"Harmonium" (as performed by The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra)
ECM New Series (1984)
1,000 Albums To Hear Before You Die
Composer John Adams, whether intentionally or not, established himself as one of the premier minimalist orchestral writers thanks to his piece, “Harmonium.” At the forefront of the minimalist movement was Steve Reich, an American who preceded his fellow Yank by only a few years. Key qualities in the genre were consonance (“stable” harmonies) and often repetition to keep things simple. Note that there was no requirement that there be less instruments; the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, featured on "Harmonium," features 90.
Adams, now widely associated with his minimalist work, has actually worked in quite a few styles, and it’s evident on “Harmonium.” Only piece two, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” is fully minimalist.
“Negative Love” starts out in a minimalist state, with the cellos providing a steady drone. Slowly but surely it works its way into crescendo. “Wild Nights” travels in the opposite direction, starting out on a tear but slowing down as the piece progresses, ending much like “Negative Love” began. The wilder moments in these two pieces, although not burly enough to rival Baroque finales, safely reflect Classical period influences still working in the mind of Adams, the fledgling minimalist.
Moon notes the colossal chord changes that Adams uses in “Negative Love” and “Wild Nights.” This is true but might require a second listen for it to be evident, as Adams is subtle, moving it piece by piece instrumentally.
As you may have noticed, the three pieces are named after famous pieces of poetry, one by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and two by Emily Dickinson. Minimalism was an optimal choice for the project. The chorus singing the stanzas is not overwhelmed by the instrumental aspects, which would have defeated the purpose. It is similar to a good spoken word album: The music should not outweigh the words, because the words are the backbone of the genre.
“Harmonium” is a good introduction to minimalism, but it gets better with Adams’ next album on the list. Keep your eyes open!
INTERESTING FACT: Adams won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his composition “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a tribute to the victims of 9/11.