Interview with Adam Schoenberg

Recently named one of the most-performed living composers in the United States, Adam Schoenberg (no relation to Arnold Schoenberg of the Second Viennese School) has been a steadily rising star in the classical music community. The 36-year-old has already been the recipient of numerous commissions from some of the nation’s leading orchestras and served as a composer-in-residence for the Kansas City Symphony, the Lexington Philharmonic, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Blair School of Music, and the Aspen Music Festival & School’s M.O.R.E. Music Program. The first album of his music, performed by the Kansas City Symphony under the direction of Michael Stern, was released earlier this year through Reference Recordings and features three of his large-scale orchestral works: Finding Rothko, American Symphony, and Picture Studies.

Schoenberg currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the screenwriter Janine Salinas Schoenberg, and their two sons, Luca and Leo. He teaches composition and film scoring at Occidental College where he is Assistant Professor of Music.

I reached out to the composer via email and he graciously accepted the offer to be the first interviewee for ArtsComment. Our conversation, which transpired between September 15th and October 1st, 2017, is as follows.


I’d like to start off by simply asking, how’s life? You’re now living in L.A. with your wife and two sons and teaching composition and film scoring at Occidental College. You’ve also just had an album released of three major works (Finding Rothko, American Symphony, and Picture Studies)—the product of a collaboration with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony. Obviously, you’re at something of a turning point in your life. How does all of that feel?

Life is full and busy, but also quite wonderful. My family is great. I have two boys (4 and 2), and my wife is also a writer. She is currently writing on FX’s Snowfall, but she is also a playwright and librettist. She worked on the Hopscotch Opera, and she and I will be collaborating on a semi-staged “opera” for a big premiere in 2020 (more info on that in the near future…). Occidental College is a dream job for a composer. I went to Oberlin College and then transferred to conservatory my sophomore year, so I like to think of myself as a partial product of a liberal arts education. Although I do miss being able to work with graduate students, like I did while teaching at UCLA, Occidental is an unbelievable environment. I’m the only composer on the faculty, so I redesigned/restructured the entire composition program, as well as begin a film scoring program, too. We’re also about to launch a music production program, as that will eventually become the most popular major. It’s the only liberal arts college in the heart of Los Angeles, and we have an excellent music program.

Regarding the album, it was always been a dream to have my orchestral music professionally recorded. The partnership with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony is quite special. Michael was the first conductor to commission me and really champion my music. He commissioned Finding Rothko with Iris Orchestra, and then American Symphony and Picture Studies with Kansas City. The Kansas City Symphony had really supported me, as I worked with them for the first while still a student, and then later on as professional composer. I feel incredibly grateful for that relationship, and I’m beyond proud of the album.

I want to focus on what you said about music production.  It reminds me of something the film composer and orchestrator Conrad Pope said a few years back that he felt he was no longer in the composition business, but rather in the recording business.  Would you say that music creation is shifting away from traditional composition and more into music production, even within the realm of classical music?

I believe that there will always be room for “traditional” composition, as long as the concert music world continues to thrive. I consider myself to be a traditional composer, in that I still use pencil and paper and fully notate my music. But I’m also a product of the 21st-century, and I embrace technology as both a form of composing and a source of inspiration. My last two works (Scatter and Symphony no. 2) incorporated electronics for the first time.

I think music creation is evolving according to the times. Our world is defined by technology, and so it’s only natural to see artists of all disciplines creating works that reflect what they are experiencing in their lives. As a result, we are now seeing more orchestral composers beginning to use electronics and digital media in their pieces.

Although it’s important that we continue to be aware of technological advances, I still feel that all composers should have solid fundamental training in the craft. At Occidental, all music production majors will be required to go through the entire theory track, as we want them to graduate being well-rounded musicians.

Speaking of film scoring, you’ve written a handful of film music now yourself—most notably Graceland, co-written with your father in 2012—and you’ve described having a longtime interest in the genre.  You’ve also cited the film composer Thomas Newman, about whom you wrote your thesis, as being influential in your work (something I especially noticed in Finding Rothko).  Have any other film composers or particular film scores made an impact on your compositional style?

I am a huge fan of Alexandre Desplat and Jóhann Jóhannsson. Alexandre embodies a more traditional compositional spirit (he is such a fine craftsman), while Johann embraces the traditional craft with new technologies. His scores for Arrival, Sicario, and The Theory of Everything are simply extraordinary. My wife and I watch a lot of television, and I feel that there is also a movement of composers who are bringing a distinct and exciting sound to the small screen. Some of my personal favorites are Jeff Russo (Fargo), Jeff Beal (House of Cards), Nate Barr (The Americans), and Mac Quayle (Mr. Robot).

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, you said that you “would love to write a film score and one orchestral piece a year,” but that orchestral writing is what’s most important to you now.  Why is that?  Do you approach the two genres from a different textural perspective as well as a structural one?

Writing for orchestra (or really any concert music commission that I receive) almost always gives the composer complete artistic control over the compositional process. Someone commissions you, and 95% of the time all that is negotiated is the instrumentation and duration. You are then free to create something from nothing. I love that process. But that process can also become lonely, and quite frankly, I have felt a little burned out by it lately. I consider film and TV to be the greatest synthesis of the arts, and it’s an honor to play a small part in that collaboration. There is also a hierarchy that one must be aware of when composing for film/TV, and I appreciate and respect it. As a film composer, your job is to service the image, director, and producers. You are being tasked with creating a narrative within a narrative, and almost always less is more. You are also writing for the speakers and how the sound interacts with the image, so you need to be mindful of everything you see on screen.

You’ve mentioned the French composers Henri Dutilleux and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, in addition to left-field names like Radiohead and Pat Metheny, as being influence on your musical style. What other artists or pieces have served as inspiration for your work?

Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Symphony no. 3 are very important works to me. John Corigliano’s Chaconne (first movement of the Red Violin concerto) is a masterpiece in my mind. I recently heard a string quartet by a young composer at Columbia, Sky Macklay. I think she has a fresh sound, and I’m excited to hear more of her music.

Your father is also an accomplished pianist and composer for television, film, and other media.  What kind of influence has coming from a musical household had on the style of music you write?

I feel that growing up in a creative household didn’t influence my artistic style as much as it did my process. Being an improviser is probably my greatest strength, and that is something that I learned from my father. Composers generate material in many different ways, but I wholeheartedly believe that music from the subconscious can be the most powerful and profound. It comes from a very deep place, and through improvisation I am able to tap into that material.

And what of your own children?  I know your son Luca inspired Bounce and Canto, but how else has becoming a father yourself affected your composition?

Becoming a father has helped me to prioritize my life and let go of unnecessary pressures. My main job right now is to provide for my children and give them the best possible life that my wife and I can offer. Having that type of clarity has allowed me to be much more relaxed about my career. For a long time, all I was focused on was getting the next performance and the next commission. Now, I am becoming more selective with which projects I take on. I want to spend time with my family, while also continuing to develop my craft and language. One thing I’ll say for sure is that I am extremely efficient with my time now. I can compose more quickly, and when I have a window to work, I take advantage of every moment. So perhaps becoming a father has also further disciplined me.

Do you think they might one day become composers themselves?

I have no idea if Luca and Leo will become composers or musicians. They are both quite musical, but we’ll simply have to see how things unfold…

Finally, what’s in the future for Adam Schoenberg?  Do you have any upcoming commissions, premieres, or recordings we haven’t yet mentioned?

I’m currently writing a violin concerto for Anne Akiko Meyers and the San Diego and Phoenix symphonies. The work is called Orchard in Fog and it is based on a photograph by Adam Laipson of an apple orchard where I grew up in western Massachusetts. It’s also where my wife and I were married. I’m also writing a two-piano concerto for the Dranoff International 2 Piano Foundation. Future projects include a new band piece for a California consortium of 30 wind symphonies, as well as a large-scale semi-staged work for orchestra, chorus, and 4-soloists that will be premiered in 2020.

(Photo credit: Elisa Ferrari)

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