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Season 2 - EP4

Grand Pianola Music

Music that began as composer John Adams’ dream of California coastlines and limousine-pianos on the freeway soars at the Hollywood Bowl.

Runtime - 40 mins

  • Performance
  • Program Notes
  • Behind the Music
  • Playlist
  • Gallery
  • Family Activity

About the episode

Beginning life as a dream of two black stretch limousines transforming into the world’s longest Steinway pianos, "Grand Pianola Music" is a pure, pleasurable musical pile-up of, according to its creator John Adams, “dueling pianos, cooing sirens, Valhalla brass, thwacking bass drums, gospel triads, and a Niagara of cascading flat keys.” Gustavo Dudamel leads the orchestra in a performance of Adams’ ecstatic masterpiece with visuals by Deborah O’Grady.

  • Gustavo Dudamel


  • Los Angeles Philharmonic


  • John Adams

    Special Guest

  • Deborah O’Grady


  • Joanne Pearce Martin

    Vicki Ray


  • Elissa Johnston

    Holly Sedillos


  • Kristen Toedtman


Support for this episode is provided by the Frank Gehry Fund for Creativity


  • John ADAMS

    Grand Pianola Music

    “The piece could only have been conceived by someone who had grown up surrounded by the detritus of mid-20th century recorded music. Beethoven and Rachmaninoff soak in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa.” This is how composer John Adams describes his Grand Pianola Music, and that goes a long way to describing this extravagant, tonal work, especially its over-the-top final movement. There are officially only two movements, but the first one has both a fast and a slow section, so in essence there are three movements altogether. When Adams goes on to describe the final section as a “bombastic finale…with its flag-waving, gaudy tune rocking back and forth between the pianos amid ever-increasing cascades of B-flat major arpeggios,” he is not kidding. There are, at minimum, two ways to enjoy this piece. The first is as a witness to one of the great crescendo creators of our time; Adams has a remarkable knack for building tension over a long span, using every trick in his playbook. The other way is to give in to the spirit of fun in which it was clearly written. Don’t be surprised if you’re humming that “gaudy tune” long after it’s over.

    Composed: 1982

    Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 3 percussion (large bass drum, small bass drum with pedal, bowed crotales, glockenspiel, maracas, marimba, piatti, 2 suspended cymbals, tambourine, 5 tenor drums, 2 triangles, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone), 2 pianos, 2 sopranos, mezzo-soprano

  • Deborah O'Grady

    Grand Pianola Music Image Sequences

    Grand Pianola Music, at the time of its premiere, was a celebration of tonality that dared to turn its back on the dry and brittle atonality of the academic music world. The work itself was inspired by a dream of the composer’s in which, while driving on a California highway, two huge black limousines morph into grand pianos.

    The images embedded in this performance explore that California dream in landscapes of both beauty and peril. Redwoods. Stately, gathering the moisture of coastal fog, home to myriad creatures, threatened by logging and fire. Wind turbines. Providing electricity as an alternative to fossil fuel, turning in perpetual motion as the wheels on the limousines turned, propelling the music forward in time. The Mojave Desert. With its ever-receding horizon, sheltering and supporting a wide array of life, supported by an underground aquifer that may very well be drained to provide water for our ever-growing cities. And finally, the emerald hills of Sonoma County, dotted with cattle, home to flocks of soaring birds, lifting the souls of drivers along its many back roads.

    Grand Pianola Music’s aural journey, through its dazzling landscapes, at times quiet and pastoral, at times explosive with energy and wit, drew me to these particular locations and images. The moist green season between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox reflect these many moods and seems especially appropriate to visualize the joy, the movement, the sheer beauty that this music contains.

    Artist Statement by Deborah O'Grady

With Gustavo Dudamel

Behind the Music

Tell us about Grand Pianola Music. Why did you choose this piece?

I have conducted a lot of John’s music, and this is a period of his that I love. Some of his earliest successes were from this period, including Harmonium, which I conduct a lot.

We were searching for something to perform, and this piece came up. I knew it would be very difficult to do. With John’s music, even if something sounds very simple, very minimalistic, it is actually very complex to put together. But I listened to the piece, even before reading the score, and thought, “Wow, we need to perform this music.”

I remember closing my eyes and listening to this music, and I could feel my heartbeat following the path of the piece exactly. It takes you on a beautiful journey through its rhythm and into the intimacy of your being. I would love for people to have that same experience.

I understand the weather added to the complexity of recording the piece.

It was around 50 degrees, the coldest any of us have ever been performing at the Bowl. It was a huge challenge, and this music is already so difficult when you’re spending 15 minutes on one beat and can barely hear one another.

Despite how challenging the shoot was, I was so impressed when I heard the recording, which is amazing. It shows the desire of each member of the orchestra to play with excellence, with a love of what they do, and to be connected with our audience. That desire has to be strong because sometimes you ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” But when you challenge yourself, this is what can happen—something beautiful.

Listen Up

A Playlist by John Adams

Composer John Adams has been the LA Phil’s Creative Chair for more than a decade, but the orchestra has been performing his work for much longer. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the LA Phil partnered with radio station KUSC to continue reaching audiences with the At Home series. Musical luminaries, including Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and John Adams, joined co-host Brian Lauritzen to share the music that was important to them during the first few months of quarantine. This playlist comprises both Adams’ selections for the KUSC series and pieces by Adams that were commissioned by the LA Phil, including El Niño and The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

  • Gustavo asks John Adams about the origins of Grand Pianola Music.

  • Composer John Adams ponders his answer.

  • Recording the socially distanced interview between Gustavo Dudamel and John Adams.

  • The LA Phil's latest trumpeter, Jeffrey Strong, plays his part.

  • Overview of the orchestra setup for Grand Pianola Music.

  • Gustavo Dudamel leads the orchestra in Grand Pianola Music.

  • Usually on piccolo, Sarah Jackson helps out on flute.

  • Resident Fellow Wesley Sumpter here handles the tambourine and sundry percussion.

  • The Bowl is lighted in the spirit of Grand Pianola Music.

  • Associate Principal Trumpet James Wilt brings in the high brass.

  • Elissa Johnston (center) sings the second soprano part with Sarah Jackson (left) on piccolo and Gregory Roosa (right) on horn.

Family Activity

Explore the musical world of John Adams

Activity 1, Connect the Dots: In his interview with Gustavo Dudamel, John Adams describes a dream that inspired Grand Pianola Music. Connect the dots to recreate the scene from his dream.

Download activity here

Activity 2, What is Minimalism?: Learn about the elements of minimalist music in this word search activity, then see if you can hear them in John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music.

Download activity here

Share your creations with your friends, family, and us! With the help of an adult, email a photo of your work to or tag us at @laphil on Instagram.

About LA Phil Learning Programs - The LA Phil is committed to learning alongside our community, and to enabling and supporting the next generation of musicians, whether they’re picking up an instrument for the first time or penning their own compositions. Learn more here.

  • Credits

    An LA Phil Media Production LA Phil Media is supported by the David C. Bohnett Discovery and Innovation Fund

    Gustavo Dudamel Music & Artistic Director

    Directed by Alberto Arvelo and Camila Martins FEATURING John Adams, special guest Deborah O’Grady, visuals Joanne Pearce Martin, piano Vicky Ray, piano Elissa Johnston, soprano Holly Sedillos, soprano Kristen Toedtman, mezzo-soprano


    Support for this episode is provided by the Frank Gehry Fund for Creativity

    SOUND DESIGN Audio Producers: Dmitriy Lipay, Alexander Lipay Recording and Mastering Engineers: Dmitriy Lipay, Alexander Lipay LIGHTING DESIGN Robin Gray Tyler Lambert-Perkins Academy Lighting Consultants

    IATSE LOCAL 33 Kevin Brown, Master Carpenter Andy Kassan, Master Electrician Donald Quick, Property Master Michael Sheppard, Master Audio-Visual/Union Steward Kevin Wapner, Assistant Audio-Visual The stage crew is represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators of the United States and Canada, Local 33

    CANNONBALL PRODUCTIONS Directors: Alberto Arvelo & Camila Martins Executive Producer: Andrea Struble Producer: Caroline Olivera Phelan Production Supervisor: Nick Batchelder Commercial Coordinator: Marla Ovledo Director of Photography: Andrew Shankweiler POST-PRODUCTION Editor: Jarrah Gurrie Sound Mix: Yu-Ting Su Color Correction: Nice Shoes Post Maria Carretero Sal Mafitano Producer: Katie Hinsen WEBSITE ToyFight