(Photo by Lenny Gonzalez)
TO THE SQUAWK OF SEAGULLS, the raised voices of passing tourists, and the low humming chug of craft on the harbour, Sydney’s having a rare day of sunshine, of warmth even, as Samuel Adams marks his second day in the country on a lightning visit taken up by rehearsals, as much media as he could fit in and, if he is lucky, lunch.
Still affable but clutching a coffee that is serving both medicinal and comforting purposes, the black T-shirt and jeans-clad composer, bassplayer, electronic experimenter, and scion of a musical family now that goes back at least two generations, is feeling the full effects of jetlag, which will probably disappear just as he heads back to the USA in a few days.
In fact, he’ll be home in San Francisco before a note is struck at the second of five Sydney performances of a new commission for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Echo Transcriptions, which is premiering as part of a program heading to Newcastle, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth called The American.
Hectic? You could say that. Full? There’s that. Noisy? Ah.
I tell him that earlier that day I had been talking with a musician who lives outside of a northern New South Wales town, as isolated as possible because she finds the noise – physical, emotional, and social – of modern living too much. Not for the 36-year-old Adams however. If you’re familiar with his work, not least the 2022 album Lyra, or if you are only now aware that Echo Transcriptions, a piece for electric violin and string ensemble, emerged from a period of relative isolation during Covid lockdowns in Nevada, on the fringes of urban and isolated America, you might suspect that for him noise and silence and space are equal partners.
“I’ve always been interested in how space influences how we listen. I had a teacher when I was in graduate school who expressed very early on, one of his axes to grind, that music theory, music history textbooks, did not speak enough on how space influences the music that is created for those specific spaces,” says Adams, whose wavy hair has strong shades of premature grey, though his beard is still golden brown. “Why, let’s say, with African drumming traditions, that perhaps that those are outdoor practices allows the polyrhythmic framework of the music to be at the forefront. Or why music created in the 14th or 15th centuries in Paris for large resonant spaces has a certain kind of harmonic and tonal quality that fits, let’s say, a decay of 15 seconds or whatnot.
“Taken that line of reasoning and applying it to the 21st century, what kind of spaces do we listen to music in now? Of course we go to the concert hall, but I would say primarily most of the music that we consume as contemporary listeners is in the car, on your headphones, on the radio, in a way that I think accounts for the amount of literal noise that exists in our lives. It’s why we have compression, it’s why with popular music there is this frequency spectrum way up high, 10,000Hz or beyond, where a lot of the musical information exists.”
With the coffee kicking in, Adams points out that you couldn’t say that about music prior to the Industrial Revolution, and he is very much working in 21st-century America.
“So I think, as a composer, about ways to create works that I think respond to this kind of contemporary listening predisposition and habits. I can very much hear it in this work as well, Echo Transcriptions, which is a work for acoustic strings, a string orchestra, but also has an electronic component in the violin and electric bass, as well as Moog synthesiser,” he says. “So you’ll hear that there very much is this exploration of a kind of – I don’t want to say a noisy texture so to speak, but there is quite a lot of this kind of contemporary, more compressed, high-frequency sound. It’s very much embedded in the overall sound quality of the work.”
Wishful thinking of solitude aside, the mix of organic and non-organic/electronic/machine is how we live our lives. As is unpredictability. In composing this piece, Adams left room for the ACO’s artistic director and principal violinist Richard Tognetti to extend or expand into new areas, or simply “Tognetti” the work.
“This piece does have an electronic component and I spent quite a lot of time thinking about sound design as a performer and a composer, but at the end of the day it is a piece of classical music in the sense that my job is to create a framework that allows for interpretation and for someone’s own musical sonic identity to be expressed,” explains Adams.
“So I have very clear suggestions for Richard Tognetti, in terms of how he might choose his soundscape, but just as if I were writing a piece for solo acoustic violin for him, there’s a certain point as a composer – maybe not for all composers, but certainly for me – where the best thing you could do is to step back and allow the performer to make the best informed judgements for themselves.”
(Photo by Lenny Gonzalez)
Why is he more comfortable with this? Could be in the “performing musician” part of his CV as much as the “composer”?
“For a couple of reasons. One is that my teachers, back in the day, were very much part of the ‘new complexity’ school … whose music is typified by such extreme specificity of notation, whether piece almost breaks down because the notation is so highly stylised and complicated that it’s most impossible to fully realise,” Adams says. “For me, this way of thinking did not resonate with my experience as an improvising musician, where what interests me is how to negotiate my intuition in musical contexts.
“I think, to answer your question more broadly, it’s maybe a rejection of some of my encounters with that kind of European modernism and it has to do with my experience as an intuitive performer playing jazz and more free improvising contexts.”
So where, as a composer, does he find and engage with that intersection of composition and intuitive/improvisation, of form and freedom?
“I think that’s the real question actually. I think it happens in a very oblique, mysterious ways to be honest with you. My compositional process involves a lot of recorded improvisation, and with this piece in particular the germinal materials came from just playing – literally playing the piano but also in a broader sense – completely intuitively in my studio having fun,” says Adams. “I think that there is some kind of critical point in the transcription of improvisations, in the close listening and analysis of my own improvisations, where a form becomes clear.”
Not that answers are necessarily more clear to him in retrospect.
“To be honest, I can’t tell you when that happens, how that happens, but that is the moment when a piece is born,” Adams says. ““I think when a piece is successful, if I can speak about my own work, is when there is that sense in the music of a structure that is somehow able to be transcended by the interpretive whims of the musicians. But it’s impossible to know when that’s going to happen, what point in the process.”
That jazz, the most American of music forms, informs so much of his philosophy as well as his practice, brings us back to the central thesis of this program which features works by contemporary composers such as Adams’ father, John Adams, Bryce Dessner, African-American groundbreakers Florence Price and George Walker, Morton Feldman, and a ring in, Antonin Dvorak (whose string quartet No. 12, American, was written during a holiday in that country in 1893). Is Adams in in any better position that any of us who try and fail, to explain what is American music?
“It might actually be easier for someone out of the country,” he says with a half smile. “I will say this: if you were to look at a program called The Americans, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, within the context of classical music, it would probably look a bit different. It would probably look like Ives, Copland, Bernstein, maybe Steve Reich, Philip Glass, my old man, John Adams.”
Now though? Adams (the younger) returns to jazz.
“I think that, due to the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time playing jazz music and improvised music, that a lot of the – you might even say the most important – traditions in America come from Black America: the blues, jazz, whatever,” he says. “This program features two composers, Florence Price and George Walker, who I am ashamed to say I didn’t really know their body of work pre-2020, when in America we were sitting at home at the height of the pandemic and forced to watch the brutal lynching of George Floyd.
“It’s deeply shameful that it took that kind of egregious event for the dial, so to speak, to be moved by the institutions that are responsible for creating a kind of musical consciousness for audiences.”
Adams stresses that he doesn’t just blame orchestra programmers, arguing that as a composer, “I take responsibility as well”. However, “for a program to be truly American it has to do the best possible job incorporating the truly diverse threads of American music” in the broadest sense.
“That means outside the patriarchal lineage of guys who,” he chuckles, “basically look like me. Each of the composers on this program are rooted in the practice that is somehow reckoning with the legacy of Western classical notated music while trying to involve American vernacular practices into the fold, so to speak.
“Maybe with my piece it’s not as intentional or direct as Florence Price, or even [his fathers’] John’s Look of Alleged Dances, which has some kind of sly takes on American vernacular dance traditions, but I do think at the end of the day this piece is an extension of the European tradition [where] my intention is to incorporate all of my experiences as a young American.”
How’s that intention playing out through his work?
“Like America as a project, it’s an ongoing one”
The Australian Chamber Orchestra present The American:
Sydney City Recital Hall Tue 15 Nov 8pm Wed 16 Nov 7pm Sydney Opera House Sun 13 Nov 2pm Newcastle City Hall Thu 17 Nov 7.30pm
Melbourne Recital Centre Sat 19 Nov 7.30pm Mon 21 Nov 7.30pm Melbourne Arts Centre Sun 20 Nov 2.30pm Adelaide Town Hall Tue 22 Nov 7.30pm Perth Concert Hall Wed 23 Nov 7.30pm