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Short Ride in a Fast Machine

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Title: Short Ride in a Fast Machine  
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Subject: John Adams (composer), The Chairman Dances, Road Movies (Adams), Tromba Lontana, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
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Short Ride in a Fast Machine

John Adams completed Short Ride in a Fast Machine in 1986. He applies the description "fanfare for orchestra" to this work and to the earlier Tromba Lontana (1985).[1] The former is also known as Fanfare for Great Woods because it was commissioned for the Great Woods Festival of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.[2] As a commentary on the title Adams inquires, "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?"[3] This work is an iconic example of Adams's postminimal style, which is utilized in other works like Phrygian Gates, Shaker Loops, and Nixon in China.[4] This style derives from minimalism as defined by the works of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, although it proceeds to "make use of minimalist techniques in more dramatic settings."[5]


  • Reception, performance and non-performance 1
  • Orchestra 2
  • Style and analysis 3
    • Harmonic devices 3.1
    • Rhythmic devices 3.2
    • Formal devices 3.3
  • Notes 4

Reception, performance and non-performance

Short Ride in a Fast Machine premiered in 1986, when it was performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.[6] Short Ride in a Fast Machine has been generally well received in terms of performance, according to a report in 2008 that places the fanfare as "the tenth most-performed orchestral work composed in the last twenty-five years."[2] It was scheduled to be performed on two occasions at the Last Night of the Proms, but both times it was cancelled because of its title: the first time was in 1997 after the death of Princess Diana and the second was in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.[7] However, Short ride in a fast machine was performed at the BBC Proms on Saturday July 24, 2004, and on Thursday September 4, 2014.[8] The piece has been transcribed for concert band by Lawrence Odom. [9]


The Fanfare is scored for a large symphonic orchestra,[10] consisting of

2 Piccolos, 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, English Horn, 2 (optional 4) Clarinets in A and B♭, 3 Bassoons, Contrabassoon

4 Horns in F, 4 Trumpets in C, 3 Trombones, Tuba

Timpani, 3 Percussionists (high/medium/low Wood Blocks, pedal Bass Drum, Snare Drum, large Bass Drum, suspended Cymbal, Sizzle Cymbal, large Tam Tam, Tambourine, Triangle, Glockenspiel, Xylophone, Crotales)

2 Synthesizers with "analog brass" preset (optional)

Strings (Violins I & II, Violas, Violoncelli, Contrabasses)

Style and analysis

Harmonic devices

Short Ride in a Fast Machine, true to its minimalist heritage, utilizes a tonal language that, according to Catherine Pellegrino, "is not as neatly defined and predictable as that of common-practice tonality."[11] Adams is known (especially in Phrygian Gates) for the concept of "gating," which is the process of suddenly changing certain pitches in a harmony, often based on different modes.[12]

Example 1. Harmonic transformations in the first section

As seen in Example 1, the initial pitch collection of D, E, and A, as scored in the clarinets and optional synthesizers, slowly transforms over time by adding pitches. This process is a concept of changing harmony, which Adams describes as "bring[ing] in a new key area almost on the sly, stretching the ambiguity out over such a length of time that the listener would hardly notice that a change had taken place."[13] By measure 52, the aggregate of pitches suddenly shifts as the E major chord is replaced by a B-flat major chord. Meanwhile, the original pitch collection continues to exist as an unchanging force.[14] This process is the main harmonic device that Adams employs, as the next section shifts pitch collections more rapidly for contrast, while other sections return to the pace of the first section.[15]

Rhythmic devices

In terms of rhythm, this work follows in the main precepts of minimalism, which focus on repeated material, generally in the form of ostinati. There is also a strong sense of pulse, which Adams heavily enforces in Short Ride in a Fast Machine in his scoring of the wood block. Adams claims that "I need to experience that fundamental tick" in his work.[16] Throughout the course of the work, Adams experiments with the idea of rhythmic dissonance as material begins to appear, initially in the trumpets, and gravitates the listener to a new sense of pulse.[17] As shown below, the manifestation of rhythmic dissonance is akin to Adams's method of creating harmonic dissonance as he adds conflicting rhythms to disrupt the metronomic stability of the wood block. Adams himself admits that he seeks to "enrich the experience of perceiving the way that time is divided" within his works.[16] Later in the work, (see Example 5) Adams introduces a simple polyrhythm as a means of initiating a new section that contrasts the rhythmic dissonance of the first section.

Example 2. Initial rhythmic dissonance
Example 3. Development of rhythmic dissonance
Example 4. Result of rhythmic dissonance
Example 5. Polyrhythmic dissonance at a later section

Formal devices

The idea of formal closure and rhetorical devices in a sense of common practice is skewed in the works of John Adams, especially in Short Ride in a Fast Machine. While works of common practice organize material by phrases which are separated by cadential material, this work is in a state of perpetual motion as the additive element of harmonic and rhythmic material drives the work forward. The "gating" concept gives the overall work a sense of sectional design, but the indication of termination through cadence is something that is absent from the work until the very end, which emulates a ii-V-I cadence.[18]

Final cadence

In terms of defining the sections of the work, the wood block is scored in a way that creates a four-part form. The first and third parts of the work have a high wood block present in the scoring, which is contrasted by a low wood block in the second part, while the final part features the absence of wood block.[19]


  1. ^ John Adams's web site.
  2. ^ a b Michael Mauskapf, "Sound Recording Reviews: The American Orchestra as Patron and Presenter, 1945-Present: A Selective Discography," Notes - Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 66, no. 2 (December 2009): 389, (accessed 7 October 2012).
  3. ^ Michael Steinberg, "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," In The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer, ed. Thomas May, (Pompton Plains, N.J.: Amadeus Press, 2006), 108.
  4. ^ Stanley V. Kleppinger, "Metrical Issues in John Adams's 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine," Indiana Theory Review 22, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 81.
  5. ^ Brent Heisinger, "American Minimalism in the 1980s," American Music 7, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 434, (accessed 8 October 2012).
  6. ^  
  7. ^ Andrew Clements, "Saturday Review: Arts: A Night to Forget: The Tragedy in the States Has Changed the Programme for This Evening's Last Night of the Proms, But We Should Have Scrapped this Offensive Charade Long Ago," The Guardian (London), 15 September 2001, (accessed 24 September 2012).
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ John Adams, Two Fanfares for Orchestra, Study Score, Hendon Music Inc. 1986. Designations as given in the score.
  11. ^ Catherine Pellegrino, "Aspects of Closure in the Music of John Adams," Perspectives of New Music 40, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 148, (accessed 24 September 2012).
  12. ^ John Adams, Rebecca Jemian and Anne Marie de Zeeuw, "An Interview with John Adams," Perspectives of New Music 34, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 104, (accessed 7 October 2012).
  13. ^ Heisinger, "American Minimalism," 434-435.
  14. ^ John Adams, "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," in Norton Anthology of Western Music, ed. J. Peter Burkholder and Claude V. Palisca (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010), 3:777.
  15. ^ Adams, "Short Ride," 3:778.
  16. ^ a b John Adams et al., "Interview," 94.
  17. ^ Stanley V. Kleppinger, "Metrical Issues in John Adams's 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine,'" Indiana Theory Review 22, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 66.
  18. ^ Catherine Pellegrino, "Aspects of Closure," 169.
  19. ^ Adams, "Short Ride," 3:777-778.
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