Category Archives: Composers

The Music of Adam Roberts

RudyRojahn-WebsiteI first heard Adam’s music in 2009 on an old Myspace page. Gabby Diaz, a wonderful violinist who I’ve worked with both in the context of Guerilla Opera and separately, had recommended his music as something I might like. Not only did I like Adam’s stuff, I was floored by it. Most composers in their late twenties are still finding themselves as artists, taking chances, throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. This is an important process out of which composers mature, ideally into something that is truly “them.” What I found in Adam’s work was an already codified, distinct voice. He had an identity that was unique, recognizable and thrilling.

In 2010, I finally met the man himself while he was finishing his PhD at Harvard. We ran in similar new music circles so it was surprising that we hadn’t met at some point in the previous decade during which we both lived in Boston. I had heard that Adam was from my hometown Columbus, OH, but we quickly realized that not only were we both from Columbus but we also both grew up in Clintonville, a neighborhood just north of Ohio State University. We were almost the exact same age, had mutual friends and both worked in immediate succession [if our memories going back 17 years are to be believed] at the same small Austrian bakery, scraping pans and cleaning floors for five dollars an hour under the table.

I found the synchronicity of our origins fascinating, not only because of the improbability of two Clintonville kids growing up to devote their lives to this obscure musical sub-genre, but also because of what it might potentially say about our work. I wondered if my enthusiasm for Adam’s music was related to our shared geography, as if perhaps Columbus had shaped us in some unconscious and profound way and imbued us with similar sensibilities which we would later come to recognize in the music of the other.

I’d like to highlight some of what I find so wonderful about Adam’s music. Check out the following three excerpts:

Excerpt from Sinews (2008)

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A composer’s treatment of a single melodic line is usually a nice window into his sound world. In this excerpt from Sinews, some of the characteristics that make Adam’s music so unique come to foreground. While his use of timbral manipulation imbues the excerpt with a plethora of diverse color, the real meat of the music for me is in the thin line dividing fingered melodic gestures and outright glissandi. There’s both a foreignness and familiarity to the music, a common dichotomy in his work.

Excerpt from Strange Loops (2007-2008)

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There’s an orgasmic ecstasy to the profusion of repeated gestures in this short excerpt from Strange Loops, in which Roberts layers two images on top of one another. The first of these, in the foreground, relentlessly reiterates itself in ever-so-slight variation like some broken, mechanical device. The second image is more subtle, a vast ocean beneath the surface of the first, undulating with a profusion of unsettled small percussion instruments, like a swarm of insects creating an ever-shifting texture.

Excerpt from Recoil

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Recoil highlights Adam’s brilliant manipulation of denser textures of instruments. There’s a thickly layered sheen made up of a multitude of smaller gestures. The more strident melodic material unifies a texture that, perceived as a whole sounds, like a massive, somehow-flawed machine factory laboring away, threatening to collapse under it’s own weight.

The process of working on Giver of Light has given me the chance to see Adam’s music from a new perspective. The opera arrived several months ago as a silent block of pages. Leafing through it I got the chance, in some sense, to experience his music without the filter of other artists. It gave me the chance to revel in the details of his sound world, to admire the construction of his architecture on both the macro and microscopic levels and to see his creative signature so carefully hidden amongst all those notes. But the magic of notated music is the filter it must go through to be realized. It requires other people’s interpretation of the composer’s imagination. I can’t wait to experience it as a final product, surrounded by other listeners being spun in his beautiful web.

Rudolf Rojahn
Boston, April 16, 2013

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Origins of Giver of Light


Adam Roberts, composer

My new chamber opera, Giver of Light, began to take shape while I was a graduate student at Harvard University when I took a course on music and narrative with the composer Judith Weir, who was a visiting professor at the time. Judith asked us to keep a journal which we would use to free associate, collect materials, write character sketches, etc., allowing ideas to materialize slowly as we explored the world and our own minds.

The truth is that I had no intention of writing an opera—I took the course because it seemed interesting, and that was that. Even so, I spent a semester thinking about what I would do if I did have the chance to write an opera. At the time I was (and still am) in love with the poetry of Rumi, and more specifically the translations of Coleman Barks, which have become so popular and put Rumi on the map for English-speakers around the world. I liked Barks’ down-to-earth tone, turning Rumi into an enlightened but accessible vernacular poet. I decided that semester that the opera I wanted to make would not be opera as such, but a type of theater ritual, which would abstractly set various poems by Rumi, creating a nonlinear exploration of a mystical/musical space. I made progress: I developed specific sounds in my inner ear. I met a choreographer and we began exploring the possibility of including dance as a central feature of the work. Friend and artist Dione Greenberg created beautiful visuals that we planned to integrate somehow. Over the summer I tried to sketch a scene, but I had no libretto, and I wasn’t really ready to make the piece. This was the summer of 2004. So the idea was placed on the back burner.

Fast forward to Boston, 2010 (was it?). I hear and admire some music by Rudy Rojahn, Co-Artistic Director and founder of Guerilla Opera, and Rudy and I learn that we’re about the the same age and are both from Columbus, OH, but had not met or heard of each other until we lived in Boston. Rudy asked if I might be interested in writing an opera for Guerilla Opera, and I said yes.

I knew of Guerilla Opera, but had not yet been to one of their shows, though I was in touch with good friend and composer Nicholas Vines who was about to write an opera for them (Loose, Wet, Perforated). Nick would come over to my apartment and read his libretto-in-progress to me, and then Nick and I went to see a production of Rudy’s Heart of a Dog. I was struck by the impact of the work in the small black box theater at The Boston Conservatory: it was immediate, visceral, direct, and compelling. This was not grand opera, it was gritty opera that was relevant for a young, non-opera-going audience.

A while later, Rudy and I met for coffee at Flour bakery in Cambridge to discuss possible topics for my opera. At the time, I had two ideas. One was a retelling of the life story of Rumi and the other was a futuristic drama in which two people fall in love in a context where sex has became completely recreational (think “Brave New World”). Setting Rumi in the 13th-century seemed problematic, needing period sets which went against the grain of simple, direct and modern operatic production. The second idea was compelling to Rudy, but I wasn’t ready to let go of Rumi. Rudy suggested merging the two ideas, meaning that we could use the Rumi material but combine it with the energy of the modern story. The solution was to set Rumi’s life story in contemporary culture.

I set about defining the central events of Rumi’s life story that I would need to include in my libretto. These turned out to be:

1.) Rumi meets Shams of Tabriz;
2.) Rumi’s transformation into a mystic through meditation with Shams;
3.) Shams’ disappearance; and
4.) Rumi’s grief and ultimate realization that he has internalized Shams’ presence.

In my piece Rumi is John, a socially conscious, Midwestern businessman who has it all, a lovely wife (Elena), a ten-year-old son (Brian), and a good job selling hybrid cars, but he still feels empty on the inside. John then meets Darren (Shams) who happens to drive Brian’s school bus, and is floored by the feelings that are stirred in him. John and Darren end up meeting at Darren’s house, Act I culminating with a wordless meditation ritual.

Shams of Tabriz

Shams of Tabriz

If the first Act is about John and Darren’s connection, the second is about the conflict that develops between John and Elena. The Act opens with Elena complaining to Susan, her friend, that John has been spending a lot of time with this strange guy, Darren, and Susan suggests that John might be gay. Elena doesn’t believe Susan and tries to reaffirm her conviction of John’s sexual orientation by having sex with him, but John refuses to sleep with her (he’s in a state of spiritual elation) and offers her no explanation.

In Act II, scene 3, a mean kid taunts Brian on the school bus, calling John gay: the rumor mill is in full effect. Brian and the kid fight, and Darren stops the bus, throwing the mean kid off. Darren places Brian, who is crying, on his lap, and comforts him, stroking his cheek. Elena enters just at that moment and sees a scene in which she believes her son is being molested. She pulls Brian off of Darren’s lap and runs home, calling the police on Darren. In some versions of Rumi’s story, Shams was murdered. In my version, I needed Darren to disappear, but I didn’t want one of my characters to kill him, and this was the solution I settled on.

In the final scene of the opera Elena confronts John and John is forced to decide for himself what the truth is: is Darren a fraud, or is his wife lying about Darren’s molestation of Brian?

As I wrote the libretto and began writing the music, it became clear to me that the piece would live in two spaces: the mundane, “real” world, and the esoteric, meditative world John enters. When characters enact ordinary conversation, the music tends to be punchy, rhythmic, solid, and more conventional. When Darren and John meditate, the music is abstract, fluid, strange. John and Elena’s arias bridge the gap between these spaces: the music in these parts is internal, reflective, pained.

In the end, I feel that I’ve created a work that is both operatic and ceremonial: it draws on operatic conventions and at the same time creates abstract, meditative spaces in which rituals take place.

The great revelation I’ve had so far about opera is how truly collaborative it is. Early conversations with Rudy provided me with a clear direction; Anıl Çamçı is busy creating electronics for the piece; Anna Wood edited my libretto and wrote some of the best, most scathing lines (“when I touch my wife’s skin, all I feel is aging flesh”), Andrew Eggert, the director, has already brought numerous issues to my attention that I wouldn’t have considered; Mike Williams has talked me through my percussion setup and Aliana de la Guardia has performed opera arias for me on Skype. The time between when I e-mail score and parts to Guerilla Opera (which I just did!) to when I show up in Boston two months from now will be filled with activity: a set will be built, costumes will be designed, staging will be done. I am thrilled, anxious, and curious to find out how the various pieces of everyone’s visions come together…

Adam Roberts
Istanbul, March 15, 2013

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