Interview with Julia Adolphe

After an incredible first concert in September, on October 7th Kaleidoscope will continue its third season with a concert featuring three new chamber works by three different winners from our Call for Scores. Julia Adolphe, one of the composers, will have her West Coast Premiere of her work Veil of Leaves alongside Saad Haddad’s Takht and Jee Seo’s 4 Pieces for 2 Violins. Generously donating her time, I was able to sit down with Ms. Adolphe and not only talk about the inspirations and influences that went into writing Veil of Leaves, but how she has worked to master and continually call upon her life experiences as a means to create beautiful music. It became obvious to me that Ms. Adolphe epitomizes what it means to be a successful musician in today’s world, not only tackling any musical project with grace, but fearlessly pursuing the ideal that music and art, through a give-and-take process, is an incredibly transformative power that connects people to each other and their own sense of self.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started with music?

Julia Adolphe: My parents always had music playing, including classical, jazz, pop, rock, etc., so I was exposed to music at an early age. When I was in Kindergarten I was actually in a musical theater group called “Tada!” in NYC where I grew up, and the first music I wrote was for a musical. I started writing music when I was nine and, I don’t remember this, but apparently one day I announced to my parents that I could write music, so they decided to get me a keyboard after that.

CR: That’s awesome! So do you play any instruments?

JA: I took piano for a year when I was eight and I hated it, but I took folk guitar lessons and learned music theory through my guitar lessons and wrote folk songs. As a teenager I was mostly writing for voice and guitar, or voice and piano, so it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I wrote my first concert classical piece.

CR: When did you decide to pursue being a composer as your profession?

JA: At the end of high school I realized that I really wanted to write music and I felt that I wanted to go to college to study classical music so that I could broaden my palate, my language and have a greater range of color. I wasn’t ready for a conservatory because I didn’t have a portfolio, so I decided to go to Cornell because I wanted to get a a Liberal Arts education and because I wanted to study with Steven Stucky; unfortunately he passed away recently. I had no idea if I was going to be able to study with him since Cornell only has a Doctoral program for composers, but I approached him as a freshman, had one piece to my name, showed it to him and he decided I could take lessons under him. So, for the next four years I had weekly lessons with him.

CR: Wow, that’s incredible! What kind of teacher was he? What was your experience like with him?

JA: He was an incredible teacher and person. It’s been touching to see all these different kinds of responses in regards to him since he’s passed. In regards to me specifically, I was the only girl in the program, and I only say girl because I was eighteen and a freshman, whereas all the other composers were men who were graduate and doctoral students in their mid to late 20s. Steve made a really big effort to make me feel comfortable there and always took me seriously and told others that they should take me seriously as well. He made it very clear to me that he had faith in my music, and he was really the first person to do that which was incredibly meaningful to me. Since he’s passed that seems like that’s a common thread amongst people, that he took an interest in everyone. He was genuinely open to people who loved music, no matter what level they were at, and that’s rare. As a teacher, he was also great. Before I studied with him all I had were my instincts and no technique, so he really helped me to develop myself as a composer. I’m grateful that he gave me so much individual attention even though I wasn’t a graduate student.

CR: Gotcha. I’m so sorry for your loss, I know what it’s like to lose such an influential teacher. Do you consider him to be most influential in relation to who you are as a composer?

JA: Well, my two big mentors are Steven Stucky and Stephen Hartke who I studied with at USC for five years. Stephen Hartke has had an incredible influence on me, and what I’ve learned from him about orchestration and color has helped me to find my voice, and understand and embrace my creative process in a way that really enabled me to be a full time composer.

CR: Speaking about your process, what’s your process like in the development of a composition?

JA: It’s still evolving *laughter*, but one of the things that Hartke helped me realize is that what I find most inspiring or compelling are emotional narratives and some kind of internal story. Not a story in a programmatic sense, but thinking dramatically in terms of characters. Whether those characters are instruments, colors or a gesture, I manipulate them in a way that maybe one would write a story. That’s one of the reasons why I love writing Operas, but Hartke noticed that I thrived when writing this way and now I’ve been able to apply that to my instrumental music. Even when I’m writing a piece that doesn’t have text, I really think about a very concrete thing that I want to say or explore, and see how that manifests in music. That’s really just for me, it doesn’t matter if the audience even knows any of that because I might not even want them to know. To me all that matters is that every thing that I do in my music is intentional. So, having the emotional narrative helps me to compose, but I want the audience to have his or her personal experience, and I strongly believe that the more personal I make it to myself, the more emotionally accessible it will be for other people.

CR: That’s beautiful! Specific to your piece, Veil of Leaves, what was the process like? What are some of the influences behind the piece?

JA: The idea that inspired the piece was that I wanted to play with contrast between the harmonic effect you get on a stringed instrument, which is very ethereal and light, and express that rhythmically in a non-idiomatic in a way. Harmonics aren’t naturally used that way, but I wanted to sort of play with that idea of rhythmic counterpoint in harmonics. The title comes from the image of veins in a leaf, and then the veil is created by the harmonics. This piece is not an example of the writing process that I have now, like I was talking about, because this piece was written in 2014 before I made my compositional shift. Instead this piece is more how I would approach writing with an image or a gesture in mind. I just find it’s more difficult for me to generate ideas just from images and concepts in comparison with emotional narratives.

CR: That seems like such an awesome concept and influence though, trying to figure out how veins in leaves might sound. So specific to Kaleidoscope, what motivated you to submit a piece to the Call for Scores?

JA: I know a lot of the musicians who are in the group, and I live in Los Angeles and I think LA has a great new music scene that’s constantly growing and thriving. I wanted to be supportive and partner with LA based ensembles that are part of that.

CR: Excellent! Specific to Kaleidoscope and working with these musicians, some of which you said you know personally, what are some of your expectations in relation to the preparation of your piece?

JA: It’s always exciting to hear your piece come to life, even if it’s not a world premiere. Every time is different and that’s part of the beauty of live concerts. I’m excited to work with these particular musicians because they’ll bring their own interpretation and their own artistry to the piece, and I get to learn something new about it as well.

CR: For sure. So, Kaleidoscope is really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?

JA: It’s a really important mission and I’m really glad that Kaleidoscope does this because the classical music community needs take outreach seriously for the survival of the art form. For me personally, I’ve taught music appreciation at an elementary school in LA, but I actually taught music theory at a maximum security prison.

CR: Wow, really?!

JA: Yes, it was an all male, maximum security prison. I wrote articles about it, but it was an incredibly transformative experience for me. When you talk about outreach a lot of it involves sharing music with people who have maybe never been exposed, and we think that classical music will be really amazing for them to have in their lives. That is true, but in my experience teaching in prison I probably learned more than my students did. Doing outreach can be really eye opening for musicians as well. You really see what it is about music that people respond to, and it’s a compelling experience.

CR: I absolutely agree, and I’m so glad you said that. Implementing a give-and-take process towards music making, that’s very important.

JA: It’s absolutely important.

CR: If you could choose one moment from that experience, what comes to mind as one of the more meaningful aspects of being involved in that?

JA: They knew that I was a composer and they were always asking me to bring in my music for them to listen to. I didn’t really want to do because that wasn’t what it was about, but on the last day of class I brought in one of my pieces and I just didn’t know how they were going to respond. I was very nervous, but I played this for them and then I asked them if they felt that it meant anything to them, or had any relevance in their lives. This one student, Gherald, said that he could tell that by hearing my music that I really loved to write. He told me that all that matters is that I write the music that I love, and that if I find joy and comfort in writing then other people who hear my music will love it too. As artists we always ask ourselves those questions, why are we doing this, is it doing anything, is it relevant, so when I’m having those doubts I try to remember that particular moment. It was powerful and meaningful to me because it showed me what art can really do by way of connecting people to each other and to their own sense of self.

CR: Wow, that’s awesome. If someone came up to you and asked why they should consider supporting Kaleidoscope, what would be a reason, if any, that you would say to them?

JA: The group is filled with dedicated musicians, and a conductorless orchestra is a really special and unique thing. It takes a real communication between the players, and it’s an inviting experience for the audience because the wall between them doesn’t exist. It’s a great concert experience for everyone involved.

CR: For sure. So a little more about you as a person, what’s life like for you as a composer? What are some of your favorite and not so favorite things?

JA: Well, it’s a lot of fun, but I’d say that the hardest part is the balance between having an inspiration, really connecting with your work and getting it done on time *laughter*. Ideally one waits for inspiration to strike, but it doesn’t really work like that, it’s somewhat of a myth. A lot of it is learning how to get yourself into a place that allow the ideas to come to you, creating your own space and time to write in a world that’s really busy and full of distractions. It’s one of the hardest parts about being a composer, but it also makes it very exciting as well. I have all sorts of weird things I do, and I think every composer has their own weird, routines to get into that place where it’s only about music and nothing else.

CR: For sure. What are some hobbies of yours?

JA: That’s a good question *laughter* I like reading, going for walks and spending time with my friends. I also have a one-year old cat. She’s a grey, black and white tabby

CR: Very cute! Do you have any charities or causes that you’re passionate about that you’d like to raise awareness to?

JA: The Cornell Prison Education Program. There are a lot of programs like that out there, and they’re proven to lower rates of recidivism, but it was also such an amazing experience to work for them.

CR: Absolutely. So to wrap up the interview, is there something you want to leave the readers and the audience with?

JA: I hope they enjoy my piece!

CR: Great! Thanks so much for talking!

JA: Thanks, Carrie!

Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, but is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.

Kaleidoscope will premiere Veil of Leaves on:

Friday, October 7 @ 8 pm
First Presbyterian Church
1220 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401

Sunday, October 9 @ 2 pm
Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
26438 Crenshaw Blvd., Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274


Carrie Rexroat