Short Ride in a Fast Machine

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Excitement on the Edge of Terror

There’s something exhilarating about testing the limits…knowing that you’re on the verge of losing control but never crossing the line. This is the thrill of downhill skiing, roller coasters, jumping out of airplanes or taking a short, harrowing ride in a friend’s Corvette. In each case, it’s about motion. Motion is also an essential element of music. All music flows through time, although it can unfold in dramatically different ways, depending on the piece.

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s listen to Short Ride in a Fast Machine by American composer John Adams (b. 1947). This musical joyride was written in 1986 as a fanfare for the Pittsburgh Symphony. What elements in the music remind you of a traditional fanfare? What image or “inner movie” comes to mind? Do you feel a physical sense of motion as you listen? Does the music come close to spinning out of control at any points? The piece begins with a straightforward pulse played by the wood block. Listen to what happens rhythmically around this pulse as the music progresses. Here is Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle:

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If you’re like me, your sense of expectation was heightened from the beginning. In this piece, there’s no way of knowing what’s around the next corner. You probably noticed points of arrival in the music (1:11, 2:42, 3:04), but they could hardly be called goals because we didn’t hear them coming. These arrival points are like shooting out of a tunnel, hitting a sharp curve and suddenly seeing a dramatic view unfold in front of you. In this case the joy of the ride is more important than the destination. John Adams talks about the Lamborghini ride that inspired him to write Short Ride in a Fast Machine here.

Quiet Fanfare

A year earlier, John Adams wrote a different kind of fanfare for the Houston Symphony. It’s called Tromba lontana or “distant trumpet.” Listen to all the musical layers from the solo trumpets to the strings to the pulsating piano, harp and percussion. Consider this piece’s flow. It’s moving through time, but where is it going? What feeling do you get as you listen? This recording is by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony:

There’s something slightly ominous and unsettling about this piece. The sparkling bells and high strings establish a glistening, almost innocent pulse. Then the lower strings enter, adding something darker to the mix. We have the sense of the pulse propelling us forward into infinity while the other voices search aimlessly. The piece develops slowly with an underlying sense of building anxiety, but does it ever find a resolution? Listening to Tromba lontana is like floating through some kind of deep, subconscious dream space where a thought or landscape emerges, becomes fixed in the imagination and then inexplicably disappears.

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Red Barchetta

The rock band Rush was also inspired by the speed and excitement of a fast car. The song Red Barchetta is from their 1981 album, Moving Pictures. It was inspired by the futuristic short story, “A Nice Morning Drive” by Richard Foster (published in a 1973 issue of Road and Track magazine). Here, the car becomes a symbol of freedom and rebellion against intrusive government regulation:

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Now go back and listen to this week’s music a few more times. Share your thoughts in the thread below. How do these three pieces flow and how do they influence our perception of time? Next week we’ll continue to explore motion with music inspired by trains.

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