At 31, Samuel Adams belongs to a generation thoroughly immersed in the digital world. Electronic sounds, which he can easily create on a laptop computer, are as much a part of his compositional toolbox as those made by a violin or a tuba.
In many words of love, Adams continues to experiment with adding electronic sounds to the traditional orchestral palette. A CSO commission, the 20-minute piece inspired by Franz Schubert’s song Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) will have its world premiere March 16 with Music Director Riccardo Muti conducting the orchestra. The program also features the overture to Rossini’s early comic opera La scala di seta, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Mitsuko Uchida and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. The concert will be repeated March 18-19 and March 21 at Symphony Center as well as March 17 at Wheaton College’s Edman Chapel, as part of the CSO at Wheaton series.
In one sense, every composer and musician, beginning with the first human to bang on something resembling a drum eons ago, could be called a sound designer. But the term has a very specific meaning for Adams, the CSO’s Mead co-composer in residence.
“Sound design implies manipulating and altering sound with electronic equipment in real time,” he said. Sometimes the process is as simple as adding pre-recorded tracks to a live orchestral or chamber performance, as composer Steve Reich does in one of his most popular works, Different Trains. Written for string quartet, it includes the voices of Holocaust survivors and train conductors that emerge periodically while the quartet plays. To add a pre-recorded track to the instrumental mix, Adams said, it’s sometimes just a matter of ‘”just [hitting] the space bar” on a keyboard.
His approach to sound design is more complicated. In some of his works, he sits offstage with a computer and adjusts the electronic elements as the live performance unfolds. In many words of love, the electronic sounds will come from very small speakers attached to two snare drums in the orchestra’s percussion section.
“It’s a completely different way of creating a hybrid between the acoustic and the digital,” Adams said. “I’m taking digital sound and putting it through acoustic resonating membranes. I put the most simple electronic tones, which are called sine tones, into the resonating body of the drum. It creates this really beautiful, quiet buzz that activates the snares on the bottom of the drums. It’s never loud, but it creates a really wonderful, almost atmospheric sound that has a certain acoustic unpredictability. The performers, first and foremost, are in charge of altering the sound design, so I can actually sit back and just listen to the piece.”
The effect is subtle, but he wants the electronic element in many words of love to be as flexible and expressive as the music created in live performances, which virtually always change from night to night. Notes written on a page can be played in a wide range of intricately shaded ways.
“For me, that’s really what makes or breaks the use of an electronic component in a piece of orchestral music — whether you can incorporate digital sound in an acoustic way,” Adams said. “What I really don’t want is for the focus to be on the electronic, the new voice in the orchestra.
“You have 80 musicians onstage making decisions in real time that are informed by hundreds of thousands of cumulative hours of practice and experience. Then to suddenly have the conversation directed to a speaker on a snare drum, that kind of renders their brilliance and profile as an ensemble, perhaps, obsolete. Ultimately, it’s about performance, about humans. Performances where the electronic element kind of takes over, I find to be disquieting and unappealing.”
Adams, who joined the CSO in 2015 and co-curates its contemporary series MusicNOW, had the orchestra’s sound in his ear as he wrote many words of love. ”This sounds so silly” he said with a sheepish laugh, “but I wanted to write a lot of big, brass sounds. I also have gotten to know the two percussionists very well [principal Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos] through my work with Music NOW. I got to know what instruments they like to play, what instruments excite them.”
Many words of love uses the same instrumentation as Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, with the exception of replacing a single timpanist for two percussionists playing an array of instruments. Its single-movement structure also echoes the custom of performing Schumann’s symphony with no pauses between its four movements. Adams describes his new work as a three-part, inverted arc. “It starts with an incredibly busy and dense two minutes of music that kind of disintegrates and then rebuilds in the third part,” he said. “In the middle, it arrives at total silence.”
Adams based many words of love on a single harmonic fragment from Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum. The song comes from the composer’s somber song cycle, Winterreise (Winter’s Journey), which chronicles the despair of a young man unhappy in love. But Adams had something more cosmic in mind than a shattered love affair. In the text of the Wilhelm Mueller poem that Schubert set to music, the young wanderer carved “many a word of love” on the linden tree’s trunk during happier days. In the song, he re-encounters those words again but cannot accept the peace they once offered.
“The phrase many words of love may suggest romantic love, but the source really has to do with the Wanderer re-encountering the words he had carved,” Adams said. “To me, this is a pretty incredible allegory for what’s happening to the environment. What I’m trying to do sonically is amplify the sound of Schubert’s Wanderer inscribing many words of love into the tree. I think ultimately it’s an optimistic work, or at least I’m trying to find optimism in the music.”
One thing Adams is optimistic about is the ability of a symphony orchestra to speak directly to an audience.
“Witnessing 80, 90, 100 musicians onstage doing a live performance, it’s amazing,” he said. “When I think about the most profoundly moving experiences of my life, nine out of 10 times they include experiencing the sound created by a large group of musicians committed to communicating something.”
Wynne Delacoma, former classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, is an arts journalist and lecturer.
TOP: Samuel Adams at the soundboard during a MusicNOW concert last season. | Todd Rosenberg Photography