“Phrygian Gates” by John Adams

This piece came up in my “Recommended” section in YouTube, and I’d never heard it before, so I listened to it and thought I’d share it with you!

American composer John Adams began writing music at a young age. He is one of America’s most well-known composers, as he has written a variety of works for orchestra, opera, piano and other instruments (he’s also worked in film and dance AND electronic music). Read more here.

Adams composes primarily in a style known as minimalism: a use of “limited” or “minimal” musical materials. Phrygian Gates (1977-78) is minimalist in the sense that the main musical materials are based on a repeating cell structure (a small musical idea that can be easily repeated and built upon). The work itself cycles through several different key centers known as modes (basically where it’s not major or minor; click here for information on musical modes). Each new cycle has its own character ranging from shimmery waves to heavy blocks of sound. Read more about what Adams said on this piece here.

Intense Music Theory Section: Phrygian Gates alternates through different versions of Lydian and Phrygian modes. The work starts in A Lydian (and spends a long time there), transitions to A Phrygian (spends a very short time there), and then moves to E Lydian (a little less time here) and E Phrygian (a little more time here) and it gradually works its way through the circle of fifths until the only mode is Phrygian (hence the Phrygian in the title). Now. There’s this thing in electronic music called a “gate”, which is a term that indicates an exact moment of change in sound. Phrygian Gates (“modal center changes”).

Below I’ve included videos of Phrygian Gates with the score. It’s incredible how the music looks like waves of sound rippling and flowing through different moods and scenes.

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