As you read this page on Short Ride in a Fast Machine, our playlist example of John Adams’s music, please pay attention both to the ways in which the piece exemplifies the principles of minimalism and the ways in which it expands on those principles (note the references to “post-minimalism”). One of the main elements in this piece is rhythm, in particular the repeated beat played by the woodblock. Note in that section that Adams plays other rhythmic patterns against that beat that shift the listener’s sense of pulse.
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). The former is also known as Fanfare for Great Woods because it was commissioned for the Great Woods Festival of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. 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?” 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. This style derives from minimalism as defined by the works of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, andPhilip Glass, although it proceeds to “make use of minimalist techniques in more dramatic settings.”
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. 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. 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. Later in the work, (see Example 4) Adams introduces a simple polyrhythm as a means of initiating a new section that contrasts the rhythmic dissonance of the first section.