Short Ride featured image

Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams – Music education animation

The Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation is a music education tool that visually explains the internal workings of John Adams’ minimalist orchestral composition. It is designed to be cued from a laptop computer so that it can be synchronised to the music during a live concert performance.

London Symphony Orchestra logo - close crop

Client: www icon London Symphony Orchestra
Skills: Animator, Director, Concept research and design, Music analysis
Software: Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop, LightWave 3D, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Premiere Pro

Separater bar graphic

Animation trailer

Separater bar graphic


  1. Project background
  2. Music education details
  3. Animation inspiration
  4. Film icon Watch the full length animation

Separater bar graphic

Project background

What is it?

The animation was created for use in live orchestral performance to guide the audience through the music, taking them on a deeper journey into the understanding of the complexities of the piece.

The design of the animation’s content has been carefully created to follow the rhythms and structure of the music, ensuring that it adds to the listening experience and does not detract from it.

Who is it for?

The animation was commissioned by the www icon London Symphony Orchestra for Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11) education and Family Concert audiences. It has subsequently been hired for concert performance by a number of orchestras around the world.

Imagery from the animation was used to illustrate a www icon BBC Proms concert programme.

Short Ride in performance and featured in BBC Proms programme

The Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation in performance (left) and used to illustrate a BBC Proms concert programme (right)

How does it work?

The Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation is played back from a laptop computer connected to a projector. The projector will typically beam the image onto a large screen positioned over the centre of the orchestra.

The laptop operator is responsible for following the orchestral score and cueing the animation to keep it synchronised to the live music performance.

Back to contents ^

Separater bar graphic

Music education details

I collaborated with world-leading classical music Animateur www icon Paul Rissmann to analyse the composition and to establish the educational concepts to include in the animation,

We felt that it was important to focus on a limited number of elements to maximise its educational value and to ensure that the animation did not overwhelm the audience with too much visual information.

The three music education areas that the animation focuses on are: pulse, ostinato and rhythm.

Pulse & Ostinato

John Adams’ composition contains a strong underlying driving force of forward movement and energy. This is created by the wood block’s insistent pulse (a series of repeating and identical beats), combined with an unrelenting ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm) performed by the clarinet and synthesiser. Together these instruments create the bedrock onto which the remaining members of the orchestra add a range of thrilling sound and colour.

Pulse and ostinato

The Sri Yantra represents the musical pulse (left) and the undulating digital waves represent the ostinato (right)

The musical pulse is represented in the animation by the beating heart motion of the ancient Indian Sri Yantra mandala. (Further details of the Sri Yantra can be found in the Animation inspiration section below.)

The continuous undulating digital waves seen in the background symbolise the ostinati. This imagery helps the listener to visualise the repetition and stamina required by the musicians who create this unifying foundation layer of the composition.


Short Ride in a Fast Machine consists of four distinct sections. The first three sections use different groups of instruments to create rhythmic patterns on top of the uninterrupted pulse and ostinato. The fourth section builds towards a triumphant finale.

The animation gives a visual representation of the key instruments used in each section of the composition.

Rhythmic Section 1

The first rhythmic section features three brass instruments. The repetitive patterns they create are introduced one by one and build to form the minimalist sound world that continues throughout the piece.

Structure breakdown - Trumpet, trombone and horn

Rhythmic section 1 – Trumpet, trombone and horn

The trumpet, horn and trombone are represented in the animation by the mechanical parts of each instrument that a player uses to change the instrument’s pitch.

Rhythmic Section 2

The rhythmic patterns in the second part are primarily created by the string section, in particular the violins, violas and cellos.

Structure breakdown - String instruments

Rhythmic section 2 – Violin, viola and cello

This is visualised in the animation by the cogs and pegs used to tune the strings of these instruments.

Rhythmic Section 3

The third section introduces the contrabassoon and tuba which combine with the trombone, cello and double bass to produce a deeper rhythmic sound. This new texture creates a sense that the music is building towards a dramatic climax.

Structure breakdown - Contrabassoon and tube

Rhythmic section 3 – Contrabassoon and tuba combined with trombone, cello and double bass

The tuba’s bell and the contrabassoon’s keys combine in the animation with imagery of the trombone and string instruments seen in the previous two sections.

Rhythmic Section 4

In the fourth and final section, a euphoric and triumphant theme is introduced.

The finale section machine

The finale section combines the component parts of the instruments to form the Fast Machine

The animation brings together all of the instruments parts featured in the previous three sections to create the Fast Machine of the composition’s title.

Back to contents ^

Separater bar graphic

Animation inspiration

The visual landscape of the Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation was informed and inspired by extensive research that I carried out prior the start of the main production work. Here are some of the key inspirations that made their way into the final animation.

Sri Yantra

At the time of researching ideas for the Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation, I was introduced to the beauty of ancient Indian symbolism by a friend who had just returned from an extensive trip to the country. I became fascinated by the Hindu Sri Yantra mandala and how it is said to represent the whole of existence.

Sri Yantra

Sri Yantra from Rajasthan, c. 1700 (left) and the version created for the Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation (right)

The downward pointing triangles represent the female and the upward pointing the male. The circle enclosing these triangles signifies the cycles of our existence and time. The lotus petals symbolise the unfolding of knowledge and the heart chakra – a centre of spiritual power in the human body. The square represents our physical world with each wall an opening – a portal into the Inner World. The dot in the centre represents the big bang, the point from which all creation originates.

Sri Yantra road

The Sri Yantra mandala taking its final journey in the Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation

I could imagine the Sri Yantra coming to life and representing the driving force and source of power for John Adams’ Fast Machine.

Close Encounters of the Orchestral Kind

When asked about title of the piece, John Adams said, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”

Whilst considering how an orchestra in performance is very much like a large machine with many moving parts, I was struck by the shape the musicians and their instruments create when viewed from above.

Symphony orchestra layout and Close Encounters mother ship

A symphony orchestra layout (left) and the Close Encounters of the Third Kind mother ship (right)

The shape reminded me of the mother ship from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The John Williams score plays a very significant role in the narrative of the film and was a huge influence on my love of orchestral music.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine mother ship

The Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation spaceship

It seemed an exciting proposition to create a spaceship influenced by the overall shape of the orchestra and made from the component parts of the orchestral instruments featured in the Short Ride in a Fast Machine composition.

Back to contents ^

Separater bar graphic

Full length animation

For further information on hiring the Short Ride in a Fast Machine animation for orchestral performance or to commission a new animation, please get in touch via my Contact Me page.

Performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra | Conducted by Marin Alsop | Naxos (Catalogue No: 8.559031)

Back to contents ^

Separater bar graphic