Music can be compared to travel. There are basically three kinds of trips one can take: a roller-coaster ride, an escorted tour, or a commute to a meeting. On the roller-coaster ride, the whole point is the thrill, fun and excitement of the ride itself. When the ride is completed, we are right back where we started. We don’t get on a roller coaster to get to a destination, or to stop and take in what there is to see along the way. On an escorted tour, the opposite is true. We get on a bus, and we expect to be taken to various points of interest, to stop, get off the bus, take in the sights, have them explained to us by a tour guide, and then get back on the bus to go and see something somewhere else. Eventually, we may end up back where we started, or we may end up at a different location for the next leg of our trip. The point of the escorted tour is to take things in along the way.
On a commute to a meeting, we want to get to a destination as quickly as possible. We don’t expect to enjoy any big thrills along the way, nor do we expect to do any sightseeing. We are starting at point A and want to arrive at point B in time for our meeting. That is all there is to that.
Music can be listened to as either a rollercoaster ride or as an escorted tour; and by listening I mean stopping all other activity and just dedicating ourselves to focusing on the music we are listening to, undistracted. When it is listened to as a rollercoaster ride, we simply listen to the music from beginning to end, enjoying the emotional ups and downs the composer takes us on. When the music stops, we leave the concert hall or take off our ear buds, and go on to the next activity. We did not do anything or take any special training to prepare ourselves to listen to this music, we simply “got on,” gave ourselves up to the music and enjoyed what it brought to us, and then “got off” when the musical work was over. For many people, this is a wonderful way to enjoy and appreciate music, and I fully support anyone who wants to listen to classical music this way.
Music can also be listened to as an escorted tour. This is the way most teachers of music appreciation want their students to listen to music, and it is the way most symphony orchestras expect you to listen to them, as evidenced by the program notes they supply you with to read before you hear the concert. When listening to music this way, we have certain things we are listening for, just as we have certain sites we are to look for from the bus window as we go by them. In music, these sites are usually themes, motifs, extra-musical effects, developments of motifs, and so forth. They are the means by which a composer has crafted the music to which we listen. As with our escorted tour, when we listen to music this way, we generally need a tour guide to point things out to us. That’s where traditional music appreciation classes and program notes come in–that’s what they are supposed to accomplish. For those who like to know how things work, or who want to know more about the music than what first appears to the ear, this is a good approach to classical music listening. On this page, I will in turn offer you both approaches to listening.
First, I am going to ask you to listen as if on a rollercoaster ride, while you enjoy seeing some things as they fly by during the ride. We are going to listen to Short Ride On A Fast Machine by John Adams. All I’ll tell you is that it’s fun to imagine the machine you’re riding in, and things you may be seeing and hearing as you zip along. Have fun and enjoy the ride. Please leave a comment on your experience listening to this work.
Now that’s you’ve “gone along for the ride,” let me introduce you to some specific things to listen for and to imagine while you listen again. According to the composer, this orchestral fanfare is inspired by the experience of speeding down a highway in a too-fast sports car. Adams explained in an interview that “the image that I had while composing this piece was a ride that I once took in a sport car. A relative of mine had bought a Ferrari, and he asked me late one night to take a ride in it, and we went out onto the highway, and I wished I hadn’t [laughs]. It was an absolutely terrifying experience to be in a car driven by somebody who wasn’t really a skilled driver. 1 The result is a piece that is truly about rhythmic and metrical conflicts. In its first thirty seconds meter is manipulated in such a way that enough regularity (i.e., periodicity) is present at multiple hierarchical levels to tease the listener into making constant attempts to discover and latch on to a metrical surface, even as that surface changes. The resulting aural sensation reflects that of wrestling to keep control over a powerful machine, as the title suggests (Kleppinger). This struggle for control is experienced as conflicting and ambiguous meters. There are cues in the music to support varying patterns of strong and weak beat so that the listener often is either unsure of the meter, or perceives more than one meter occurring simultaneously in different voices. This produces a conflicting, wrenching rhythmic struggle that does indeed sound like everything is careening out of control.