Most young composers would be overjoyed just to hear their music performed by any orchestra. But few are as lucky as Julia Adolphe, a composer and student in the Musical Arts doctoral program at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. Adolphe's "Dark Sand, Sifting Light" was performed by the New York Philharmonic at their 2014 Biennial, and the Phil subsequently performed her viola concert, "Unearth, Release." Adolphe has also written an opera, as well as numerous choral and chamber pieces. Her music is assured, full of startling colors and sumptuous textures.
Adolphe has a new piece commissioned by Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra called "Shiver and Bloom," which will have its world premiere March 18 and 19. It's part of LACO's Sound Investment program, in which patrons who contributed are able to hear the work performed periodically as it develops. I spoke with Adolphe on the phone about the new work and her journey to becoming a composer. The interview is lightly edited.
Brian Marks: I had been listing to an interview you did about [the Sound Investment program] and I was surprised by it — I hadn't really heard of anything like that. Is that a common thing, where people are hearing that music as you're developing it for commissions, or is that an anomaly?
Julia Adolphe: It's unusual. I wouldn't be able to tell you how many other programs exist like it, but it's definitely a one-of-a-kind program. It's really exciting. I think any kind of workshop of a piece as it's developing, whether that's for an audience or not, is really beneficial to the piece. But I think the great thing about having an audience to it — and it doesn't just have to be patrons — but I think it's a great way to get people interested in new music.
BM: These people who have donated, when they are hearing the pieces, are they actually getting to chat with you? Are they telling if you if they like what's going on? Is that affecting your composition at all?
JA: Well we definitely chat. I get to know the people who want to come up and talk to me. People have questions, but no one is really trying to give me advice on how to write the piece. I don't think I'd be up for that. That's not really what it's about. It's more about being open with what the creative process is. As a composer, hearing the piece — or even snippets of it — before the premiere is informative.
BM: I saw that you mentioned when you start composing you start with a list of words and emotions. I was wondering what kinds of things are inspiring you to even come up with these initial feelings that launch a piece?
JA: They have to be meaningful to me in a personal way. So I usually draw from emotions I'm currently experiencing or images that I'm finding inspiring in that moment in time. I have to have a direct, personal connection to what I'm writing. It's why I do it, and also it helps me get started. At a certain point it just becomes about the musical material. But I have to draw from my life.
BM: I'm always fascinated by how artists come to their art and develop that passion. How did your relationship to classical music begin?
JA: My parents are both visual artists — my dad's a painter and my mom's an architect. So I grew up in Manhattan surrounded by the arts. I was lucky that I had parents who believed that being an artist was a career choice, it was something you could go out and do. It was something that was highly valued in my family. So I was always encouraged to be creative and playful and explore what I wanted to do from a really young age. Also, they weren't specific about what kind of art — they exposed me to everything. They took me to museums, and concerts, and theater, and we watched lots of movies all the time. I felt like my childhood was very much surrounded by art. So it was kind of a natural thing for me.
I gravitated toward music and theater and writing at a very young ago. So I started writing music when I was nine. It was simple stuff, very basic. But I always loved music.
BM: Was it clear when you were a nine-year-old who was starting to write music that you wanted to be a composer?
JA: No, that came much later. I didn't know what I wanted to be, I just knew that I liked music, and I liked theater, and I liked writing. I pretty much did those three things through high school. It wasn't until my senior year of high school when I started thinking about what I wanted to study in college that I thought I really wanted to study music — that I wanted to study classical music because I wanted to expand my palette and my range of colors. Up until then I was writing pop and folk music. I knew I loved writing music, but I felt like I could do more. I love pop music, and I loved writing it, but I just wanted to write for more instruments and create a broader range of sounds.
That's all I had in mind when I went into college. I didn't even feel comfortable calling myself a composer. I would sort of skirt around that, but I didn't feel comfortable actually labelling myself a composer until very recently, more like in graduate school. I realized "I'm a composer now, there's no way around it."
BM: You've had some great successes very early in your career, especially with the New York Philharmonic, but that's not necessarily the case for a lot of women composers or composers of color. Is it just that orchestras aren't commissioning, and aren't choosing to play enough women composers and composers of color? Or are there bigger barriers?
JA: It's more complicated than that. The problem is throughout our entire country and our entire system, so it's not an issue that's specific to classical music. All women, and all women of color, and men of color, are facing these issues — this is a larger issue in our country that's becoming an even bigger issue.
But to stick to classical music (because that's what I know about), I think a lot of it has to do with access to music education. From really early on I was lucky that I had music class in my school. But a lot of public schools don't have music. And even when you do have music, a lot of women, when they express an interest in music, they're not necessarily encouraged to become composers. So there's definitely that bias. But I think it's bigger than that — it's that music education is not easily accessible. So as a result, there are fewer women being encouraged to write.
There's also the problem of classical concerts being incredibly expensive to attend. So even if you became interested in music later on in life, it's hard to access it. This is now changing — there are a lot of groups that are doing pay-what-you-can, and obviously with the internet there are a lot of ways to listen to different music. But I it's up to orchestras and universities to be really conscious in their programming and in curating a student body so that it's more diverse. It's also important for organizations to have their staff be more diverse. In conferences this has come up, that even the people working at the orchestra could be more diverse. So there's a lot of progress that needs to be made. But it's kind of up and down the entire chain. So it's not as simple as "orchestras programming more women." But orchestras have an incredibly powerful role, and I think if they did that there would be a difference. It's just not the only thing that needs to happen. But it would be a significant statement.
BM: Can you tell me about your day-to-day work as a composer? Are you writing every day? Is it a regimented thing or in big bursts?
JA: Honestly, I ask myself this question every day [laughs]. I think my creative process is constantly evolving, and my relationship to my writing is constantly evolving, so my answer to this question would have been different six months ago, and it probably will be different six months from now.
As of now, I try my best to write for three hours every day. I used to do these all day long writing spurts, and then take a couple days to do other things related to my work, because I have a whole other element of my career that's not writing, but that's just as important. So I try to write in the morning, then spend the afternoon doing more career management-type things, or reaching out to different organizations. That's where I'm at right now.
BM: You mentioned that you did more pop songwriting at one point. What's your relationship to pop music or more popular genres?
JA: When you listen to my music, you won't hear any direct impact of popular music. I think what does stay with me is the aspect of storytelling. Storytelling, and immediacy of emotion — I think that's what first drew me to pop music, and John Lennon and The Beatles. And I do like to write for voice a lot, and having this unified world created by the text and music.
BM: How would you describe [your piece for the Sound Investment program] for someone who isn't able to see it performed?
JA: Well the piece is called "Shiver and Bloom." It's in one movement and 13 minutes long. And it's basically a single moment in time stretched over the course of 13 minutes. For me, it was about this divide I experience between my mind and my body, particularly when it comes to generating new ideas or having an inspiration. I find that it's often when I'm resting, like I'm falling asleep or I'm waking up and my body is completely at rest, and my mind is kind of working and spinning. Or when my mind is kind of turned off in a way, and I'm out running errands or moving around, or somehow engaged physically, but not mentally in a way that I'm aware of. So I found that those two states are the ones where I'm more capable of suddenly having an idea. So I was kind of exploring that dualism. The piece has these two worlds that are captured by the title. There's this shivering, cold, icy world of the mind that's kind of high and ethereal and floating and wandering. The blooming world is the grounded world of the body that's warmer and striving upwards, whereas the shivering is kind of floating down. So it's really about those two worlds coming together and changing in relationship to one another.
BM: You're a native New Yorker living in the Los Angeles area. What has your relationship to LA become? Is that a new home or are you moving on once you're finished with school?
JA: No, I'm staying in LA and I really love LA. I think it's a great place to be right now in the contemporary music world. There's a lot of exciting things happening, there are new organizations sprouting up everywhere, and there's a lot of growth. So I think this is a great place to be right now.
Julia Adolphe's "Shiver and Bloom" will have its world premiere Saturday, March 18 at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theatre and Sunday, March 19 at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall at UCLA. The program also features works by Mozart, Brahms, Handel and Mahler. Tickets are available here.
Reach Staff Reporter Brian Marks here.