John Adams: The Chairman Dances (foxtrot for Orchestra)

This is John Adams: composer of The Chairman Dances. Born in 1947, he is known typically for his minimalist music.


The Chairman Dances is an outtake from his opera, Nixon In China. The opera depicts President Nixon’s reaction to visiting China, with this piece said to be a ‘warm-up’ to the opera itself. Composed in 1985, this piece is the backing track to a dance between Chiang Chang (Madame Mao, and supposedly the driving force behind the Cultural Revolution in China) and Mao Tse Dong, who comes to life from a painting after Chiang Chang gatecrashes an evening party.

The piece begins by chugging away, with quavers an interval of a perfect fourth in the viola and bassoon, before more low woodwind and strings are added to create an industrial timbre. A few quick bars in, crotchets in the bass add to the power of this musical engine, laying the foundations for  the higher-pitched motifs to come.

The music develops as an oboe interjects on an offbeat, piercing the texture. However, now more instruments are added, with violins, the harp and the glock and vibraphone interrupting the quavers. As they all compete to be heard, the dynamics bulge before coming away, crescendos followed by decrescendos, adding to the excitement and energy of this piece.

A minute and a half in, an interval of a third is emphasised in the marching bass in the celli, double basses and trombones. This constant movement and repetitive nature reminds me of a railway train, which is only added by the addition of sandpaper blocks at around 3:20. The woodblock also gives it a disciplined metronomic feel, tapping out the beat as the strings pluck away.

The strings then melt into a syncopated luscious warmth where the conductor is notified to “relax tempo slightly”, conducting in 4, reminiscent of the dances of Fred and Ginger. A schmulzy feel, with bulging rises and falls the section climaxes around 5 minutes with the brass broadening the texture and giving the classic Hollywood film feel.

Quickly this is taken over by celli and double basses that reinstate the chugging motion, motifs again layering over each other, with ominous bass notes in the trombones contrasted to pretty ripples in the harp. There’s soon calamity between the clashing brass and loud percussion, the timpani rhythmically stating its dominance, followed by cymbals (sizzle cymbal?).However this rapidly depletes, leaving a rather eery and much lighter section around 6:30.  The violins play with glissandos in a high register, other strings plucking away and coordinating with the woodwind, with the triangle and crotales glistening in the foreground. The horn floats in with woodwind and violins to provide a rather beatiful melody, despite a couple of ominous notes in the bass.

Having had enough, there is an accelerando, violins sliding up and down with fast scales which are then imitated in the woodwind, as the brass get some melody. The lower strings continue to pluck on the onbeats as the tempo slows down yet again, before another accelerando, initiated by octave chords in the piano and lower strings, the chugging motion coming back to remind us of Mao.

Yet through the strong chugging, the romantic melodies from the slower sections perforate the quavers, the strings flowing and legato over a rippling piano part. At 11:00 the strings lose the melody momentarily, replaced by two descending chromatic notes and pizz., with the piano and woodwind, before replaying the romantic melody with the piano around 11:30.  Then the strings drop out, leaving just the piano with the syncopated motif and percussion that quietly taps in the background, evoking the end of a record as it slowly fades out.

A hard piece to perform, Adams has cleverly interweaved minimalism and romanticism with layers upon layers, motifs upon motifs, but what I most like s the rhythmical energy of this piece from the changing time signatures; a constant pace that moves forward and never feels sluggish.

Here’s an online score 🙂

And a recording that I much enjoy, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle:


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