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Sturdivant Adams, a modern composer embedded in centuries of music tradition

Sturdivant Adams holds an MPhil in Music Composition from the University of Oxford (Worcester College), awarded with Distinction, where he studied with composer Robert Saxton, and a BA magna cum laude from Columbia University. While at Oxford, he was mentored by Tony Award-Winning composer Claude-Michel Schönberg (Les Misérables). The winner of the 2018 U.K. national Young Composers’ Competition sponsored by the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Sturdivant has also composed concert music for some of the top orchestras in the world. Sturdivant’s Symphony 2 was commissioned by the award-winning POLIN Museum, the piece receiving its premiere by Penderecki’s Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra in February 2019 at the POLIN Music Festival in Warsaw, Poland. After receiving a Masters in Screen Scoring from USC Thornton in 2019, Sturdivant quickly became one of the core additional writers to the Emmy Award winning series Robot Chicken (Adult Swim) and Crossing Swords (Hulu/Sony Pictures Television), while his original score to Between the Shadows (2019) was nominated for the 2019 Hollywood Music in Media Awards. The award ceremony will take place on 20th November 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

We met with Sturdivant when he was studying for his MPhil in Music Composition at Oxford, and at some point sat down in Merton MCR to talk in depth about what it means to be a composer in the modern world and this is probably the most intensive and deep conversation I have had with a composer in my life. We talked about the embeddedness in tradition, inescapability of borrowing and quoting in music, the divide between innovators and more widely accepted composers, the ways music moves us and most importantly - how to learn to perceive and internalize it. One would never be the same person after reading what this ever-searching young artist has to say. In the best tradition of Oxford intellectual discussion, here it goes.

Sturdivant, my first question is can you remember the time when you as a child had an urge to express yourself and why did you choose music for it?

Actually, when I was young, it was my brother who started taking piano lessons first, before me. He would play – usually jazz improvisations - with this really great, wonderful teacher who came to our house. The teacher would be at one side of the keyboard, and my brother would be at another – and I was very excited hearing them play, and pretty soon started to take lessons myself. Before I can even remember going to concerts and hearing works by different composers, I think it was just the excitement of interacting with the instrument, usually with another person, too. So it was enjoying working with somebody else and creating something unique – I am not sure, of course, if it could be called unique (laughs). It was the naissant collaborative element in all that process that I enjoyed. It really started with jazz improvisations, and then moved on – I started going to concerts – but it was that idea of improvisation that got me into music. It is part of how I compose today. Any point in composition is really an improvisation. You can create ideas and forms ahead of time, and build mathematical concepts, but in the end of the day even choosing between two notes is a form of improvisation.

I read the interview with the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and she says that she heard melodies when she was lying in bed, as though talking to her pillow and imagining tunes in her mind. Did you have the similar sensation, or do the melodies come during the actual process of improvisation at the piano?

I think I always hear some kind of music in my head – I just sometimes tune it out. But it is mostly other people’s music that I have heard recently – so a song on a radio would go on repeat in my head, and it is the same with classical music. But speaking about melodies, to me they are extremely important – they are one of the most important things. I think classical music has lately gone into direction of coming back to them, which I find really exciting. But the idea of having melodies and sounds before you start composing – probably no, I think it is a process. It is rare when people have the whole composition playing in their heads before they start composing: may be Mozart was one of them, hearing the ouverture when travelling. As for me, I have to walk towards them. Coming up with something really solid and good is always a process – I never come up with a full melody just sitting in my head.

Is it because the brain can’t hear, acoustically envision it before you start creating?

Sometimes there is something, yes... I think it was Oliver Knussen who said that he takes ideas for granted, that’s a given, but he has to figure out what to do with the ideas. So yes, the little motives, the melodies might crop up, but the interest in composition is in fleshing that out and see what things you could do with those melodies.

In which sense composing is different from painting or writing a short story? How do you know that your mind is specifically good for building musical compositions? Why is it your medium?

Painting is a language, and sculpture is a language, writing is a language, and music is one. It is just a language that I have grown up with. I was not around a lot of painters or novelists when I was younger. As a kid I went to San Francisco Symphony all the time to see Michael Tilson Thomas work with the orchestra – he is an amazing conductor. There is also physical connection. Music for me is a little bit unique that it really exists in time. Writing – only if you read something aloud – but what distinguishes music and what is exciting for me is an ephemeral quality to music. I could write a piece for one musician or for the whole orchestra, and all the notes exactly the same for their two consecutive performances, but they will play differently no matter what. Music in real time is always something different. I think that variation is definitely something I am drawn to.

But when somebody with good solfeggio skills (say, a conductor) just reads the score in their heads, do you consider it as a moment of music existing, too? In the same way that a reading of a book makes it exist in our minds?

So, the stages when a composition actually begins to exist? That’s a deep philosophical question... Well, there are two answers to it, or actually there might be three. There are different levels. The composition exists in the head of a composer first. Probably the way Mahler heard his music was unique from the way anybody else could have played it. The second is when it is played in real life – but that’s ephemeral, that always changes. That is the interpretation, and it is important to realize that – it will always stay an interpretation. And the third is when it becomes the common language – I think this is yet another mode of existence. We know Beethoven Fifth without having to hear it, because it is a language, it has become common currency.

So the way you described it, a composition moves from a unique vision through a set of interpretations to shared knowledge?

Yes, then it becomes part of musical culture we all share.

But there are only some pieces who emerge to that level of shared common knowledge from the pool of all music ever written. Only some of them become popular and known even by children. What is the process through which a piece becomes shared and known?

That’s a really complicated one. I think part of it is the time. Prokofiev doing ‘Peter and the Wolf’, or Beethoven or Mozart – part of the reason that music was common culture back then. It was popular culture, so it had an easier path in making its way to history. And we still benefit from it being popular culture. It is much harder for composers today, working in contemporary classical music. You only hear a few names – the Finns have their well-known school of modern composition, the Americans – only a handful, or even one may be – most people know only John Adams or Steve Reich, perhaps. That’s one of the aspects. Another aspect is being able to make music that is able to reach people in a certain way – may be it is an emotional thing – that it sparkles a certain reaction – that is really valuable, one of the most valuable things a composer can do – to make you actually feel something. People don’t have enough time to go to concert halls, it is still a rare thing, and if you go and hear something bland or not very interesting, it is just a waste of your time then. You would not want to go back. Most successful composers are able to do that – to ignite emotions. One of my favourite ones is Christopher Rouse who has sadly passed away recently. He was an American composer, was a professor at Juilliard School. When I was studying at Columbia, NY he was a Composer-in-Residence with New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert. He was amazing, he was somebody that could reach you at a real basic – almost instinctual – level. But at the same time his music was not compromised. So these two things are really important for a piece to become part of our shared musical knowledge.

Don’t you think there is a dilemma here: sometimes music becomes emotionally accessible when it sheds the complexity in an intention to enter the sphere of mass culture. On the other hand, other composers might want to choose to be elitist and write ‘non-easy’ music for connoisseurs. So can the balance between being complex and emotionally powerful be maintained, or one has to go into the direction of either one or another?

The essential question that you are getting at is if classical music is going to survive. This is one of the most important questions that we have to grapple with. It is not that we have to choose one or another, it would be ridiculous, stifling the progression of a really important form, but I do think it is extremely relevant to think about this issue. John Williams is a special case here – he is an incredible composer. Many people see him as a film composer – and yes, he is, but only in the public eye. He has also written fantastic concert music, and when you hear his music you see that it is informed by the highest level of quality and content. And here are two paths you could choose. One is that when there are academic composers at the University and they are making new leaps in composition all the time. One of my favourites in America was Stephen Stucky – unfortunately he died in February 2016. He was incredible, and he was one the best in doing that – reaching people while being truly innovative. But two paths are – there are people who push towards innovation, and they are really encouraged to do that, it becomes quite the norm in Harvard and all those institutions. And then there are people like John Williams are not really doing that as much in direct ways – they are still doing it in indirect ways, but it is not their main concern. You’d think that these paths are incompatible – that’s why the word ‘elitism’ comes up in conversation, and we have to decide whose music is ‘better’ – but I do think that what the ‘University composers’ are doing is complementing what ‘John Williams composers’ are doing and vice versa. They are both vital. And looking at the art form like film – it is something unique for the past century, at least for composers – or even may be the past half-century for really good films, or even less for the best of them. It is an important medium to reach people. And the question for composers is how can we approach film or any other medium that is mass-consumed in a way that does not compromise our musical quality, allows us to express and not just look back to what’s already been done. To me it is very important because I am someone who is interested in that environment, and not as much in academics in music. So I have outlined two forks in the road of what you can do as a composer, and I feel that hopefully in future we can have more composers that will not necessarily compose commercial music – having said that, I don’t consider John Williams’ music to be commercial. His popularity is a testament to his talent. Many people take a melody for granted, which is a very strange thing – we all can whistle the opening of ‘The Star Wars’ and don’t even think about its creation – but to make a memorable melody might be the hardest thing anybody can do. Melodies are extremely important. If we go back to Stephen Stucky – he didn’t really compose melodies as much as motives, but he was an incredible motive writer, something that would stick in your head amazingly. It was only one of the aspects of his music – but it is something that cannot be taken for granted. It is an incredible skill – and John Williams and Howard Shore have it.

As a composer you have to have a mental library, a memory of what you have listened to in your life. But then how do you measure the originality of what you have composed?

That’s another good and difficult question. If we loop back to film music, many people consider film composers as ones who quote a lot of pre-existing music. Some would even say that John Williams quotes a lot from Prokofiev, Debussy an Stravinsky. I don’t think that’s a detriment at all. In fact, that’s important. If you look at composers, that’s constant quoting going on. It think it was Stravinsky who said: ‘Good composers borrow, great composers steal’. And I think it is an interesting idea. Music is a language. Like a painter has a certain amount of colours and shapes to work with, we only have twelve notes on a keyboard, not counting the microtones (the tones in-between the chromatic scale) that some composers are using So there is such a thing as a musical language, and I think it is important to tap into that in order to interact with what has been done before. Someone said something along the lines: ‘All composers have either embraced Beethoven or rejected Beethoven’, which is a really bold, almost controversial thing to say. If we could draw parallels – it is just like creating new tapestries from existing smaller pieces – that’s a way to compose, that’s something really valid to that. Or it could be a direct quotation from other means – Christopher Rouse did the work called Requiem. There he uses the general form of Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, and him doing it gives his work a different layer of meaning. It is Rouse’s music, but the invisible ‘quoted’ structure creates something that is more than meets the eye. What I am trying to say that quotation and reference is not only valid, but important. It is extremely important to be able to interact with tradition, as we are existing within the tradition.

Historically, as we move forwards, do pieces from the past move, like in a game Tetris, to non-existence? You mentioned Beethoven or Mozart, but you might have not thought of somebody from 12-13th century, and may be in 2200 Haydn would not occur in people’s minds. Do works move into forgotten cultural layers, into some form of dust so that we can envision the situation that music of the Middle Ages would not remembered by anyone in future?

If you go back and look at Haydn’s times – 1700s or so – and you look at all the people who were composing in the similar style. We have never really heard of a lot of them. There is and there has always been a natural sorting and sifting process throughout history. Somebody like Palestrina stayed and these figures remain in the tradition. I think that part of it is what is relevant to people today, what people want to listen to, and part of it is which modern composers have found pieces of wisdom and interest in those old works. May be there is somebody in the UK or US or China who quotes Palestrina today. People that last, people that we keep hearing about – it is not just that they were lucky, although partially that might come in, too – but in the end of the day someone like Beethoven has stayed with us because of the extreme quality of the composer. If you listen to Beethoven, there is always something new and exciting, almost contemporary. His music was obviously contemporary back then, but it withstood the test of time so well that people are still pulling things from his music today.

But that means that it is thousands of daily tests of Beethoven’s validity as modern listeners ‘trial out’ his music on everyday basis to see if it still moves them...

Yes, partly it happens because he is definitely an incredible composer. But also because he is the tradition. I don’t think that everyone necessarily goes to a concert hall consciously thinking: ‘I am going for Beethoven tonight’. It is just that Beethoven is performed a lot, he is on the programme. He is part of the tradition that is accepted. And programming these old works now is just as important to keep musical cultural currency alive.

Today our minds are more and more used to instantaneous clicking mode of getting information. While music, as you mentioned, exists in time – a piece of music could last up to 30-40-50 minutes. And when people say that they were moved by what they listened, we have no idea whether they were concentrating for all that duration – may be they just woke up for final loud timpani and ‘got moved’ by its sounds. So what’s the cognitive process of really being concentrated on music?

One of the prerequisites for being able to perceive a piece of music – today 20 minutes seems to be the norm for contemporary orchestral commission, it is still a substantial amount of time for a modern person – is to situate yourself and get your groundings, to perceice the geography of what is going on in the piece. You cannot overstate the importance of that enough in contemporary music. I went to a concert of New York Philharmonic a few years ago when Esa-Pekka Salonen was Composer-in-Residence (just after Christopher Rouse) and they did Salonen’s LA Variations, one of his landmark pieces. Before actually playing it Alan Gilbert he broke the piece down: ‘here is the beginning, there is the end, and here is the section where the bass comes in’, presenting what individual instruments did in particular sections. So he gave these goalpoasts, explaining the piece in 5 minutes, helping us to understant what was going on there. I already knew the piece, but I realized it was really incredible, because we all set these goalposts for ourselves and then could trace our way inside the piece: ‘This is where I am, and there I am now’. And without the help of such explanations the average listener can easily get lost. Wherever we have a plethora of information thrown at us, the response is: ‘Tune out’. And sometimes if it is a sublime piece of music, it can just be fine – you tune out, just relax and listen. But more often than not people like to know what happens in a piece of music. There is an underlying story to most pieces, even if they are what we call ‘abstract pieces’ where there isn’t any story. The story could be in their inner form and structure. Like in the case of Xenakis, and he was also an architect, and without the understanding that his music is manifestation of architectural principles you could get lost in it. So being able to concentrate is to get these goalposts and then understand what is happening in orchestral music. And it is important because it breaks down that barrier between the ivory tower of an academic composer that no average listener would understand, and becomes an entry point to music. If we are artists and we want to get listeners, we have to give people an entry point, otherwise we could just be playing our music for five other composers in town.

If the composer writes his narrative, his story like we would have in operas or in many orchestral compositions of previous centuries, it definitely helps and we can follow it. It stops being just music, it is now also a narrative. But can you write a piece not about Tristan and Isolde, but say about a building, or a landscape? Can there be a Kafka symphony or a Louvre Concerto?

It is a very good question. Someone like Richard Strauss even wrote a tone poem called Symphonia Domestica where there are themes for various pieces in the kitchen. Clearly music can express architecture or can express a chair, but the question is whether it can do it succesfully. Part of it is getting away from the process and always have a certain idea in mind. One of the great Polish composers – Witold Lutosławski – one of the greatest aspects of his music was that it always was in service of an idea, he always had a musical expressive idea that pervaded his piece. The degree of music’s ability to do what you have described is contained in the degree of being serviceable to an idea. I think the example of Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ is the direct example of that, with the idea being first and new means of expressing it following second. I am not sure how exactly put it into words – an idea could be a motif, or a textural thing, or a melody, or a beautiful harmony. One of the greatest examples of just a beautiful harmony is in Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ – that beautiful climbing chord. He spends the whole ouverture climbing up through that Wagner chord. It could be anything, but what’s important is the ability to take whatever that thing is and make it more than what you initially started with. The programmatic element, the story is also an idea, and this is more easily accessible, but there is a level within that, and it is more relevant to success of the piece, because you still have to have musical content that links to the story. So there would be layers and layers of ideas, and greatest of composers – coming back to your question of who stays and who doesn’t – are able to do that like nobody else – to create a piece that is multilayered, and has many underlying ideas to be discovered.

Sometimes we have this image of a composer being like Mozart – living his ordinary life, then getting inspired, writing a genial piece and then getting to sleep. But is it viable? Is composition actually hard work, and how much is it about routine and thinking, and how much is intuition, epiphanies, inspiration?

The idea that composition is effortless is complete misconception. I think that history has dramatized it to make it seem as though Mozart just pulled symphonies out of his hat. I am not a Mozart scholar, but looking at his work and how much he achieved, he was probably one of the hardest working people of all time in art. He must have been working constantly. But the flow was constantly there for him – so he indeed he might just have had to work and be at the piano all the time. For Beethoven it took years and years just to finish a piece. I think it is always hard work. It could be compared to public speaking – some are eloquent speakers and can talk and talk, while with others it takes more time, but it always requires a lot of concentration.

As a listener, I am not happy that audiences are just attributed the passive role of ‘enjoying’ or ‘loving’ or ‘hating’ a piece of music. I would have like to be involved more intellectually. How does one move from that emotional ‘interesting’, ‘fascinating’, ‘good’, ‘brought some memories’ level to actually being par with the composer, understanding his or her composing process? How do we grow our listening competence?

Coming back to our average listener who would think ‘How do I understand that? I don’t even know music theory’ – but I think that especially with contemporary music today where the connection to traditional music theory is tenuous at best, as there are really individual theories instead of a single one. Starting from Schoenberg it all went into a large puzzle of each composer’s own theory – Lutosławski had his own theory, too. The way I work as a composer when I want to learn new things and even the way I would if I wasn’t a composer – when I listen to a new piece by a contemporary composer, I always feel that I am starting from square one. I don’t know their theory, their rules and how they use them. So the first step would be is to find what interests you about their music.

But how do I know it? How do I understand, say, a piece by Steven Stucky?

I think if we begin listening with the expectation of ‘understanding’ a piece of music, that is never really going to happen. If you want to truly understand something that was happening in someone else’s piece is always finding pieces that you would like to digest. And to do that is through listening, listening and listening all over again, embodying the music, getting inside the music from its purely memorable side. To do this without looking at the score, without studying the details, but really listening to it as a flow, as a piece, and have small revelations like: ‘Oh, I hear that motif coming back’. It is listening for organic material of the music – and then you can actually predict it – it is going to happen here, and I can expect something there. And suddenly it starts to make more sense, just like in a piece of art. And at that time, when you are starting to become familiar – almost like walking in a new place – then we are able to truly interact with music. And then if you want to understand how the piece was written, then – as composers have been breaking with traditional technique a lot – you should really ask the composer or look at the score and try to figure that out yourself. And there is no real answer about how to get into that. You could also read what the composer has written about their work. Another is reading what others have written – like journal articles about music – I find them incredibly useful. But I am not exactly sure – short of really studying with a composer and understanding their music to the depth – that there is a necessity of approaching a total understanding of somebody’s music. In the end of the day, is it even necessary? As a composer, I always think that understanding bits and pieces that strike you is more important than anything, and more important than trying to digest all details of the entire thing. We all have limited time, and we all have to figure out what strikes out, and there is always some trial and error involved. Like in jazz people often make mistakes, but in improvisation mistakes could be one of the most important things to do, because when we make them, we surprise ourselves and could come to new outcomes. So coming to an understanding of our own without digesting a piece, and even at the expense of making a mistake in that vision of how a composer did something could be as valuable as some ideal knowledge of how they actually did it.

So in doing it we are involved in semiotic construction of a new work that now exists in our heads and could be as important as the original piece?

Exactly, that’s the most important thing we can do, in fact. The mistakes are not even relevant in the end of the day, because otherwise we would be just shelving composers – OK, Shoenberg, twelve-tone system, done, finished, next. But how did Schoenberg get to that? He was largely self-taught. It is so much more valuable to try to get where he got or somewhere new on your own, because then you own it. You suddenly turn into what was just an existing piece of something into an organic process of your own that you command over. Learn from your mistakes and figure out the paths that were shown by these occurences – that’s the most viable way of gaining competence in understanding music. Creating a map, a roadmap for the piece, just digesting it as a sound, remembering larger chunks of sound – that’s important. Mozart is not meant to be looked at on paper, his music is meant to be heard. People with the best musical sensibilities that I’ve talked to don’t know much about music theory – that’s not the most important thing.

There is a theory that being able to perceive music is ingrained in us as a human species, we just have to explore our musical instincts.

Yes, exactly, and going back to that quote about two kinds of people – those who have embraced or rejected Beethoven – it has a profound meaning. I am convinced that music is about going to its origins, thinking about it as an auditory act that we can react to and get emotional about. Other composers might not agree with that. My answers are biased by the way I see music.

Oliver Sacks tried to explore how music could heal the brain or cause its disfunction. Do you believe that it can physically affect an individual, their bodies and brains?

I haven’t read Musicophilia, but I think we are only starting to understand the effects of psychological states on the brain. There was a visiting lecturer in Oxford who had been studying migraine, and he said that the key of D major is an extremely powerful anti-migraine treatment. That is pretty amazing if you think of it. I don’t think music ispurely entertainment – there is some music which I can’t listen to if I am not in a particular frame of mind, or some piece that could take me to emotional realms I was not in before starting them.

We have been talking about constant work that goes into composing music. But what about joy? What drives you in this process?

I think the joy is in being able to have something so much effort and dedication into and to be OK about it going out into the world and last. If we stay up till 4 or 5 am in the morning with the piece that we don’t think is going to really work and stand up on its own legs, then we are wasting our time. When I work really hard, I work in the middle of the night a lot. Sometimes it is joyful if I am making really good progress, but it is not always most enjoyable thing to do. But what is actually pleasant is to be able to say: ‘OK, I’ve put so much effort into this, and now I actually feel that now it is its own thing’. You have to be able to be judged by other people in this profession, and you have to let go of your emotions when your piece is out there. Criticism should always spurn you into action, to make you realize that you always can do more.

The premiere of POLIN by Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra in Warsaw, Poland in 2019.

You have a symphony POLIN that deals with the history of Polish Jews. Could you describe the process of working on it?

I went to a museum in Poland and spent a summer there, joining their tours, digesting the museum, being a sponge. It was an exciting opportunity for a composer. That museum is a unique place, their approach is multi-national, and reviving the story of Polish Jews has been a multi-national point of interest. The basic approach that I took with that piece was not explaining Polish-Jewish museum, but responding to a museum. It was a personal musical response rather than an attempt of explanation. There were some parts of a museum that really struck with me, stuck with me, and then I started to organize a three-part piece that is not a history experience, but its own narrative. The first movement is an exploration of the initial exodus a thousand years ago, the second exlores the idea of life in a Jewish shtetl (small country town), and the last one is looking at the 20th century and Holocaust. So I organized these three pieces that are not necessarily being a continuous story, but aspects that seemed important to me into a symphonic form. And I thought it is important to respond, to remember those 900 hundred years before the Holocaust that most people know nothing about, as it is a fascinating period of the world history. So if my symphony makes people explore it or visit a museum, it would be a success.

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