Short Ride in a Fast Machine is one of the Two Fanfares for Orchestra written in 1986 by John Adams (b. 1947), one of America’s most noteworthy composers. The piece, which is Adams’ biggest popular success, is quite short (as is customary for a fanfare), with a total duration of only about four minutes. However, it manages to pack a lot of content into those four minutes. It is an example of yet another new style of American music, known as postminimalism, which Adams was largely responsible for helping to introduce. Postminimalism is based heavily on many of the same concepts as minimalism, including its iconic pulsing, and the repetition of short motifs, however it is different in that the music tends to be more melodic, and features more changes in the patterns. Adams has described his music as a “rather strange marriage of the driving pulse of American minimalism and then the sensuous and emotional and expressive world of the great European masterpieces.”
John Adams was raised in New Hampshire, and learned to play and write music on the East Coast of the United States. However, as someone who appreciated both popular and art music, he found the increasing experimentalism and atonality that was prevalent among Eastern composers to be dismaying. So, drawn by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and the many other composers of the minimalist movement, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Adams drew inspiration from their works, but unlike Reich and Glass, who formed their own groups specifically for the purpose of playing their own works, he prefered to write for existing ensembles, especially the symphony orchestra. Adams became the composer in residence for the San Francisco Symphony, which premiered many of his pieces. In this way, Adams’ music, like the music of Reich and Riley, is a product of the cultural split between the American East and West that took place in the twentieth century.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine was written in the 1980s, a time of rapid technological advancement. According to Adams, the piece was inspired by an early morning ride in a sports car that he took with his brother-in-law. He has said that the piece has the “idea of excitement and thrill, and just on the edge of anxiety or terror”, which embodies how Americans may have been feeling about the developing technology during the 1980s. According to Stanley Kleppinger of Indiana University, the music evokes the feeling of a struggle to maintain control over a powerful machine, something Adams achieves through the use of rhythmic dissonance, or polyrhythms (the creation of tension by juxtaposing contrary rhythmic figures). With machines becoming increasingly powerful, it is understandable that Adams might feel motivated to write a piece like this. However, the work is very clearly not entirely about fear; it was commissioned to be the opener of a music festival, and has a celebratory character. The piece seems to predominantly convey a feeling of wonder about technology, rather than a fear of it.
Indeed, even the instrumentation of the work incorporates an aspect of the “digital revolution” of the 1980s. Two synthesizers are included in the score, and play important roles in the creating the specific color of the piece. Adams was far from the first composer to use for electronics in his music (in fact, Charles Ives called for an “ether organ”, often interpreted to mean a theremin, in his fourth symphony), but he was among the first to integrate synthesizers into the orchestra, not as soloists, or to produce unusual sounds, but as normal members. This is something that was made possible by the rapid development that took place in the field of computers.
- An extract from a music textbook:
- The abstract to Metrical Issues in John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, by Stanley V. Kleppinger:
- John Adams and Michael Tilson Thomas discussing the piece:
- Adams and Tilson Thomas talking about more of Adams’ music:
- An NPR story, including Adams talking about his work:
- A scholarly analysis of Adams’ works by Alexander Sanchez-Behar:
- The program notes from a performance at the Boston Conservatory:
- Wikipedia’s article on the subject:
- A performance by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra: