Interview with Adam Schoenberg

On October 4th, 2015 Kaleidoscope will begin their second season by performing the West Coast Premiere of Adam Schoenberg’s Canto. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Schoenberg and not only talk about the inspirations he had for writing Canto, but the inspirations that have affected him throughout his life. It became obvious to me that Mr. Schoenberg finds himself deeply rooted in his roles as a husband and as a father, which I speculate were instilled in him by his own family upbringing, and in turn have gone on to greatly influence his compositions.

Carrie Rexroat: Having grown up in a small town where you had to go elsewhere to get basic necessities, how did you become involved with music?

Adam Schoenberg: Music was always present in my household, and being that my father was in many ways a world famous piano improviser, I too grew up playing and improvising on the piano. He used to tour all over New England, and in the early 1980s he sold over 40,000 records in a one or two year period, which is quite a bit for classical and new piano music.

I used to keep things to myself, and growing up improvising on the piano was a way for me to release whatever I was feeling. Every night I would sit down at the piano, improvise, and let everything out. I didn’t begin composing until my sophomore year, when I transferred from Oberlin College to the conservatory. I think at first I chose to not study music because my father was a composer and I wanted to find my own path. Now looking back, it is obvious to me that I chose Oberlin because I knew there was a conservatory right next door and I quickly realized that I could not escape the music that was inside of me. I eventually went to Juilliard, which was a serious reality check. I remember during my very first lesson my teacher looked at me and said, “you have much work to do,” so I buckled down and became a very serious student.

CR: Do you remember there being a conscious choice, or remember anything specific that made you think “I have to pursue music”?

AS: No, I don’t think so. During my sophomore year at Oberlin I began writing a solo cello piece. I really loved the material, but I didn’t feel that I knew what to do with it. I wound up putting it away, and only took it out again while I was at Juilliard. Eventually it became a solo piece called ayudame. It was at that moment that the light bulb went on, there was no question, I knew that this was what I was going to do, and there was no turning back. I never felt as though I made a conscious decision to be a composer, it just happened naturally.

CR: That’s great that it happened naturally, I bet that that aided in knowing that this was what you were meant to do.

AS: I completely agree. My parents never pushed music on me. I remember when I was at Juilliard, some parents whose kids were in the Pre-College program would stand outside of their practice rooms guarding the door, and making sure that their son or daughter was practicing for hours. I understand that this is probably done with the best of intentions, but I always felt grateful that my upbringing was different. Truthfully, I don’t know that I would have continued to pursue music if I felt pressured to do so. When you are young you want to be nurtured, especially in relation to composition, because you are so vulnerable and initially insecure. It is easy to come up with an idea, but what you do with that idea, how it develops and transforms, is always the real challenge. When you are first starting out, you want to feel both supported and encouraged.

CR: So how did you figure out how to navigate that? Vulnerability is an interesting word that you bring up, so what are some things that worked for you to get over the feeling of being vulnerable and not taking criticism personally?

AS: Well, any type of art form is subjective. You will never please or win over everyone. I attribute most of my time at Oberlin as being in an environment that made me strong. I was sort of an outcast, because I was writing in a style of music that wasn’t particularly encouraged. I learned at a very young age that I had to believe in myself, and I do my best to instill that in my students today. If you write an idea, whether it’s a motive, a chord, a gesture, texture, rhythm or a melody, or an entire composition, and you believe deep down that this concept is right and you are committed to it, then no one can ever take that power away from you. When you are a young composer you struggle with vulnerability because you don’t know if your concept is a good concept and you seek approval from your mentors and your colleagues. Because I rarely got that type of approval or acceptance during undergrad, I had to learn to trust myself. With any artist there has to be internal belief and trust that allows you to go forward, otherwise you risk being forever trapped in this box of constant insecurity.

CR: How would you describe your compositional style?

AS: That’s always a tough question, because it is contingent on the kind of piece I’m writing. In the case of Canto, I was so inspired by the birth of my son, Luca, that I wanted to write a piece that somehow reflected the relationship that I have with him. For me, I like atmospheric music and I like groove-oriented music, and I decided that I was going to write the slowest piece I have ever composed. I aimed for something atmospheric that was drone-oriented, and I don’t do that very often. So, it depends on what I’m working on in the moment, but you will always hear my voice. Every composer writes differently, we all find our inspiration from different sources, and we all have different methods of composing.

Something that I firmly believe in, and something that I’m deeply rooted in, is the art of improvisation. I may study several different sounds, but eventually before I write any single piece of music, I will sit down at the piano for hours upon hours and improvise. From those improvisations, some idea, or a kernel or seed, will surface. Then I will extract that and write it down, I will let that idea live on paper for a while, and then I will ask myself, ‘how can I let this unfold over time? How can I let this transcend through time?’

CR: So, how and when did you extract the idea for Canto?

AS: While growing up, every night before bed my mom would sing a lullaby she wrote for my sister and me. I still remember it to this day, it had a beautiful melody. When Luca was born, I also began singing to him, and I started to create little lullabies for him. For Canto, I came up with this melodic line and I realized that there was something very orchestral about it. I like to describe Canto as a dream, where I want to set up this really ambient, atmospheric slow world. It begins with the brass playing white noise and the pianist performing a string glissando inside the piano. The strings enter in a big divisi and play this stacked chord at a very low dynamic with little vibrato. It creates a soft color palette that moves quite slowly. From there, I introduce little bits of the motive, including a trumpet playing inside the piano, but about halfway through the piece this lullaby theme will emerge. That for me is the most emotional section.

It’s a challenge to think about playing without a conductor because it lacks a very articulate sense of pulse right until the very end. It requires all of the musicians to join each other in this dreamlike world and breathe together. It’s all about breath, thinking about a child sleeping and listening to them breathe deeply. I wanted to create a very calm world. I think it has some of the most beautiful music that I’ve ever written and it comes from a special place in terms of the inspiration behind it. It is a delicate, sensitive work. I’m excited to see if we as a group can get to that place.

CR: Have you ever worked with a conductorless orchestra before?

AS: I have not.

CR: Never having worked with a conductorless orchestra before, what are some things you are anticipating being different?

AS: Especially with this type of music, the musicians will really have to know their parts and understand their role. It will challenge them to work harder to achieve that collective sound. I haven’t worked with them yet so I have no idea what the process is going to be like. Typically when you have a conductor, there is a specific hierarchy within the orchestra because there can really only be one alpha during the rehearsal. Otherwise, you risk things falling apart because people don’t know who to listen to. It will be interesting to see how a conductorless orchestra communicates with each other, how they listen to each other, and what my role will be during the process of helping them bring the piece to life.

CR: Obviously you are involved in wanting it be collaborative, so how involved do you anticipate being with the musicians?

AS: There’s a fascinating relationship between the composer and orchestral musicians. Sometimes people are incredibly friendly and will engage with me, and other times they will choose to keep to themselves. You sort of learn to accept the intricacies of musicians as people, because we are a very interesting breed. But, I truly love the art of collaborating with an orchestra. I love going into rehearsal and seeing what the musicians are doing. As a contemporary orchestral composer, I feel so honored when I have my music performed, but it is such a complicated process because there is never really enough rehearsal time. Historically, orchestras will steer their focus towards the standard repertoire a little more, and most new pieces are not given the type of attention that they really need. This is because unlike with standard repertoire, the musicians must first learn the new piece, and then if there is time, they can dig deeper. The rare moments when there is time to dig deeper are some of the most profound collaborations that I have had with an orchestra. To me, a conductorless orchestra requires the entire orchestra to fully be committed to the sound, and to fully come together, whereas when you are in an orchestra with a conductor some people don’t have to fully commit, which I don’t like. I want everyone to fully commit. Overall, I like to see how a collaboration evolves, because sometimes it evolves beautifully, and sometimes it doesn’t really evolve at all, but that is the nature of the experience. I am really excited to be building this relationship with Kaleidoscope because this is a younger orchestra, it is brand new, and people want them to succeed. The people who are playing believe in its concept and believe in the mission, so for me there will be more of a desire to make this the best possible experience. I have no idea what it will be like, but I am very curious to see what they do, and how it comes to life.

CR: What interested you in applying to Kaleidoscope's Call for Scores in the first place?

AS: I was interested in having this piece get its West Coast premiere, and I applied because I believe in Kaleidoscope. I thought it would be a really good opportunity to collaborate with a younger ensemble in Los Angeles, my home city, and work with a new group for the first time and develop a relationship. As composers, we want to cultivate relationships with organizations, with conductors, and with musicians because that’s how our music gets played. I was intrigued, and I liked the idea of a conductorless orchestra doing the West Coast premiere of Canto.

CR: Generating a sense of community is something that is important to Kaleidoscope, and they want to not only have a direct impact to the Los Angeles community, but also music and non-music communities outside of Los Angeles. Do you feel that KCO is positively impacting these communities?

AS: Of course! I think music in general has such a powerful way of reaching people. It’s a universal language that connects with people intellectually, physically, and emotionally. It is such a powerful art form, so yes, anytime that Kaleidoscope performs for any group of people, no matter who they are, where they are from, or what they have done, I absolutely think it brings positivity to the community.

CR: Why do you feel that people should consider supporting the orchestra in its mission to have this impact on communities?

AS: This is a grassroots orchestra that does not have major donors. They are a self driven organization and they deserve to be heard. I love that Ben [Mitchell] and others said, ‘we need a conductorless orchestra in this area, we need to do something different, and we need to engage with our community in a different way’. I think that this group is working really hard to gain exposure and I hope that those who are able will financially support the orchestra. This is an important group, doing important music making, and that is all you can ask for. I think they are a really talented group of people and I am excited for them to give it their all.

CR: In a more general manner, do you have a favorite musical moment that has occurred during your career?

AS: One of the greatest performing highlights that I have ever had, was when the LA Phil premiered a piece of mine at the Hollywood Bowl. My eldest son was only one month old at the time and we brought him to the concert and I held him as the orchestra played. That was a profound moment for me because before then, every time a piece of mine was premiered, I was so nervous, always overly critical of the piece, of the performance, and thinking about everything I could have done differently rather than enjoying the moment and being thankful for it. But, that night I was the most relaxed I had ever been, and I attribute that to suddenly being a father and holding my son. It made me realize that there are things that were now greater than me, things that are more important. It allowed me to enjoy the moment for the first time, and it was very special.

CR: In your opinion, what is the best thing about being a father?

AS: First of all, no one can prepare you for the amount of work that it takes, at least at this stage. A four month old and two year old are incredibly dependent on you. But, what is so extraordinarily beautiful, is that I didn’t know that I could love someone or something so unconditionally and so deeply. I very much love my wife, we have an incredible marriage, but it’s a different type of love. I think the love you have for your child, is unlike anything else. As cliché as it may sound, becoming a parent really is a life-changing experience. Despite all the challenges that come along with it, I cannot imagine my life any other way; they are my greatest gifts. On days when I’m tired from traveling, had a long day of teaching, or a bad day of composing, and I come home and see little Leo or Luca, all of my worries momentarily go away. All I feel is this incredible warmth and love. It’s the most amazing thing in the world.

CR: That’s amazing! Are there any quirks or aspects of their character that you can see already developing?

AS: Totally! With Leo, it’s a little too early to tell, although he’s such a happy baby, but Luca for sure. I can be a very impatient person, and when I get motivated and excited about something, I become relentless, and I go after it until I get it. Luca is probably more impatient than I am. He is fiery! When he makes up his mind, it is made up. It is so incredible to see that much determination in such a young child, but his personality is being defined, and he is a strong, stubborn, hungry and eager little kid.

CR: Sounds like a great family! Well, thank you so much for your time, and best of luck with the premiere!

AS: Thank you!