I had the absolute pleasure of talking to Samuel Carl Adams a while back. He really has been quite busy with several sides of his own work, being an experienced musician himself (he plays jazz bass), composing pieces for chamber duos like TwoSense and for electric acts like The Living Earth Show as well as conducting the premiere of a work by fellow composer Fay Wang, and something even more spectacular…
Even though this interview was conducted back in the summer, as fate would have it, the work that had made a regional premiere on the West Coast this past September 28th with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony titled “Drift and Providence” was still yet to be heard by most (save for the audience in Miami where the piece made its world debut back in April), and it was almost a mere footnote in our discussion, but Sam was nice enough to send me a recording of the Miami premiere, and having heard it, I can say for sure it is a magnificent work for orchestra. Sam says that he has since made some small revisions to the piece, but even in this early version it is a very brooding and intensely dynamic piece that never opts for lushness, one that is certain to be compared to and counted among benchmarks of orchestral music.
I couldn’t get his more recent thoughts on the West Coast premiere (Read a review of it here by Anthony Tomassini–Orchestra and Laptop on a Voyage of Discovery; NYTimes, 9/30/12), but we had a great discussion here about his work and his thoughts about people’s treatment towards his situation as the son of another composer you may know by the name of John Adams.
BTW, at one point during our discussion, he asked about my Hilary Hahn poster on the wall (It’s a framed promotional poster for the Schoenberg CD), and because he said “Is that Hilary Hahn behind you?”, my gut reaction was to turn around swiftly. I could only dream of such a break in.
CM: I want to ask about the “Tension Studies” for The Living Earth Show. This is a more ambient side of you, and it has an instrumentation of guitar, vibraphone and percussion.
Samuel: It’s another side of me, but it’s also just another side of music. Those guys who commissioned it, The Living Earth Show, they would call themselves a post-classical ensemble, and both of those guys have strong roots in thrash metal and all kinds of crazy stuff–they just happen to be good at classical music as well. They revere Bach, Steve Vai and NOFX sort of equally. So writing for them was a really interesting process, because those two instruments–electric guitar and percussion, have very short histories in the world of classical music, so, in a way, it’s kind of a liberating thing, because you don’t feel this burden on you.
The other thing about these guys is that they work really well with electronics. Travis, who’s the guitarist, knows so much about these very complex programs. It was a completely different experience working with them, because other parts of my musical past were channeled into this process, very different than the things that were channeled into the Piano Trio or something like that. A lot of my experience working with electronics and working with live manipulated sound came out in this piece. So, yeah, it really is a different side of me.
CM: Was it your idea to have the aerialist for Tension Study #2?
Samuel: No, it was not my idea at all, but that was really interesting because it’s the 3rd time that my music has been used for some kind of choreography, and I don’t have a mind for dance, I don’t really know that much about it. That was really just Andy and Travis, they had just done their first season of programming, and they really liked the 2 pieces I wrote for them, and they were participating in what’s called The 100 Days of Spring, which was a project in San Francisco for 100 days straight from Feb to whenever, and they would do some kind of experimental project in downtown San Francisco.
Tension Study #2 (Living Earth Show featuring Deanna Hammond, aerialist)
They were given the opportunity to collaborate for one or two days with a local artist, and Deanna Hammond is an aerialist that they had gotten pretty close with, and she choreographed the 2 pieces. It was a pretty interesting experience for me because I went to the concert not knowing what to expect at all, and I think in a weird way, it kind of works. They really are controlling a certain aesthetic, visually speaking, that I don’t really have any control over, but that’s not really my job, my job is to make the music. So yeah, that was very interesting, but not my idea.
CM: Please talk about the Piano Trio you composed for TwoSense. The Piano Trio is a wonderful piece–It has such a wonderful dialogue between the string instruments, and there’s this incredible thing where you got them singing the same tone. And this piece is also representative of a chamber music side of you, so this is another example of your diversity.
[Pictured left, Samuel Carl Adams with TwoSense and Karen Bentley Pollick for the world premiere of his Piano Trio; Photo courtesy of Bonnie Wright]
Samuel: Whenever I write a project, I really enjoy writing for people rather than for specific instrumentation. I try to write for the players. Generally speaking, a lot of times these players are my close friends and acquaintances, and I can write to their strengths, and I have a lot of different types of friends in many different fields, which means that if I’m writing to their strengths, then naturally the music is going to be very diverse. Writing that piece was a challenge. I didn’t really know what I was going to do when I was asked to write for piano trio. I didn’t have a really clear idea in mind of how I wanted to structure it. For me, the piano trio is a really strange ensemble, because it doesn’t always work for me, it’s not always totally satisfying.
Listening to Beethoven and Brahms and other classic trio pieces, they’re great pieces, but they feel instrumentally like they want one more player, so that they’re turning into a piano quartet or a piano quintet, but then again it could also go in the other direction and sometimes I feel like I’m writing a piano or a violin sonata, it’s just that the non-piano player happens to be two instrument roles rather than one–It’s this really difficult form to write in because it’s in-between chamber music and more soloistic music, so the way that I approached the writing for the piece was actually treating Ashley (cello) and Karen (violin) as one instrument. That’s why a lot of the time they’re playing in unison, and they’re playing in octaves, and playing the same tones together slightly off, so, I kind of imagined them as a hybrid instrument.
That’s one approach, but the other way I was thinking about it was when you have such a small group of players, it can also feature them. Each of them have their own soloistic points.
CM: The way that you wrote it was so cool. At the Bargemusic concert, I couldn’t tell which parts were Ashley’s and which were Karen’s. Sometimes the cello and the violin trade off, and you don’t know which one you’re hearing when you hear them all together.
Samuel: Yeah, I know, that’s definitely part of the process, that was one of my goals. I just love writing high parts for the cello–Ashley is such a brilliant player, and she loves doing that stuff. She eats that stuff for breakfast!
Samuel: It’s such a tendency of mine to write up there, I love it!
Piano Trio (Ashley Bathgate, cello; Lisa Moore, piano; Karen Bentley Pollick, violin; Bargemusic, NY; 6/20/12)
CM: You also have that ending that just comes out of left field! Like it was the end of another piece!
Samuel: Yes! That’s kind of the idea! Sometimes when I listen to classical pieces from the 1700s or 1800s, the codas sound like they’re out of left field, and when I was writing this piece and thinking of classical forms, I wanted to kind of augment everything and make that feeling of “Oh, that really came from left field” as augmented and extreme as possible, so you’re quite right that it totally does come from left field!
CM: Do people still come to you and say anything referring to the fact that you are John Adams’ son (i.e. “Are you really his son?”, “I love his work, is your stuff like his?”, etc.), asking crazy questions or do most people simply know better and know you are your own artist?
Samuel: Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. I always like when people ask me about it, because I think it’s an interesting thing, because in many ways, there’s a lot of similarities–We both write music for live ensembles and we’re both American composers, but things are very different between us in the way that our music functions and the way it sounds. People do ask me occasionally about it.
CM: Well, by now, I feel that I know who you are, and I’ve never met your father–I love his Violin Concerto, and I’ve heard Nixon In China and Road Movies…
Samuel: All great pieces! Well, I think that people need to make their own judgments, and if they can at least see me as connected to him, then I’ll most likely disappoint them, because my music isn’t exactly like his and there might be that expectation with some people, but there also might be that expectation that my music is NOTHING like is, and they will also be disappointed because he does have a huge influence on my music, and there are absolutely elements of his that show up in my music. It is interesting that it comes up.
CM: I feel like I’m more familiar with you than him as an artist, and I have a better idea of your output. I don’t necessarily think that you need to be like him or not like him. You have your own identity.
Samuel: Yeah, I know that’s interesting. There are lots of other young composers in similar positions that are doing really interesting things like Tyondai Braxton and Gyan Riley.
People are often surprised to hear that I only started writing music late in college, and I never really studied with my father–I obviously learned a lot from him, but my musical upbringing was so much different from his. When I was in his house, we were doing such different things–I was playing piano, taught myself how to play bass and I’ve played a lot of jazz.
Tension Study #1 (John Corkill, Ian Rosenbaum, percussion; Max Zuckerman, guitar; 2012)
CM: There’s also a piece that you did for orchestra?
Samuel: Yes, “Drift and Providence” is a piece I wrote for the New World Symphony. That was the biggest project I’ve ever done, and it was awesome! I’m not able to share that online because of the recording rights with the organization, but I did some small revisions to that piece, and it’s now going to be done by the San Francisco Symphony in the Fall, which is really exciting, and it’s going to be done in New York in March of 2013.
I’m also about to write a piece for ACJW, which is the Academy for Carnegie, Juilliard and Weill, and that’s going to premiere in late October.