Suggested Listening: “The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra)” by John Adams

Feeling nostalgic?  Then you’ll enjoy this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC.  Here’s The Chairman Dances by John Adams, performed below by the San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart conducting.

The footage in the video below is from a 1972 National Ballet of China production of The Red Detachment of Women.  Though the ballet may have influenced Adams’ music, and though the two works share a historical context, they are not intended to go together in any way.  It’s just cool to watch.  If you’re interested, you can check out the entire ballet here.

About the Composer:

John Adams (1947- ), though not the second president of the United States, is nonetheless an important member of American history.  He studied composition at Harvard University for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, during which time he acted as a clarinet substitute with the Boston Symphony.  He then moved to San Francisco, where he taught at the San Francisco Conservatory and became composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony — this is why the SFS is responsible for a majority of the performances and recordings of his works.  Adams’ music is considered an extension of the minimalist movement, built upon repetition and simplicity.  The point of minimalism in music is to entrance — to draw upon people’s innate preference for familiarity in the creation of something new.  The result is often hypnotic, and Adams’ music exemplifies this fully.  His works often revolve around historical or political subjects, from his Pulitzer-winning On the Transmigration of Souls in memory of the victims of 9/11; to his 2005 opera about the Manhattan Project, entitled Doctor Atomicto this piece, his Foxtrot for Orchestra, extracted from his acclaimed opera Nixon in China

About the Piece:

Take a moment to picture Mao Zedong.  You know, Chairman Mao — kind of stocky, very serious, crisp in uniform, perpetually unsmiling.

Now imagine him dancing  a foxtrot.

That is exactly what The Chairman Dances is about — the Chairman, dancing.  Nixon in China, perhaps one of the most famous works by John Adams, is an opera depicting President Richard Nixon‘s historic visit to China in 1972.  (You can watch the entire 1987 premier performance by the Houston Grand Opera here — but I’m warning you, it’s weird.  I recommend watching in chunks so you can process it.)  In Act III of the opera, the Chairman dances with his wife, former film starlet turned radical propagandist Chiang Chang.  (Chiang Chang was the driving force behind China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution — incidentally, the Cultural Revolution sparked the creation of The Red Detachment of Women, which Nixon was invited to watch during his visit.)  As the couple dance, they are transported back in time to one of their first meetings, in the city of Yan’an, which would become the seat of the Communist revolution.  They dance to a record playing on a gramophone, which Adams depicts in the percussion section, most notably at the very end of the piece — can you hear the static of the turntable, the scratching of the needle?  Mao and his wife dance and reminisce, immersed in a past much more loving and free than the oppressive society they constructed together.

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