John Adams: Gnarly Buttons

John Adams. Gnarly Buttons (London Sinfonietta, John Adams conductor and Michael Collins clarinet) and John’s Book of Alleged Danges (Kronos Quartet). Nonesuch Records, 1998.

I am starting with John Adams. In one way, this is a terrible place to start, since Adams is complicated, modern music, with permutations and a knowledge of musical history well beyond my amateurish abilities. Otherwise, it is perfect.

He’s the second composer, alphabetically, in dad’s collection, and my intent is to go more or less in alphabetical order, with perhaps a diversion here and there. (The first is Adolph Adam, composer of Giselle, who I will come back to at some point).

More to the point, dad’s collection includes a piece that Adams composed in remembrance of his own father, who died of Alzheimer’s, and I can’t think of a better way to start off than that. Not to mention that this piece, “Gnarly Buttons,” had already caught my attention, even before I realized the symmetries, with an aggressive-looking cow on the front cover of the CD and a rather loud “moo” from a sampled cow midway through the second movement.

This is a piece designed to showcase the clarinet, Adams’ instrument growing up. (Just like me! The symmetry! Well, sort of. The clarinet was the instrument I started out on when I joined the junior high band. I played it for not-very-long, until one day I switched abruptly to bassoon after my band director pulled me aside and said, in distorted memory, something like this: “Yeah, so, you’re not so great on clarinet. I mean, you’re okay and all. But we really need a bassoon player. So why don’t you play the bassoon?”)

Adams tells us in the liner notes that he and his father played the clarinet together growing up, that “Benny Goodman was a role model, and several of his recordings were played so often in the house that they almost became part of the furniture.” Which is a good description of how classical music, generally, was in my household. He also tells us, in an NPR interview in 2008, that his father’s paranoia as his illness deepened led him to hide the clarinet, in pieces, in the laundry, suggesting “a strange, slightly berserk piece that had both charm and humor, but also a certain personal poignance.”

Adams’ music is so rich, has so many ideas pouring out of it, that it’s hard to guess what, specifically, might have been informed by his dad.

The first movement is based on an imagined Protestant hymn for which Adams has actually given us the words. This caused me no end of distraction as, listening to this piece on the New York subway, I dreamed up a Protestant choir perched on the 4/5 train bench across from me, and attempted to force them to fit the words of this hymn to the rhythm of Adam’s music. “Satan’s leering help me firmly turn away/Hurl me singing into the tremulous day!”

The second movement is a hoedown, typically associated with a horse, here reimagined for a cow in honor of the British friends who first performed the piece during a Mad Cow quarantine. I dare you to listen to this piece without having distracting thoughts of dancing cows. And here, by the way, is the moo:


In the third movement, though, I think I can finally feel the lament for Adams’ father and Alzheimer’s disease and family and memory and life passing, as a simple, quiet clarinet melody gradually grows more frantic and strident, more out of whack with the music around it — one pictures clarinet pieces being worriedly wrapped up in the laundry — until the original melody returns, but as if half forgotten.

My intent is to return to this one piece, when I am done with all the rest of dad’s collection some light years from now, and see what I can hear in it then.

Happy birthday, dad.

[Next up is Adams’ Light over Water.]

4 thoughts on “John Adams: Gnarly Buttons

  1. Hi:
    Robert and I were roommates at O.U. That was 1969 as I recall. We lived in the 2nd floor of a house. 420 W. Simms. We drank a lot of Coors at “The Library” on Boyd St. with other math majors, and enjoyed a good relationship while rooming together. He was a good cook and he and Ray Gaziek, another math major, shared the cooking and he asked me to do the same. I soon opted out, because I was not there very much and couldn’t hold up my end of the bargain. I still have a kitchen wet stone he owned; it was among his possession left behind when he went off to Arkansas State.
    He had a lot of good 33 1/2 rpm LP’s – all good music. Maybe you have them now. He would play while he read his books. His intellect was amazing to me; I so admired him for that. It would have been easy for him to be condescending around me and others not up to his level, but he never was, at least to me.
    He read a lot of science fiction and on occasion would give me a story to read; they were always good stories. His major was algebra. I darest not try to discuss it with him. I never got beyond algebra II, but asked him about those more-familiar-to-all-of-us courses. He guffawed and told me they represented on small corner in the field of algebra.
    In general, I felt he could answer about any question about math or science. He made all A’s except for 1 B, in a physics course he never attended except for tests. On the day of the tests he would ask the professor what he had covered since the last test. I guess that was enough to ace most of the tests. Now, that’s “Scary smart”.
    He told me that as a baby his mother would take him with her in a bassenet and put him besides the piano while she played at various places she was asked to play.
    I remember when he told me he was leaving for either Arkansas or to get married to Dean. That left me alone in the apartment and I recall I worked for the landlord painting after Robert left.
    My last conversation with him was probably in 2004 when I called him from China where I was teaching. I remember he wasn’t the same patient guy as before, understandably so, since he had already had an operation and he knew he was in trouble. The last time I saw him was when Neosha, my wife, and I drove through Jonesboro on the way back from a visit to Oklahoma. That was 1984. I remember being impressed they had his and her’s computers.
    I may still have some of his Christmas card letters; they were always a treat and pure ‘Rossa.’
    Thanks to Dean for sending us your notes on his CD.
    John Mackey

  2. thanks so much for the comment – love the story of the college years (coors!). I’m afraid the LPs all got replaced with CDs – i think i was away at college when that happened and I don’t know what happened exactly with them. Anyhow, please keep reading and if you have any more memories please share! jen

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