John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine


John Adams composed his orchestral work Short Ride in a Fast Machine in 1986. Subtitled a “fanfare for orchestra”, the piece came from a commission from the Great Woods festival. Due to the name of the festival, the original title of the work was Fanfare for Great Woods. The piece was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. 

Short Ride in a Fast Machine initially had a bit of a bumpy ride with the BBC Proms. The work was scheduled to be performed on the Last Night of the Proms, but was taken off the programme both times because of the names. The first in 1997 after Princess Diana’s death, the second in 2001 after 9/11. The piece has been performed at the Proms a total of three times now: 2004, 2014 and 2019.

The style of Short Ride in a Fast Machine showcases Adams’ post-minimal style. The music derives from the core of minimalism, however in this work Adams goes beyond that by creating a more dramatic setting for the music. Describing the title and music, Adams commented that:

“You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”


The Music

Short Ride in a Fast Machine is scored for a large orchestra that includes an extensive percussion section and two keyboard synthesizers. Adams uses repeated material throughout the piece to emphasise the subtle changes often seen in minimalism. There is a very strong sense of pulse which is critical in Adams’ music. The driving sense of beats keeps the music moving forward so that Adams can experiment with the harmony.

Adams chooses the woodblock to be the chief timekeeper in a Short Ride in a Fast Machine, with the composer stating that “I need to experience that fundamental tick throughout”. 

The piece opens with whirling winds and muted upper brass. The woodblock can be heard from the start. Various ostinati are set off at a pace, with decoration and accentuation from the percussion and brass. 

The rhythms begin to tear apart as the work goes on. Adams utilises dissonance both in his use of modal harmony and rhythm blocks. The constant change creates a chaotic middle section of the piece. Throughout all the pandemonium felt in the middle of the orchestra, the woodblock can still be heard within the mix, bravely ticking along.

The rhythmic and metronomic stability of the woodblock is threatened throughout with Adams’ placement of rhythmic dissonances. The manifestation of changes between the rhythms and harmony creates conflicting structures for the woodblock. However, the ticking remains solid throughout. By the end of the work, Adams is using polyrhythms to create even more division in the way that we are perceiving time in the piece. A fanfare, led by the trumpets, leads this Short Ride in a Fast Machine to it’s finishing line. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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