Ahead of the first MusicNOW concert of the season on Nov. 23, the CSO’s Mead Composers-in-Residence, Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, sat for an interview with CSO program annotator Phillip Huscher. Up first, Adams (with Ogonek to follow in a few weeks), who explains what makes him tick as a musician and how it feels to have been chosen for this position by CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti.
What role did music play in your childhood?
I grew up in Berkeley, Calif., which is a wonderful place to be a young musician. I attended the Crowden School, a kind of educational “start-up” that, at the time, was a mere 30 students. The director, Anne Crowden, was a fierce, take-no-prisoners iconoclast. She left Scotland to teach music to young students and produced some of the country’s best young musicians. During that time, I studied piano and performed recitals of traditional repertoire — Bach, Beethoven, Debussy. I was also very interested in improvisation and began to play jazz bass when I was about 12. With the exception of a couple of digressions, I continued both of these activities all the way up through college.
All that said, I was also a kid of the ’90s and regularly attended rock concerts and made several attempts to start a band.
What was your first musical memory?
I cannot recall my first musical memory, but I can recall the first time I was deeply moved by music. I was about 7 years old. I attended a performance of a multimedia work by my now close friend Ingram Marshall called Alcatraz. It’s a dreamy, ambient work set to images of the famous San Francisco penitentiary by the American photographer Jim Bengston. I remember being utterly transfixed by this strange and beautiful ode to a familiar place. Ingram’s music continues to influence me.
What were important artistic and creative discoveries for you?
I understand that I run the risk of sounding clichéd, but every new piece I create is an important discovery, particularly once the music is in the hands of the performers. There is always so, so much to be learned when someone else becomes responsible for communicating your ideas to a listener.
Was there a composer or single work of music that changed everything for you?
Back in high school, a couple of my friends and I were listening in a car to Oscar Peterson’s masterwork album “Night Train” (1963). There’s a moment about halfway through “Moten Swing” when Ed Thigpen’s ride cymbal, which had been excited for the two minutes prior, fades out at the precise time that the music shifts in harmony. This seems like such an obvious and silly thing to point out now. Still, I found, encapsulated in this little event, everything one could express about musical form, orchestration, acoustics and human attention — and with such simplicity.
I also find myself continually coming back to Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, Op. 163, and Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich.
Are there other art forms to which you’re particularly attracted?
My mother is a photographer and my sister a painter. Because of them, I grew up attending a lot of galleries and listening to them discuss their own work. I also love contemporary dance. I’ve recently become very close friends with the San Francisco Bay area choreographer Robert Dekkers, and we’ve started to make pieces together. It’s been something of a revelation. Composing music can be such a hermetic and myopic activity, so it’s always refreshing to hear an artist working in another medium speak about my music (or any music, for that matter). I’ve learned a lot from Robert and his dancers.
How did it feel to be selected for this CSO post by Riccardo Muti?
Surprising. There is no shortage of inventive and exciting young composers these days, so getting the nod from Muti is a complete honor.
TOP: Samuel Adams mingles with concertgoers after a MusicNOW performance in March. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015