In August of 1990, I arrived as a naive but cocky freshman at the Eastman School of Music. I hadn’t previously studied composition, and had only a piecemeal grasp of the history and culture of EuroAmerican art music — but I’d written a few things that I thought were great, and hey, they’d landed me in one of the top-tier conservatories in the world. In my mind, I was awesome.
My first lessons with Sam Adler straightened me out quick-like. They were torturous affairs for me; he’d scan through my laboriously-wrought sketches with a raised eyebrow, ask me a couple of pointed questions about process and/or decisions (to which I’d give rambling, stammered responses), and then tear apart only my work but my entire artistic edifice (so carefully constructed, yet so fragile!) for 45 minutes. At least, that’s how it felt at the time.
It wasn’t until much later that I came to appreciate how Dr. Adler’s critiques came from a genuinely constructive and generous place, and that his teaching approach — so stern and withering that, for years, I had anxiety dreams with him at the center — was probably inherited from his own mentors (Hindemith, Copland, Piston, etc.). But before our year together was over, I became aware of several crucial music- and life-lessons he’d imparted, and they’re ones I still value and pass on to my own students:
- Repetition isn’t bad, but variation is better. If you’re going to do something more than twice, change it in some way on the third iteration, and change it again and again on subsequent ones.
- Write as much as you can, every day. Set a goal of writing x (number of bars or duration), and try to exceed it.
- Listen to criticism, but also learn when to stand your ground. (One of my favorite memories of that year: I was working on what would become my first string quartet. The first time I brought in some sketches for the second movement, Sam found one note that he didn’t like, erased it, wrote in the “correct” note, and said, “There. You’re welcome.” I was SO pissed off, and immediately changed it back after the lesson. When I came back the next week, I rather defiantly pointed this out to him… to which he smiled and calmly replied, “Good. Your note is the right one.”)
Wow, what a rabbit hole. I suspect there’ll be more about Eastman in later posts.
Anyway, this album: three strong performances by three different quartets (Meliora, Cleveland, and Fine Arts). I’ve heard people criticize Sam’s music as “workmanlike,” and I guess they’re not wrong; in my younger years, I often felt it was on the conservative side, and I guess that’s not wrong either. But from my current perspective, I’m awed at the craft and expressive versatility on display in these works; the 6th quartet, which sets several Whitman poems for soprano, really ought to be required listening for students writing for voice (though honestly, I could listen to Jan DeGaetani sing major scales and be fully happy), and all of the pieces should be studied as examples of ace writing for strings without a lot of fancy techniques. If there’s a “flaw” in Sam’s work, it’s more to do with being out of step with prevailing trends — this stuff just doesn’t fit into the ultra-modern, or postmodern, or post-postmodern, languages in vogue during the post-WWII era… which is to say, the fault’s on folks who’re invested in such trifling matters. For anyone who’s more concerned with honesty and mastery of materials, though, this is really great. Thank you, Dr. Adler, for your music and teaching.
THOUGHTS FOR LATER:
- Try to track down the recording of his first quartet — he mentions in the liner notes that (as of 1991) he’d “discarded” it; see why.
- The 3rd quartet was revised several times. This is a practice I’ve taken on as well. Interesting to think about where the urge to revisit and make better (vs. accepting that a piece was what it was, and moving on) comes from.
- His works list includes a recent piece based on southern Appalachian folk songs. Look for this.
- Sam’ll be 90 in a couple of weeks, and still going strong! A good kick in the pants — I’m halfway there; keep working.