Scratchband

The PSU New Music Ensemble has had a great time getting to know Scratchband, in preparation for the upcoming concert at Lincoln Hall (3pm, Saturday, December 4), and it’s become one of my favorite John Adams pieces. I love the way the electric guitar, electric bass and electric organ sounds are woven into the texture of the ensemble. Scratchband hasn’t been recorded commercially, but here are notes from the composer:

Scratchband was written expressly for the Ensemble Modern with that group’s unique mixture of virtuosity and stylistic adaptability always in mind.  The instrumentation is that of a hybrid of a rock band.  With the use of electric guitar, electric bass, drum set and amplified winds and synthesizers, the timbres and style of orchestration make it a close sibling to the pit band of Ceiling/Sky, the 1995 song play I composed in collaboration with June Jordan and Peter Sellars.

During the preparation periods for the various productions of Ceiling/Sky I noticed that the traditional “rock” instruments were capable of extraordinary power and virtuosity, but that these abilities were rarely if ever realized in commercial music.  Technical “chops” displayed by even the greatest of rock musicians―a Jimi Hendrix or an Eric Clapton, for example― tended to rest comfortably within the accepted language of the tradition.  Understanding and transcending this limitation may have been Frank Zappa’s most lasting contribution to the future development of the art.  Zappa understood that the language of rock could be vastly expanded by an informed cross-fertilization from the world of classical music.  He chose musicians for his bands who could move beyond the simple structures of popular music and respond to his experiments in rhythm and counterpoint with skill and audacity.

For listeners familiar with my recent music Scratchband will probably appear as a strange shotgun wedding, one that marries the busy, terrier-like activity of the Chamber Symphony to the pop timbres of the Ceiling/Sky score.  As I write this note, the piece is barely more than half completed, so my comments are not unlike an attempt to fill in a full personality sketch on the basis of a single ultrasound scan.  What strikes me about the piece, however, is the way in which minimalist gestures are beginning to reappear in my music after a significant absence (the overture to Ceiling/Sky being the only other significant exception).

After a frantic explosion of scales charging up and down the gamut in a garish panoply of constantly shifting modes, the music stabilizes in the key of B major, boogying back and forth across modal borders that suddenly and dramatically alter the color and mood of the action. Eventually this hyperactive energy levels off into a series of panels that introduce motivic material in a more formal “minimalist” guise.  But the emotional underpinning here is far more volatile than in pieces from the 70’s or 80’s.  Nevertheless this same volatility provides the stimulus for real virtuoso writing, a kind of writing that falls so naturally within the capacities of a group like the Ensemble Modern.

John Adams
Berkeley, CA
February, 1996

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