SAMUEL CARL ADAMS:  Drift and Providence

Samuel Carl Adams was born on December 30, 1985, in San Francisco and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Drift and Providence was co-commissioned by the New World Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. It was premiered in Miami by the New World Symphony on April 20, 2012, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The orchestra consists of three each of flutes (two doubling piccolo), oboes, clarinets (two doubling contrabass clarinet and bass clarinet), and bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, a large percussion battery divided among four players and consisting of vibraphones, sizzle cymbals, bass drum, low toms, brake drums, snare drum, sandpaper blocks, crotales, tam-tam, large and medium triangles, cowbells, and gong, and strings. An unnotated electronic part is performed by the composer from a laptop computer. These are the first West Coast performances of this work. Performance time: about twenty minutes.

Between the spring of 2011 and winter of 2012, as Samuel Adams was composing Drift and Providence, he carried the score everywhere. It came into being “in numerous inconvenient locations:  Brooklyn coffee shops, Taiwanese hotels, even a friend’s cabin in a desolate part of the early winter Sierra Nevada. I found this process exciting and unpredictable,” he says, “and because of this lack of anchorage I felt it necessary to create a narrative about stability of place.” 

Adams grew up in the Bay Area, and his parents—composer John Adams and photographer Deborah O’Grady—met while working at the San Francisco Symphony: “making the institution partially responsible for my existence,” as he says. His journey from East Bay beginnings to  a burgeoning compositional career took him through a number of American educational institutions. After a start with Suzuki training in piano, by the fifth grade he was in Berkeley’s Crowden School, where he focused on playing bass. “Spending that much time thinking about music at such a young age was really important,” Adams recalls. Yet he soon explored beyond the usual confines of classical music. He played jazz in high school, hiked in the Sierras, visited composer Lou Harrison in Aptos. “I discovered Keith Jarrett and found improvising and playing jazz to be something that was tickling a part of my personality that I hadn’t really experienced before. That’s maybe my own rebellious way of breaking off from what I thought was, at that point, a structured and conservative way of approaching music.”

Stanford University provided an ideal proving ground for an inquisitive, imaginative, and eclectic musical personality. “There was a very robust intellectual community in the music department,” says Adams. “I initially shied away from studying music there and wound up taking courses in Japanese, urban planning, and even computer science. I was surrounded by a lot of really interesting people, and they inspired me to think about things in a way I hadn’t beforehand. Although I ended up studying music, I found my other courses to be equally inspiring.”

Yale’s performance-oriented graduate school of music was a different experience. “I was able to do everything. There was almost too much to do. I was teaching electronic music, music theory, leading the big band, conducting, writing a lot of music, playing bass and piano. My expectation of the musical-intellectual climate was that it was going to be intense and unforgiving, but actually it was fairly laissez-faire. That’s probably what I needed at that point. I wanted to write and write and write.”

That writing, as might be expected, reflects the sophistication and breadth that had characterized Adams’s experience, with a particular emphasis on instrumental sonority. His 2008 Aves Nostradamus, for violin and piano, begins with a passage of percussion effects created entirely with the pianist’s feet on the pedals and hands on the piano’s wooden surfaces; when the violin enters, it creates a panoply of fascinating sounds via techniques both old and new. Tension Studies (2010-11), for processed electric guitar and percussion, takes advantage of the guitar’s ability to “bend” pitches by tuning and detuning the instrument’s strings; electronic filters and imaginative percussion writing combine to create a web of shifting sonorities that evoke the urban jazz scene. The 2010 Piano Step, for solo piano, eschews electronic manipulation while exploring rhythmic subtleties.

Now Adams lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, plays bass in and around New York City, conducts the music of his peers, works as an assistant to several musicians (including jazz pianist Fred Hersch), and leads sound design for various multimedia and dramatic projects.

Adams structured Drift and Providence around what he calls “three imagined places.” Although Embarcadero and Divisadero are literally on the San Francisco map, those names function here to indicate places of the spirit—as does Providence, which suggests a guiding power. Adams describes the connective movements Drift I and Drift II as “what one may experience moving physically and psychologically between” the “three imagined places.” Embarcadero, Divisadero, and Providence “really aim to suggest archetypal departures and arrivals.” In keeping with that aim, the five movements are written to be played without pause.

Water and wind are immediately apparent in the “Drift” of the work’s title, even more so in the opening Embarcadero (Spanish for “wharf”), with its wash of string sonorities aerated by brass players exhaling through the chambers of their instruments, while sizzle cymbals and vibraphones add soft high-frequency splashes that moisten the mix yet further. The passage is tonally comfortable, but a few out-of-context “blue” notes subtly distort that familiarity. The metallic noise created by scraped cowbells and brake drums ensures that the music is not altogether fog-bound. That’s the East Coast influence, the machinery that is such a part of New York life.

Computerized sound processing also builds a bridge between natural and man-made, wood and metal, East and West. Throughout Drift and Providence Adams himself controls a laptop computer that enhances certain frequencies emanating from the amplified percussion section. The effect is subtle, but the sonic canvas would be less vivid absent the processing. For example, those “blue” notes that begin emerging shortly after the work’s opening are significantly enhanced by the computer.

Pauses occur throughout. Although some mark the divisions between the work’s five movements, others serve as qualitative or emotional signifiers. “Silences can be really loud,” says Adams. “They can do so much to the material and for me every one of them serves a different function. Early in the piece they heighten the tentative or lost quality, and towards the end they serve a heightened sense of intensity.”

Recurring over the course of Embarcadero is a descending stepwise figure, played by oboe and clarinet, that begins innocuously enough as two notes but soon becomes three. “It’s a little jazz tune,” explains Adams. “It’s all over the place.”

Embarcadero is followed by the faster moving Drift I, which introduces a series of rolled chords in the vibraphones, enlivening the relatively static harmony of Embarcadero. This movement is more overtly dramatic, building over a three-minute span to a climactic outburst marked by a restatement of the  “little jazz tune” played by the trumpets. A vigorous passage evoking big-city bling arises, characterized by downward-cascading figures in the winds and brass. A loud lunge to a triple forte is followed by a sudden long silence, leading directly to the middle movement, Divisadero.

A “divisadero” is a high place from which one can observe an extensive area. Thus it connotes distance and separation along with the idea of “dividing” one thing from another. (The San Francisco street is named in both senses; Divisadero was originally the dividing line between the city and the Presidio, while the original Spanish name for Lone Mountain was El Divisadero.) The third-movement Divisadero reflects that etymology by looking both backwards and forwards. Because it opens with material similar to Embarcadero it reminds us of the journey just taken, but soon enough it ventures into new territories. The harmony is thrown off balance by four statements of raucous brass chords, and the following passages, although familiar in their instrumentation and pacing, lose their sense of stability.

As Divisadero nears its conclusion the undulating string figures and brass-instrument exhalations from the work’s opening return. Sustained chords in the winds usher in Drift II, a short transitional movement that opens with the same rolled vibraphone chords that began Drift I. Soon enough the tempo begins steadily increasing and culminates in a triple forte, leading immediately into the final movement.

Providence follows, alone of the work’s five movements opening at high volume. That volume is sustained for most of the movement’s length, and after a quadruple forte outburst (the loudest moment in the score), the work ends in a soft cascade of winds and brass exhalations over the metallic wash of scraped brake drums and cowbells that characterizes the opening

Providence, says Adams, “suggests guidance and protection—either human or divine. It restates the opening, but its appearance and behavior are completely re-imagined to evoke a place both unmistakably familiar and disconcertingly unknown.” Adams speaks of Providence as “a summation; in a certain way it’s triumphant, in a certain respect it’s also a bit terrifying.” But it has not been Adams’s intention to settle anything. “On first listening, there are things that aren’t so clear. I like things to be kind of murky sometimes. That feeling of being a little bit unclear, a little ambiguous—that’s welcome. It’s what the piece is aiming at.”

Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

More About the Music
There is not as yet any published literature on the music of Samuel Adams. However, his website, samuelcarladams.com, hosts not only his personal blog but also offers a catalogue with descriptions of his works, his performance calendar, samples of recorded performances, and links to his associates and colleagues. A search for “Samuel Carl Adams” on YouTube will reveal that a number of Adams’s works are available in online performances, including Tension Study No. 1 and his Piano Trio.