in the music world, a strong force in both the 20th and 21 centuries.

Shaker Loops (1982)

John Adams received his musical training at Harvard where he was active as a clarinetist, conductor and composer. After graduation, he moved to California, and eventually settled permanently in San Francisco. There, he joined the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory - a post he held for ten years. Adams was later appointed composer- in-residence to the San Francisco Symphony; this appointment lasted from 1978 to 1985.

Along with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley among the most famous, Adams is associated with the movement in music known as minimalism. This term was originally used to describe certain works in the fields of painting and sculpture in the late 1960's. Its aesthetic ideals are, as the term itself implies, a reduction to the barest of essentials of whatever material or medium the artist is working with. In music, this has come to mean the use of repetition of melodic ideas and rhythmic motifs, within a mostly tonal harmonic framework and the demand for virtuosity on the part of the performers. Thus, through repeating patterns, musical structures grow by minute gradations and the subtle alterations of the minimal, rudimentary material at hand.

Shaker Loops was originally written as a string septet (three violins, one viola, two cellos and one double bass) in the fall of 1978. In this form, it was premiered later that year on the 8th of December by members of the San Francisco Conservatory's New Music Ensemble. The composer later adapted the work for string orchestra - as heard in most performances - in 1982.

The title is part pun and part double entendre. "Shaker" refers to the Millennial Church more commonly known as the Shakers. As part of their practice of worship, they glorify God through their ecstatic shaking and trembling. The use of tape loops can provide the constant repetition of musical material for which minimalist music has become famous, or in some circles, infamous. Adams' melodic loops, however, differ from each other in length, and when heard together, result in a constantly shifting interplay.

Regarding the style of this work, the composer has provided the following commentary: "Although being in its own way an example of 'continuous music,' Shaker Loops differs from most other works of its kind because it sees so much change within a relatively short amount of time. Also it avoids the formal and temporal purity of much 'minimal' music by not adhering to a single unbending tempo throughout. This less severe approach allows a freer movement from one level of energy to another, making a more dramatic experience of the form."

Shaker Loops consists of four joined movements. The music is predominantly comprised of trills and tremolos subjected to the musical controls of repetition, and differing dynamic levels. Adams has provided the following analysis: "The four sections, although they meld together evenly, are really quite distinct, each being characterized by a particular style of string playing. The outside movements are devoted to 'shaking,' the fast, tightly rhythmicized motion of the bow across the strings. The 'slews' of Part II are slow, languid glissandi heard floating within an almost motionless pool of stationary sound (played senza vibrato).

The third section of Shaker Loops (1982 orchestration)

Part III is essentially melodic, with the celli playing long, lyrical lines (which are nevertheless loops themselves) against a background of muted violins, an activity which gradually takes speed and mass until it culminates in the wild push-pull section that is the emotional high of the piece. The floating harmonics, a kind of disembodied ghost of the push-pull figures in Part III, signal the start of Part IV, a final dance of the bows across the strings which concludes with the four upper voices lightly rocking away on the natural overtones of their strings while the celli and bass provide a quiet pedal point beneath."

Author's addendum:

  • The cover illustration is a recent photo of Adams conducting.
  • The audio links below comprise the four movements of Shaker Loops in three videos, performed by Edo DeWaart conducting the San Francisco Symphony.  It's a fantastic recording, despite the unrelated video.  I'd also recommend Marin Alsop's recording of it with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, recorded on the Naxos Label, Catalog number No: 8.559031. (Naxos is also always a very good bargain!) Please support those working in the arts and purchase music and art legally. Thank you.