It's one of those vast, ringing minimalist works that makes the piano sound like an endless carillon: or not exactly – it's difficult to describe, because you'd want to show how it is different from Reich's Six Pianos (a favorite piece of mine, but very much about a lively syncopated phrasing, where the Palestine simply repeats identical rhythms) or Young's Well-Tempered Piano (which, because the piano has been retuned, doesn't ring out with as much power – that piece is more about the subtle complexity of that which rings, rather than the sheer power of a normally tuned sounding board, where the octaves and fifths and fourths will all support each other).
Although I've never heard Strumming Music before (this is a dub of the 1995 New Tone CD, which includes lovely and now-nostalgic program notes by Joan LaBarbara – you can't help but long to have been a part of the seventies downtown culture), it immediately calls up influences, resonances, even memory. This is in fact the sound achieved in the climaxes of John Adams' Phrygian Gates, one of my favorite piano works of all time. These pieces suggest a certain kind of minimalism, less male and aggressive than Reich, less abstract than Young. You might think of Riley; ultimately the Riley and the Palestine (and pieces by Niblock and such) are more innocent, more naïve discoveries of that great ringing eternity that the piano can project so beautifully.
Of course the Adams, though it uses these sounds in its palette, is more sophisticated than any of the pieces I've mentioned: which is one reason it remains a favorite – perhaps it is not unlike a musical paradigm for John Ashbery's Three Poems, which I lately mentioned here. Complex, rich, changing according to laws one cannot quite perceive, but which one senses are there – the vision of a world where strange but beautiful things happen according to reasonable logics that are nevertheless alien to our world....
(That sophistication is, of course, the result of Adams' development of complex and unexpected harmonic 'gating' techniques – whereby he modulates, or changes the focus of a given mode, by subtle means based on, not the root of the existing (complex added-note, or modal) chord, but a different note inside it – often a note you haven't been paying attention to until he uses it as a pivot to somewhere quite else. This is what makes Adams unique among minimalists, and even among neo-tonalists, and also makes him better at constructing large-scale operatic and symphonic structures than the others (at least, structures that don't depend so much on repetitive hypnosis); Reich's unusual approach to harmony, being much less embedded in historical tropes, is 'purer' but far less resonant as a result. And thus endeth the technical lesson for the day – listen to the dramatic shifts in the climax of Adams' Harmonielehre if you want to a sense of real and amazing mastery.)
Unfortunately, the finest and grandest performance of Phrygian Gates is out of print; it is the premiere recording by Mack McCray on New Albion Records, from back when nobody had heard of Adams, and from a time when my beloved, foggy, gently beautiful San Francisco was the perfect place for such musics to come into existence. I have it only on a now sound-distorted but still precious cassette that was made in 1986; although of course I buy any new recording of the piece, the later ones always seem a bit too dry, a bit too cold, to me. This is somewhat like Herbert Henck's recording of Hans Otte's beautiful Book of Sounds: a neatly printed and widely distributed replacement for the original recording by the composer – but never as perfect, as ecstatic, as joyous in its discoveries.