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John Adams has talked famously about his tendency to follow serious, eloquent pieces with jolting "trickster" works. A somewhat similar alternating current can be heard in the music of Thomas Adès, where intense, poetic works ranging from the solo piano piece Traced Overhead to the massive orchestral score Asyla stand by rowdy and sardonic works such as the Concerto Conciso and the opera Powder Her Face.
Cardiac Arrest certainly fits into the latter category, and in fact it comes from the same period as Powder Her Face. (The premiere was in June 1995, at the Meltdown Festival in London.) Cardiac Arrest was the first track on the 1981 album "7" from the "nutty sound" ska/pop band Madness. Christopher Foreman and Cathal Smyth (a.k.a. Chrissy Boy and Mr. Smash) wrote the driving song, about an overly stressed commuter who has a fatal heart attack on the morning train to work.
Adès respects both the energy and the form of the original. He translates it into three minutes of edgy mania for an unusual, rather low-voiced septet of clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello, double bass, and two pianos. He exploits the full timbral range of his ensemble in layered, interactive patterns. Slippery chromatic subtexts subvert the more raucous surface obsessions, punctuated by ironic, music-hall cadential flourishes.
-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.