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Highway 89: Interview with Samuel Adler


Highway 89 host Steven Kapp Perry (SKP) recently chatted with American composer, conductor and educator Samuel Adler (SA). This is a full transcript of their conversation; you can also hear the interview in the BYU Radio’s archives.


SKP: You have a long and storied career. 65 years of teaching music. So you know a lot about music in the US, I wonder if we can just start off in general. Compared with when you began teaching, and as you look at music education in universities and public schools now, what changes do you see in that time?

SA: Well in the first place we have to say that I get around the world a great deal.  And we, in America, have the finest higher education music system in our schools that exists in the world. That’s why so many people from all over the world, especially now from Asia, are coming here to study. Our standards are the highest in the world and I must say from a compositional point of view we have such great talent in our universities and colleges. I’ve never seen anything like it. But people don’t realize that because we push our popular music so much throughout the world that people think that’s the only thing we have, when the actuality is that we have in this country the highest standards of musical composition among our young people. I’m sorry to say that’s sort of kept as a wonderful secret—

SA: --nobody knows about it and people care less about it. And that’s too bad because what they would find is a treasure-trove of wonderful music being written by young composers today.

SKP: Are there places where communities are beginning to hear some of the current composition?

SA: Yes of course. Colleges are the places to hear them. For instance, here at BYU you have a New Music group, [and there are others] all over the place. I had a few stops on the way here. I was at Indian University where they have a huge New Music program.

SKP: The Jacob’s School of Music.

SA: And I was down at the University of Texas in Austin, they have a big New Music program [too]. The problem is that it has been so anaesthetized from the mainstream. For instance, I would rather have a piece of mine played between Beethoven and Mozart or Beethoven and Brahms or Mozart and Rossini than between Joe Blow and Mary Doe. Because in the 60s we started to put music by contemporary composers, by living composers let’s put it that way, in a different category from dead composers. Dead composers are okay, living composers are suspect.

SA: Because of the difference between music of the 20th century, which does not have one style prevailing, when you hear a piece by Mozart and you suddenly find out it’s Haydn, well you weren’t far from wrong. They have one style. It’s great, it’s wonderful music. And so it could be by either one or it could be by Paisiello or Salieri or anybody else living in those times. You can’t do that with the 20th century because there [were] so many different styles coexisting.

SKP: Is that because there were so many conventions at the time, of how it was to be done?

SA: Correct.

SKP: Have we let go of those conventions?

SA: Well it broke down with the breaking down of authority generally. I mean you have that in literature, you have it in art, you have it in every form of artistic endeavor these days because, you see, we don’t have a prevailing one-fits-all anymore. Which actually is very good because that happened in the late 19th century. Look at the difference between Debussy and Hindemith, or Debussy and Strauss who lived exactly at the same time. There was the Rhine in-between them [but] there is no explaining this. You have in the late 19th century a preponderance of nationalism and the rise of the nationalistic composer and we had that in America. As soon as our young men and women came back from France after the first World War they wanted to write American music. In my youth, since I studied with [him] Aaron Copeland for instance or Walter Piston, we wanted to write American music. It was supposed to sound like Aaron Copeland and Piston and people who used the vocabulary of American folk music as a basis.

SKP: And some of them had gone to study in Europe because that was what you did back then.

SA: Of course.

SKP: But what were they defining American music as? They were exploring to try and find that.

SA: Let’s take a man like Dvorak. The difference between Dvorak and Brahms is that Dvorak was wedded to his Bohemian heritage and wanted to incorporate that in every piece that he wrote. Brahms was wedded to his German ancestry [and] he wrote a lot of arrangements of German folk songs. I think there are 200 in a volume of Brahms songs that are folk song arrangements, but he did not use those except in one piece, the Academic Festival Overture, and he did not use [them] in his symphonic work. And that’s the difference between Dvorak and Brahms. [This is how you] take someone like Copeland who used vernacular, American work, especially in his great ballets.

SKP: Yes.

SA: Also in the 3rd Symphony which is, I think, one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.

SKP: Where are the outlets for composers today? I’m aware of people being specific enough to say that they’re going into writing music for video games and some are going into music for film scoring. Where are the opportunities?

SA: Well there are lots of them. You just mentioned two outlets. The most important thing is that they learn the craft of composition. After that they can do whatever they want. The big outlet of course for composers is to teach at a university or college, and get the music played there, and also orchestras and chamber groups are very interested these days in playing New Music. Happily that is going on all over the world. You go to Europe or you go to Asia, I mean I’ve been in China four times and Korea and of course I had a course in Berlin every year for the past 11 years, and there’s New Music played all over the place. The audiences may be small, but many of the mainstream organizations are now featuring one piece of New Music with other pieces of the canon which is the way it should be done.

SKP: Just this year with the Utah Symphony’s 75th anniversary, I think I’ve heard three different pieces this year that were commissioned.

SA: And you see that’s an outlet for composers, and we have so many. People say “Well uh, there are so few” [but] that’s not true. There are hundreds and hundreds of composers. I started my career in Texas, and when I went to Dallas after serving in the US Army I was one of two composers in Dallas, Texas. Now I’m sure there are over a hundred there. There is this explosion of creativity all over the world and that, I think, is the most wonderful thing.

SKP: As we were sitting down and setting up the microphones and chatting, you mentioned people having a fear of New Music. Will you tell me about that?

SA: Yes. You see, our audiences are not educated like the audiences were in the 18th and 19th century. First of all, these people that went to concerts were the “upper crust” and they were also amateur musicians. Most of the people that went to concerts, by let’s say Beethoven, these people were also amateur musicians. So when he did something they didn’t understand, they loved it because it was something new. What happened is [that] they wanted something new. Today’s audiences that are not musicians themselves but are music lovers, which I think is wonderful, they expect to hear what they already know. And the fear is to be bored, or to be somehow aggressively…against their sensitivity [made to] hear something that shakes them up. I think people go to a concert to sort of be lulled into a nice euphoric state, which is the wrong way to go to a concert. You want to be moved to do something! And that is what I would expect from an audience that would hear music of mine. There’s a wonderful story I can tell: Aaron Copeland was the moderator for the Sunday concerts when I was a student in Tanglewood. And there was always a question period at the end. Of course they didn’t want to ask us questions, they wanted to ask him questions. A lady got up and said, “You know Mr. Copeland, I love music. I live in York and I come home at 5 o’clock and I lie down but I want to snooze a little so I put on [the local radio station] and they play Mozart and Haydn and Debussy and I can snooze. But when they play your music I get very jangled and very nervous and I can’t snooze.” And he [Copeland] said, “Madame, I’m very happy about that because I wasn’t snoozing when I wrote [it].”

SA: So, you know, it’s that way. Today we want to talk about our situation, the way we live. Well we live in a very, very powerful world. We live in a world that has terrific things happening scientifically, medically, technologically, and on the other hand we have the Bomb which could destroy the whole world. We have pollution that could destroy us. That’s what we’re dealing with. We cannot write music like Schubert who was living in a different age. He wrote the most wonderful music, but it’s different because he was talking about his age as we have to talk about ours.

SKP: You work with students so much, of varying ages, and even the very youngest. Talk about how we could educate our younger children so they could be open to all kinds of music.

SA: You’d be surprised. Younger children have no prejudice. When they hear a piece by Stravinsky, or by Schonberg, they don’t say “Oh I don’t like 12-tone music.” They don’t know! They just love it because it’s music. And if it’s done right, if it’s not put upon the like “you’ve got to listen to this,” it’s new for them. They don’t care if it’s Bach or Ligeti, for them it’s an experience. I have never found children who dislike contemporary music. They take it like all other music. Unfortunately we don’t expose them enough to it, and that’s why this program that they have started here [at BYU], the Systema Type Program, is so important. It shows these kids that music is all the same. It isn’t just one period of music, that you’ve got to love Schubert or Beethoven or Brahms or something like that, of course you should love them but it’s much easier because that’s the kind of music that they’re used to and they’re very excited about hearing something new. Especially when, and I always recommend [this], you let them write their own music. “That’s my song” is a very important part of it.

SKP: Samuel Adler is Professor Emeritus of the Eastman School of Music, retired in 2014 from Julliard although still teaching there until May. He’s in Utah right now working with students at the University of Utah, also here today on the BYU campus, and will be at Utah Valley University. You really have a passion for teaching and reaching students, don’t you.

SA: Yes I do, because I think that’s my mission in life.


Highway 89 is a live music performance program distributed nationally on Sirius XM 143 BYU Radio with classical format shows airing in Utah on Classical 89. Produced in BYU Broadcasting’s state-of-the-art recording studios in Provo, just 45 minutes south of Salt Lake City, Highway 89 features professional musicians in all genres. You can follow the show on Twitter @byuh89 and @byuradio. And you can contact the show producers by email.  

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