John Adams: China Gates


John Adams composed China Gates in 1977 for the then 17-year old pianist Sarah Cahill. A year later Adams wrote a companion work called Phyrgian Gates which uses some similar techniques to China Gates. When describing the work Adams has said that:


“China Gates was written for young pianists and utilizes the same principles as Phrygian Gates, without resorting to virtuoso effects. It too oscillates between two modal words, only it does so with extreme delicacy. It strikes me now as a piece calling for real attention to details of dark, light and the shadows that exist between.”


China Gates is considered one of the first ‘mature’ pieces in Adams repertoire, where he started to experiment more with rhythms and modes. The piece was composed during a rainy season in northern California, which is also reflected in the work. 


The Music

China Gates is played in one continuous movement, however is split into three parts. Each section is outlined by a shift in modal harmony, which creates the colours within  the piece. The constant quaver movement across the hands is said to reflect the steady rainfall at the time of Adams composing the work. 

The bass notes offer the root of the mode, which the other hand builds upon. The upper voices on the piano oscillate between different modes, starting with Ab mixolydian and G# aeolian. The second part sits between the four outer modes that encapsulate it, with the third part alternating between F lydian and F locrian. Adams has described the work as “an almost perfect palindrome”. 

The onslaught of notes keeps the pace going throughout China Gates. The delicate upper voices intertwine with the unexpected bass notes, creating wide and open textures. There is a real sense of light and darkness throughout with the subtle changes in modal centre, which is a real delight to the senses. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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