An interview with Juilliard School's, Samuel Adler / Composers' Corner Volume XXVI - Part 1

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Part 1

with Brett Abigaña & Samuel Adler
I remember walking into Sam’s studio at Juilliard for my first lesson. I was terrified! There was little in the room besides a desk, a piano, and two chairs. I nervously sat down at the piano (knowing that I am, at best, an inept pianist), and Sam sat next to me. He asked what I wanted to do, compositionally, and I hesitantly replied that I was interested in movie music (ah, youth!). He smiled gently and said that at this point, “all [you] should want to do is to be a composer.” He gave me my very first composition assignment: write 20 melodies, each with a different character, using only 3 intervals each. And then we launched into what would be the first of our weekly conversations about music, composition, and life, and an hour later, I left that spartan room invigorated, inspired, and eager to sit down and write. Sam has that effect on his students to this day, and I found myself similarly charged after I spoke to him on the phone recently. At the age of 91, he shows no signs of slowing down, and I found myself once again the eager student, hanging on every word.

BA - What advice can you give young composers as they embark on their careers?

SA - I get the New York Times every day. And the only things that people review are concerts by the New York Philharmonic or something like that, and if it’s new music, there has to be some gimmick. It can’t be just music; it has to have a gimmick. For example, “I get my inspiration from Pakistani drumming.” OK, that’s very good, but how do you relate to that? Do you know what that means? There’s not one influence by music of the past. It’s all folk music, and nature. Well, I think that’s OK: after all Beethoven wrote a pastoral symphony, in which there are bird calls and such. I guess that makes it legitimate.

BA - Do you think that’s a continuing trend in younger composers?

SA - Well, it seems to be. I don’t think everyone is like that. But the trend is toward something that’s not in the concert hall, that is something isolating that kind of music from all others. And that’s not good. Because I think music has a continuity, and that’s what’s so great about it. I mean, why do people demand certain pieces? Because those pieces have a shelf-life. I don’t want to hear the 5th Symphony of Beethoven for the next 10 weeks, but every time I hear it, I’m reminded of how great it is and why people love it. And I’m not just talking about Beethoven: I’m talking about Bartok, Ligeti, and everything that’s lasted out of the 20th century — there hasn’t been that much — but certain things have lasted, and continue to get played. I’ve been very lucky that certain things of mine continue to get played. It’s interesting: if you just write something for the moment, I think that’s what’s wrong. Just to satisfy the novelty of the moment. I think that’s the wrong way to go, and I don’t think any of the masters of the past or the present are doing that. Look at somebody like George Crumb, who certainly has a unique voice. But he’s not using the same gimmicks as he did with Black Angels. That’s a one-time thing! He experimented, it sounds great, and it’s found its place in the repertoire, but he’s not doing the same thing over and over again. And he’s still keeping his voice! And that’s, I think, what a great composer of the present and the past has done. Look at a great American composer like Aaron Copland. Well, even when he wrote 12-tone music, it sounded like Aaron Copland with some wrong notes. I don’t think those are his best pieces, but they still have his stamp on them.

BA - That’s interesting that you bring that up. Do you think when a composer finds his/herself relying on similar techniques and trademarks, if you will, that it’s just them using their established voice, or is it a sign of a kind of self-plagiarism?

SA - Look here. If you look at the past, and take a composer like Schumann, who I consider a great composer, or Brahms, I mean, why is it you can always tell a piece by Brahms? Because he does not the same, but similar gestures. It’s also because you know so many pieces by Brahms or Schumann that you can tell the style. I think we’re in the same position: if you write more than one piece in a year or in five years, you’re bound to use the same kinds of gestures — not the exact same, but the same kind, as a kind of signature. Otherwise, nobody would have a style. Take a composer like Hindemith. I hear one minute of music of Hindemith, and I know it’s Hindemith. Do you think he worried that they sound similar? Look how many sonatas he wrote, and every one of them have the characteristic of Hindemith. I don’t think that’s bad. I mean, if you don’t like Hindemith, then they’re all bad! But the Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes of Carl Maria von Weber sounds very different from Mathis der Maler, and they have some of the same characteristics. If every piece sounds totally different, that’s the sign of an uneasy composer. They’re uneasy with themselves.

BA - Do you think that’s a byproduct of today’s society constantly needing something new?

SA - I think you’ve hit it correctly. It’s because we’re so interested in novelty. That’s the most important thing today: “how novel can you get?” And I think that’s sort of defeating your own inner self.

BA - OK, I have a question that I've been meaning to ask you for almost twenty years, and I promise I won’t publish this one if you don’t want me to.

SA - Go ahead!

BA - Alright then. I remember what I submitted for my application to Juilliard all those years ago. Most of it was in an 18th-century style, and honestly, it was pretty awful stuff. I had absolutely no idea about contemporary music, and clearly didn’t know what I was doing. So my question is simple: why did you take me as a student?

SA - That’s a very good question. In the first place, you also had a personal interview, right? Everybody had to vote on every student. It wasn’t just me. If we saw real musicality in the music they sent, it didn’t need to be in a 20th century style, but rather showed some musical ability, and if there was a good personal feeling when we met you, that’s why we would take you. That was the criteria. It was musicality, rather than style. You might think those pieces were awful, but they showed some musical ability, and in the interview, you showed some possibility of doing something with a student. Of course, this is for freshmen, not for graduate students. For freshmen, there has to be potential for growth, not just existing ability. And I think one has to be careful not to pass judgement on a young person with a narrow focus. If you say, “Well, he doesn’t know the works of Ligeti, and doesn’t write like Mauricio Kagel, so therefore we won’t take him,” well, I don’t think if you go back to Mozart’s time, that even he would have gotten in, because he was writing like everyone else. We have a very different criteria now. In past centuries, they didn’t really have a knowledge of baroque or medieval music. But we have all of this music now, so what’s a composer supposed to write like?

So therefore, when you look at student works, you have to look at what kind of musicality will come out of that student, and that to me was always the most important thing. Do they have musicality, or is it just something they heard in a pop tune? I mean, if you see a person that has no musical background, then Juilliard, or Eastman, or BU is not a good place for them, because you’ll have to waste time teaching them how to sing a fifth. I’ve written a book on sight-singing, and the reason it’s used is that it can be used for any style because it’s about singing intervals. If a person can’t sing an interval, they shouldn’t be in music school. So that’s my answer to your question, and you can publish it if you like, because I think that is the criteria that should be used for admission to music schools. After music school, they can write what they want, of course. Look, when Steve Reich went to Cornell, he was writing pieces that sounded like early Clementi. He changed.

BA - Yeah, just a little bit!

SA - But it showed musicianship! He played Clementi sonatinas, like I do. Talk about doing the same thing in every piece! Clementi does! It all works, it’s very good, but of course he was a good composer, and that’s what people did in those days.
Samuel Adler Stay tuned for the next edition of Composers’ Corner, when we’ll hear more from my interview with Samuel Adler! You can learn more about Samuel Adler and his music at, and by reading his recently published autobiography Building Bridges with Music, which is available on Amazon, here.
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