After years of studiously avoiding the chamber music format I have suddenly begun to compose for the medium in real earnest. The 1992 Chamber Symphony was followed by the string quartet, John's Book of Alleged Dances, written for Kronos in 1994, and now comes Road Movies. My music of the 70s and 80s was principally about massed sonorities and the physical and emotional potency of big walls of triadic harmony. These musical gestures were not really germane to chamber music with its democratic parceling of roles, its transparency and timbral delicacy. Moreover, the challenge of writing melodically, something that chamber music demands above and beyond all else, was yet to be solved. Fortunately, a breakthrough in melodic writing came about during the writing of The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera whose subject and mood required a whole new appraisal of my musical language.
The title "Road Movies" is total whimsy, probably suggested by the "groove" in the piano part, all of which is required to be played in a "swing" mode (second and fourth of every group of four notes are played slightly late).
Movement I is a relaxed drive down a not unfamiliar road. Material is recirculated in a sequence of recalls that suggest a rondo form.
Movement II is a simple meditation of several small motives. A solitary figure in a empty desert landscape.
Movement III is for four wheel drives only, a big perpetual motion machine called "40% Swing". On modern MIDI sequencers the desired amount of swing can be adjusted with almost ridiculous accuracy. 40% provides a giddy, bouncy ride, somewhere between an Ives ragtime and a long rideout by the Goodman Orchestra, circa 1939. It is very difficult for violin and piano to maintain over the seven-minute stretch, especially in the tricky cross-hand style of the piano part. Relax, and leave the driving to us.
John Adams, September 1995
Road Movies was commissioned by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer