Interview with Sturdivant Adams

Sturdivant Adams is a young American composer who has studied at Columbia University (BA in Music) and University of Oxford (MPhil in Music Composition). After finishing Oxford, where he studied with Professor Robert Saxton, Sturdivant received an MM from the University of Southern California’s Thornton Screen Scoring Master’s program in 2019. His Second Symphony – commissioned by Warsaw’s Polin Museum – was premiered in 2019 by the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra. In 2018, he was awarded the 1st prize in the Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Composers’ Competition, and earlier this year, he was awarded the 1st prize in the inaugural 2020 ScoreLive London international Film Scoring Competition, judged by top Hollywood composers and orchestrators including Pete Anthony and Garry Schyman. Sturdivant has contributed music to TV series including Robot Chicken (Adult Swim) and Crossing Swords (Sony Pictures Television).

Once when we were both students at Oxford (spring 2018) we sat down with Sturdivant in cosy Merton MCR to talk about everything related to music. It was a deep and revealing conversation indeed.

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 at the end of the day even choosing between two notes is a form of improvisation.

You know, 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 partly gone in the 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: maybe Mozart was one of them, hearing a whole overture when travelling. As for me, I have to walk towards them. Coming up with something I can stand behind is always a process.

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

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 develop, but the interest in composition is in fleshing that out and see what things you could do with those melodies.

Click this photo of Sturdivant to find out about the prestigious ASCAP Morton Award he has recently received

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. You 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 what Beethoven’s Fifth sounds like 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 the 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’s 9th or Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ overture — much of the reason was 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 known to regular concertgoers, the Americans — only a handful — most people know only John Adams, John Williams, or Philip Glass 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 — maybe it is an emotional thing — that it sparks 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 favorite ones is Christopher Rouse who has sadly passed away recently. He was an American composer, was a professor at the Juilliard School. When I was studying at Columbia University he was the Composer-in-Residence with the 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.

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 in 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 — 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. As Gustavo Dudamel puts it, it is «classical music working for film». 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 favorites in America was Steven Stucky. 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 many institutions. And then there are people like John Williams are not prioritizing that as many indirect ways — they are still doing it in indirect ways, but it doesn’t appear to be 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. It is an important medium to reach people. And the question for composers is how we can 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. I feel that hopefully in the future we can have more composers who reject the categories expected of them. Many people take a melody for granted, which is a very strange thing — we all can whistle the opening of ‘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 Steven Stucky — he didn’t really compose melodies as much as motifs, but he was an incredible motif 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.

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 some popular ones quote a lot from Prokofiev, Debussy and 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. I think it was Stravinsky who said: ‘Good composers borrow, great composers steal’. And I think it is an interesting idea. Music is a language. As a painter has a certain amount of colors 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. I recently heard someone say something at a presentation something along the lines: ‘All composers have either embraced Beethoven or rejected Beethoven’, which is a really bold, 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, there’s something really valid to that. Or it could be a direct quotation from other means — Christopher Rouse wrote a Requiem. There he uses the general form of Hector Berlioz’s Requiem, and his doing so 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 maybe 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 that comes in, too — but at 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 an 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 everyone who goes to the concert hall always thinks: ‘I am going for Beethoven tonight’ — though many do. But it is also that Beethoven is performed a lot, he is on the programme frequently. 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. Beethoven was not fully understood in his time. It may be that the innovators of today may be embraced in the future in a different way entirely than in the present.

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 to, we have no idea whether they were concentrating for all that duration — maybe 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 pieces, it is still a substantial amount of time for a modern person — to situate yourself and get your groundings, to perceive 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 broke the piece down: ‘here is the beginning, there is the end, and here is the section where this memorable contrabass glissando comes in’, presenting what individual instruments did in particular sections. So he gave these goalposts, explaining the piece in 5 minutes, helping us to understand what was going on there. I already knew the piece myself, 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, I’m anticipating this thing happening soon’. 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 just the formal development of the underlying musical elements is the story. Like in the case of Xenakis — he was also an architect — without the understanding that his music is a manifestation of architectural principles you could struggle to find the point of it. So being able to concentrate is to recognize these goalposts and then understand what is happening between each goalpost. 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 to appreciate.

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 items in the kitchen. Clearly music can express architecture or can express a chair, but the question is whether it can do it successfully. 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, as complicated as it got, it was always in service of an idea. He always had a musical expressive idea that pervaded the piece. The degree of music’s ability to do what you have described is contained in its 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 a 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 progression. He spends the whole overture climbing up through that progression, and a lot of the opera doing so as well! 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 the 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 multi-layered, 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 genius 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 and Wagner 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’ — I think that especially with contemporary music today 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 a piece of Steven Stucky?

I think if we begin listening with the expectation of ‘understanding’ a piece of music, that is never really going to happen. Because our understanding is always a reflection of us above all. If you want to better understand someone else’s piece, find 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 the 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 works and what doesn’t, and there is always trial and error involved. As in jazz, people often make ‘mistakes’ in the process of improvising, many jazz artists hold that these ‘mistakes’ are one of the most important things to do, because when we make them, we surprise ourselves and come to new outcomes. So coming to an understanding of our own while digesting a piece — even at the expense of making a mistake in understanding how a composer did something — could be as valuable as some 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 have a command over. Learn from your mistakes and figure out the paths that were shown by these occurrences — 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 some of 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 composer lecturing in Oxford who had been studying migraine, and he said that there is evidence that the key of D major is an effective anti-migraine treatment (I’m not sure whether this was substantiated or not). That is pretty amazing if you think of it. I don’t think music is purely 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 it.

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 sometimes. 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 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.

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 the POLIN museum in Poland and spent a week 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 history in any way, but responding to it on an emotional level. There were some parts of a museum that really stuck with me, and then I started to organize a three-part piece around those reactions. And I thought it is important to respond, to explore those 900 hundred years before the Holocaust that most people know nothing about, as it is a fascinating period of history. So if the symphony makes any more people explore it or become curious about the museum, it would be a success.