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Grand Pianola Music was composed while Adams was composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony. It premiered in 1982, with Adams conducting. The composer provided the following note for the published score (1994):
"Of all my works, Grand Pianola Music has the most checkered past. It suffered through a tortured beginning, endured endless rewrites, has on all too many occasions been subjected to excruciatingly bad performances, and continues, even after ten years, to arouse the most divided responses from audiences. The piece, as the saying goes, seems to have something to offend everybody. Even so, and without being coy, I can say quite frankly that I wrote the piece not to épater les bourgeoisie, but rather for the sheer pleasure of hearing certain musical "signals" - one could even call them clichés - piled up against one another. Duelling pianos, cooing sirens, Valhalla brass, thwacking bass drums, gospel triads, and a Niagara of cascading flat keys all learned to cohabit as I wrote the piece.
"As with my Harmonielehre, which began with a dream of a huge oil tanker rising like a Saturn rocket out of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Grand Pianola Music also started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate Route 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world's longest Steinway pianos…20, maybe even 30 feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of B-flat and E-flat major arpeggios. I was reminded of walking down the hallways of the San Francisco Conservatory, where I used to teach, hearing the sonic blur of 20 or more pianos playing Chopin, the Emperor Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf Rag, and much more.
"Despite the image that inspired it, and despite the heft of its instrumentation, Grand Pianola Music is, for the most part, a surprisingly delicate piece. The woodwinds putter along in a most unthreatening fashion while waves of rippling piano arpeggios roll in and out like slow tides. Three female voices (the sirens) sing wordless harmony, sometimes floating above the band in long sostenuto triads while at other times imitating the crisp staccato of the winds and brass.
"The principal technique of the piano writing was suggested to me by the behavior of tape and digital delays, where a sound can be repeated electronically in a fraction of a second. The two-piano version of this kind of delay was accomplished by having both pianists play essentially the same material, but with one slightly behind the other, usually a sixteenth or an eighth note apart. This gives the piano writing its unique shimmer.
"Grand Pianola Music is in two parts, the first being, in fact, two movements joined together without pause, that end up in a slow serene pasture with grazing tuba. The shorter second part, "On the Dominant Divide," was an experiment in applying my Minimalist techniques to the barest of all possible chord progressions, I-V-I. I had noticed that most "classical" Minimalist pieces always progressed by motion of thirds in the bass and that in all cases they strictly avoided tonic-dominant relations, relations which are too fraught with a pressing need for resolution. What resulted was a swaying, rocking oscillation of phrases that gave birth to a melody. This tune, in the hero key of E-flat major, is repeated a number of times, and with each iteration it gains in gaudiness and Lisztian panache until it finally goes over the top to emerge in the gurgling C major of the lowest registers of the pianos. From here it is a gradually accelerating reace to the finish, with the tonalities flipping back and forth from major to minor, urging those gleaming black vehicles on to their final ecstasy."