Short Ride in A Fast Machine

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Short Ride in a Fast Machine

John Adams​
Born February 15, 1947 in Worcester, Massachusetts

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


“I enjoy being an American….” 

­ —John Adams, May 1, 2010

When asked what is the essential thing that differentiates American music from all others, John Adams stated, “The one thing is the incessant pulsation.” Based on this, Short Ride in a Fast Machine is quintessential. He explained his title, asking, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?” He further explained on Fresh Air, that “The image that I had while composing this piece was a ride that I once took in a sports car. A relative of mine had bought a Ferrari, and he asked me late one night to take a ride in it and we went out onto the highway….it was an absolutely terrifying experience to be in a car driven by somebody who wasn’t really a skilled driver.” The Ferrari sports car specs state that it could go from zero to 100 miles per hour in 15.9 seconds. With this experience in mind, in 1986 he wrote a fanfare for a large symphony orchestra… a “bright, happy piece of music,” which is “very difficult to play but quite a bit of fun.” Short Ride in a Fast Machine was composed for the Pittsburgh Symphony as the curtain raiser for a summer festival, “Great Woods.” 

One of the most powerful early influences on the composer was a style called minimalism, and this work has often been called a “triumph of minimalism.” Minimalism embraces consonant harmonies, motoric rhythms, repetitive melodic motifs and patterns. In contrast to “pure” minimalism, Mr. Adams’ music moves forward, stimulated in its momentum by other 20th century inflections, references to the past in rich harmonies, lyrical sweeps, and his desire to attain “sustained resonance.” Moving away from highly dissonant sounds, Mr. Adams chooses a more consonant route in what he calls his “diatonic conversion.” “This made me realize the resonant power of consonance. There is such a lack of resonance in atonal music with all the upper partials clashing against each other. The composers that mean the most to me are those whose music is music of sustained resonance,” he explained. Michael Steinberg in the John Adams Reader wrote that [Short Ride in a Fast Machine used] “a harmonic language with an emphasis on consonance unlike anything in Western art music in the last five hundred years.”

 The five minute ride begins with a solo woodblock beating a rhythm (pulse) in quarter notes, while the orchestra via clarinets and synthesizers launches the ride in the second measure marked “delirando.” Gradually, the opening pulse finds conflict with other pulsations emanating from the orchestra, which creates a chaotic, competitive atmosphere. For example, almost immediately four trumpets compete with the woodblock contrasting pulsations which distract from a clear ostinato foundation. This mixture results in an effect of perpetual motion, compounded by the lack of cadences until the end. The persistence of the woodblock, holding onto its own ideas, against countercurrents from other parts of the orchestra, is “almost sadistic,” according to the composer. “Metrical Issues in John Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine” by Stanley Kleppinger, University of Nebraska is a fine source for more detail about the intricacy of the pulse combinations in this work.

A second compelling element is his use of a large orchestra and instrumental color. The expanded standard symphony orchestra also includes xylophone, crotales, glockenspiel, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, tambourine, large tam-tam, and synthesizers. Dynamics are loud; the pace is frenzied; the ride is indeed delirando: a Spanish adjective, an imaginative experience filled with “incoherent sensations and without connections.” 

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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