An interview with Juilliard School's, Samuel Adler / Composers' Corner Volume XXVI - Part 2

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Part 2

with Brett Abigaña & Samuel Adler
I was privileged to study with Samuel Adler for four years, and to this day whenever I sit down to write, I can hear his voice in the back of my head, suggesting the use of a rest to jump-start a phrase, or encouraging more counterpoint and fewer chords. A student of Herbert Fromm, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, Paul Hindemith, and Aaron Copland, he has taught close to 800 students at The University of North Texas, The Eastman School of Music, The Juilliard School, and many other institutions around the world. Recently retired (for the third time!), he still maintains a frighteningly busy compositional schedule, and recently took the time to speak to me about music, young composers, and his process.

BA - You’ve seen so much of the history of American music, and you’ve seen how it has changed. Where do you think it’s going and how will it change in the future?

SA - You know, in the late 1970s I wrote an article for Musical America in which I was asked to discuss the music of the future, and I said it was going to get more complex and more completely organized, and very dense. And I was 200% wrong. The only thing I can say is that we’re training some very good composers who are writing some very interesting music. I’m a little worried that there are too many gimmicks. Of course, there has to always be an avant- garde, and there always will be. And of course, today, there’s also an avant-avant-garde, where they don’t even use tones anymore! But some of that rubs off into the mainstream, and there’s always a mainstream, too. That’s the way I’m thinking of the music of the future. One shouldn’t predict, but one should look at the present and see if those trends continue.

BA - I remember Milton Babbitt once telling me, “Sam can write a string quartet before breakfast.”

SA - Well, that’s not true.

BA - I wonder if you can talk a little about your composition process or regimen, and how it might have changed. In short, how do you do that?

SA - Well, it hasn’t changed. Milton was always very nice. I don’t think two people could be closer friends, and I don’t think two people could write more disparate music. Everyone thought about that, and everyone commented on it. But the thing is this. Before I put down a note, I have to have the thing in my mind. Not every note, but I don’t do anything until I can sit down and sketch the piece. And then I concentrate and work every day, especially now that I have time. I used to be able to work for eight hours a day, but today, I think three hours is enough. I concentrate every day until the piece is down. That is, not finished, but all the notes are down. Then I go back and rewrite whatever needs to be fixed, and after that, it’s finished. That’s my process, and it always has been. I sketch a lot. I very rarely start a piece without having an idea down. And the most important part of the project is thinking of the person or group that I’m writing for. I never write for a person I’ve never heard, because the personality of the person orgroup that I’m writing for determines the kind of piece I’m going to write. Does that make sense?

BA - Absolutely!

SA - Because that comes from a lesson I think I told you once that Hindemith taught me. I told him I had writers block, and you know, he didn’t believe in that. “You don’t have writers block. Just write! That’s it!” Talk about before breakfast, that guy COULD write a string quartet before breakfast! And when I came to him begging him to excuse my not bringing him a piece, he taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten. He says, “The phone rings and it’s Jascha Heifetz, and he says, ‘Sam, I want you to write a sonata for me for next week when I’m playing in Carnegie Hall.’ You could say, ‘I’m sorry Mr. Heifetz, I have writers block, I can’t do it’ and he’ll call somebody else. Or you could say, ‘Of course I can!’ You say that, and then you think. You know what he looks like, you know how he plays. Picture him onstage in Carnegie Hall. What’s the first thing you want to hear come out of his violin? Write that down. What’s another thing you want to come out of his violin? Write that down too. And in an hour, you have a piece.” And I’ve never forgotten that. I try to picture the group. When I write for an orchestra, I know what that orchestra sounds like, because I’ve listened to them. The way they play Mahler is the way I want them to play my piece. I mean, I can’t write a piece like Mahler, but I’ll write a piece like myself seeming like Mahler. And here’s the other thing. The reason that I think I can’t write a piece like Mahler is that I haven’t had the same life experience as Mahler. I didn’t live at the same time he did. I think the composer has to feel the energy of their own time in order to write a piece. Mahler was of his time, which is why he wrote the way he did. The other composers who didn’t write like that, we don’t hear about anymore. You know, I’ve been dealing with an orchestra in Europe who recently recorded a 3-CD set of my music. And that orchestra has an artistic director that finds composers that are famous for one piece, like Hérold, who wrote Zampa. Everybody plays the Zampa Overture. Well he found that Hérold also wrote four symphonies, so that orchestra recorded the symphonies of Hérold. Or Nikolai, who wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor, who also wrote a few hundred concerti, or something. And I learned from him that there are these composers who break through with one piece, and have written other things in that same style. But because that style was already old-fashioned, it didn’t make it anymore. It’s interesting to look at music history in that way.

BA - It certainly is! I wonder, do you have any words of wisdom for a young composer who, like me a long time ago, may not have access to a composition teacher, but has a love and a passion to do this with their lives? What might you tell that young composer? What do they need to be doing?

SA - I would say two things. One: play as much music on your instrument, in as many styles of the past and present as you can. You have to play an instrument! If you play the euphonium, try to get music either transcribed for it or written for the euphonium (which is a lot, now). If you’re lucky enough to be a pianist, you have all this literature you can choose from. Play as much as possible. Two: get scores and listen to a lot of music with the score, and try to figure out what the composer is doing. And many times (and this is not done enough), imitate what the composer is doing. You can learn more from imitation than anything else. Look, you go into any gallery or museum, and you see art students copying masterpieces. We never do that in music, I’m afraid. And I think we should encourage young composers to listen to a lot of music with a score, and find out if you can approximate a little bit of that. Those are the two things I would tell young composers to do to prepare themselves for a real professional compositional life. If I hadn’t played violin very seriously when I was a kid and into my twenties — I played in orchestras, I played chamber music, and had my own string quartet — I wouldn’t have gotten the exposure to all this fantastic music. And the same thing with studying scores. I had eight friends, and we all had to work because we grew up poor, and we always got together every week and gave a dollar and bought an LP, mostly of American music. Because in those days, Howard Hanson put out all of these American records, on Mercury, and we bought it, and we got the score, and we would listen to the Harris 3rd Symphony two hundred times, until we knew it by heart, and then we would write a piece like it. That’s the way you learn.

BA - I tell my students that all the time!

SA - And it’s so much easier now to get scores! You have things like Spotify, and even now, publishers will put the scores online for you to see. Almost all of my scores are online. So there’s no excuse for a young composer not to be prepared.

BA - I absolutely agree. Now the other half of that question is what would you tell teacher of that young composer? I ask because there are a lot of young composers out there who were like me, and never had a composition lesson prior to college. The closest thing I had to a composition teacher was my dad, who was my high music teacher.

SA - Well that’s fine! I would say don’t force your own prejudice on them, as far as style is concerned. Judge them for what they’re doing. Lead them, rather than force them. Do you know the difference? Instead of saying, “Don’t do that,” maybe say, “You can do that a little bit differently.” You know, like the way we worked together. Tell them why a note or a passage doesn’t fit. It’s like conducting. When you’re conducting, if you stop the orchestra and say, “That was terrible! Do it again!” What’s terrible? Why do it again? Instead, you say, “That was out of tune, or that wasn’t together, or we should do it this way.” Tell them something specific! And the same thing in teaching composition negatively. Don’t say, “You idiot, why did you do that!?” That’s the worst thing you can do, to discourage anybody. The best thing you can do is to say, “Look, this can be done this way.” Say, “Listen what happens if you make that an Eb instead of an F. Look what that will do.” Really do the nitty-gritty with a student. Let them see that you think they’re doing great things, except it can be done a little differently and sound better. If they want to follow my suggestion, that’s fine, and if they want to do it their own way, then great, it’s their piece! But the suggestions you give a student come from experience. I think a teacher should not teach until he or she has had real experiences with music. There are too many teachers who don’t know enough about music.
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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