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Adjustable Wrench

Every memorable pop song is constructed with two important ingredients: a catchy hook and a satisfying rhythmic groove. These basic musical elements also can be heard in American composer Michael Torke’s Adjustable Wrench, written in 1987. The piece is scored for a small chamber orchestra and includes piano, synthesizer and marimba.

As you listen to Adjustable Wrench, enjoy the feel of the jazz/pop inspired rhythmic groove and the insistent melodic hook. How is the music flowing and developing? Why do you think Torke chose the title, Adjustable Wrench?

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I love the way this piece evolves gradually out of the single clarinet line at the beginning, becoming increasingly complex. We feel the repetitive groove in the same visceral way we would experience it in a pop song. The pulse stays the same, but listen to the way the groove changes subtly and becomes more intense in some places (1:04-1:37).

The piece shifts gradually from one section to another by overlapping voices and allowing old melodic cells to fade out while new ones emerge. You can hear this in the passage after 2:12. Steve Reich uses a similar technique in Eight Lines.

Michael Torke explains the structure of the piece further:

Each group of four instruments combines with a keyboard: four woodwinds are matched with a piano, four brass with a marimba, and four strings with a synthesizer. The texture is simple- melody and accompaniment. After a melody is introduced, it is then harmonized into four note chords. The chords become an accompaniment for a new melody, which in turn is harmonized to work with the accompaniment. The old chords drop out making the new chords become the new accompaniment for yet another new melody. The keyboard instruments, around which each family of four instruments is grouped, simply double exactly what is being played; the piano, marimba, and synthesizer add no new material. Instead, they provide an extra envelope to the four-note chords as well as reinforce the attacks. The music falls into the kind of four-bar phrases found in most popular music. Overall, the structure of the piece is arranged in four identifiable sections.

There are interesting but probably coincidental similarities between Adjustable Wrench and Van Halen’s 1983 rock song JumpIn this interview Torke says that he had not heard any Van Halen at the time, but that another more obscure rock song provided influence.

Adjustable Wrench is a great example of the power of rhythm and the importance of finding the groove.

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