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Deconstructing Composing

Stewart Oksenhorn

For the past 10 days, award-winning composer Judah Adashi has been working with valley schoolchildren in the creation of classical music. At times the children have been baffled and overwhelmed as they faced the limitless choices of notes and rhythms, confronted failure, and tried to gain some grasp of the slippery, intimidating art of composition.

Adashi can relate perfectly.

“There’s a culture around writing music, and classical music in general, that it’s very serious,” said the 28-year-old Adashi, who closes his residency, part of the Aspen Music Festival and School’s M.O.R.E. program, with a Free Family Concert at Harris Hall on Friday, April 30, at 6:30 p.m.

“When I arrived in class” ” at Yale ” “people around me were doing very serious things, like computer music with algorithms. It wasn’t just write what you feel. You’re kind of bashful about doing things that are direct and heartfelt. And you’re afraid to ask questions ” because nobody asks questions. There’s this culture around classical music and it’s kind of a club. Somehow, if you’re there, it’s assumed you know what you’re doing. But most of us don’t.”

From the outside, Adashi must have seemed at least a fringe member of that club. Growing up in Baltimore, Adashi’s father, a physician with serious talent on the piano, played Chopin along with jazz and Beatles tunes. Adashi himself took piano lessons from the age of 6 into his college years. Even with all that, Adashi felt somewhat on the outside looking in at classical music. The idea of composing was a foreign world. Even performing wasn’t something he seriously considered.

“It was never really my thing,” he said. “Performing wasn’t something I got a rush out of. I never felt that was the path I was heading down.”

At Baltimore’s private Gilman School, Adashi took the less intimidating route of popular music. He played in bands, was the vocal director for shows and even wrote some pop songs. The arts at Gilman played third violin to academics and athletics, so students participating in musicals and band were left much to their own devices, which Adashi found “liberating and exciting.”

At Yale, Adashi majored in music. But he shied away from the creative end, focusing on theory and musicology. He aimed at a career in education or scholarship. In his senior year he took a composition class, where he encountered that culture of exclusion. But his teacher ” who Adashi makes a point of naming, Kathryn Alexander ” was encouraging.

“She said, find what you want to do,” said Adashi. “And that’s what you have to do with composers. That’s what we’re trying to do with the kids.”

From the hands of babes

Adashi, along with Deborah Barnekow, the Aspen Music Festival’s director of educational outreach, demystify classical music by putting the music in the students’ hands.

For weeks prior to Adashi’s arrival, Barnekow worked with students ” ranging from fourth-graders to high school kids, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs ” in creating rhythms and melodic phrases. One morning last week, the fourth- and fifth-graders at Carbondale Elementary School were on the floor of the Round Room with xylophones, metallophones and hand drums, polishing and performing their pieces. While generally brief, rough and simple, there were also moments of inspired composition. (Friday’s hourlong concert will feature the works the students have written during the last week and a half.)

“I really try to emphasize with my students to do what feels right and what sounds right. It’s all OK,” said Adashi. “If you put your heart into it, it’s going to sound OK and be meaningful.”

What separates a kid with a snatch of melody from a composer, said Adashi, is what is done with those raw materials.

“The hard part is organizing your ideas,” he said. “The ideas aren’t the hard part. It’s putting them together. [The students] always say, ‘What? You want me to develop this?’

“What you’re really learning is economy. What you’re learning is how to spin an idea into a piece. The easy thing is to throw them into a piece, one after another. It’s very easy to write sprawling music with lots of ideas.”

Composers’ club

Adashi began to unravel the mystery of composing in that class during his senior year. He set a collection of Langston Hughes poems to music for his song cycle, “Harlem Night Songs.” “That kind of clicked,” he said.

And then things began to unclick. Adashi wrote a piece for string quartet and voice that he calls a spectacular failure. “I’d see my teacher on the street and I’d cover my face. I was not a good student to have at that time,” he said.

Adashi retreated back to more familiar forms of music. After graduating, he toured the world for three months as director of the Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s long-running a cappella singing group. (“Because there’s a vast need for a cappella music around the world,” deadpanned Adashi, a genial joker who also does impressions of most every composer and soloist whose path he has crossed.)

Back in Baltimore, Adashi decided to give composing another shot. He took private lessons with Paul Mathews, director of the music theory department at the Peabody Conservatory. After a year, he applied and was accepted to the master’s program at Peabody, where he studied with Nicholas Maw, a former composer-in-residence with the Aspen Music Festival.

“At some point it really took,” said Adashi. “There were a couple of pieces ” and if you’re lucky, you have a few of these ” where you feel it really comes from you. My first was a solo guitar piece based on a book by William Styron, ‘Darkness Visible,’ about his clinical depression. The music, for me, was a reflection of that, connecting with the book. [Another work from this period was a one-act opera based on a story by Raymond Carver.]

“Somewhere along the way I began to write pieces that were meaningful to me. And Nicholas was a top-notch mentor. I was lucky.”

Now, Adashi finds himself a full-fledged member of the composers’ club. His piece for small orchestra and solo violin, “Grace,” inspired by the album of the same name by the late rock singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, had its premiere in Aspen last summer. The piece earned Adashi the Jacob Druckman Prize for Orchestral Composition. He will return to Aspen this summer when a commissioned work, most likely for woodwind quintet with percussion, will be performed. Adashi, who teaches at Peabody’s Preparatory Division, studies privately with composer John Harbison and will begin work on his doctorate at Peabody in the fall.

With open ears

Adashi doesn’t expect any of the students from the current residency to follow his path. But he does expect to open up a window of creativity in the children. And he hopes the work begins a process of appreciation of classical music.

“I would just like to see it plant a seed in their mind about what this is,” he said, “this esoteric thing I do. It’s a mysterious thing I do. I tell people I’m a composer, and they say, ‘Oh, so what do you do?’

“It won’t be a foreign idea when they go to the concert hall. And hopefully they will go to the concert hall. They’ll think, Oh, I worked with a composer once, and I like to hear new compositions. You want to open them up so that they’ll listen to everything from bluegrass to classical and not worry about the labels. They’ll just open their ears and enjoy.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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