Anthony Adams interview

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 

AA: I was born in London in 1947. As a child I learnt to play the piano but, apart from passing GCE music at the age of 14, my musical upbringing was unexceptional; my knowledge of classical music was restricted solely to piano works I learnt and music I studied for GCE. I was attracted to the “theory of music”, how it works. I did attempt to write pieces while in my teens but more in a popular style rather than classical. 

At A-Level I studied sciences and followed that with a degree in Biochemistry at Liverpool University.

While at university I started to become seriously interested in classical music, my first discoveries being Bartok’s 3rdand 4thstring quartets, Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht and Mozart’s Symphonies 39, 40 and 41, all of which I still listen to. Biochemistry began to pall and after university I spent 5 years driving buses in Liverpool while I took up the piano again, studied A-Level music at night school, discovered a huge amount of music (mostly 20thcentury), got married and started to teach myself to compose. In 1973 I gained a place at UCNW, Bangor where I studied composition with William Mathias and Jeffrey Lewis.

Highlights of the 1980s were performances of a string quartet with soprano in the Wigmore Hall (Allegri Quartet with Mary King), a saxophone quartet in the Almeida theatre (Delta Saxophone Quartet) and an ensemble piece, Arabesque, at the 1989 Bath Festival (Lontano conducted by Odaline de la Martinez).

After Bangor, I moved to York where, in 1981, I co-founded Soundpool, the precursor of the Late Music concerts and worked as a private music teacher. For the last 25 years I have been based in Saltburn-by-the-Sea and have run a music teaching business supplying music teachers to schools throughout the North East. For many years composing took a back seat to other interests and the demands of family life; in 2011 I started creating electronic works and to date have completed about 45.

SC: Can you describeyour new work to us?

AA: In March 1980 I completed a commission for The Radcliffe Music Award, a work for string quartet and soprano, The Closing of Autumn, settings of some of the haiku interspersed throughout the Japanese poet Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This work was given performances by the Allegri Quartet with Mary King at Hull University and subsequently in the Wigmore Hall. A number of years later in the late 80s or early 90s (I can’t remember which) it was performed again in York by the Bingham Quartet at one of Soundpool’s concerts.

When I was asked to write a violin piece for Steve Bingham all this immediately came to mind. After some thought, I took as the starting point for my piece all the melodic and harmonic material of the setting of the first haiku from The Closing of Autumn. The translation of this haiku (by Nobuyuki Yuasa) is:

The passing spring,
Birds mourn,
Fishes weep
With tearful eyes.

The piece is not, however, haiku-like in any way; it is, rather, quite dramatic in part. 

SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?

AA: I used to use the piano but I don’t now. I usually pre-plan somewhat: durations on both a large and small scale, not notes or harmonies, sometimes rhythms. I do pre-plan layers, even in a solo piece. But every piece is different, it depends on my starting point.

SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?

AA: Not at all.

SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?

AA: I don’t consider that I have an individual sound world. Each piece takes on its own characteristics.

SC: What motivates you to compose? 

AA: The desire to create, to bring the sounds of my internal aural landscape to life.

SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?

AA: I don’t identify with anyone. I value much of the work of Michel van der Aa, Philip Glass, Steve Reich.

SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?

AA: That would probably have to be Stockhausen. I have lots of questions.

SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.

AA: This is very difficult, eight is too few, and in any case, the list would change from year to year. There are huge omissions here: mediaeval and renaissance music, not to mention Bach and Mozart. I consider these works to be representative of the composers (artists) selected. If I only had one, today it would be Tehillim, but tomorrow. . .Doktor Faust – BusoniTehillim – Steve ReichMantra – Stockhausen Turangalila – MessiaenString Quartet No 15 in A Minor – BeethovenBlackstar – David BowieBitches Brew – Miles DavisStories from the City, Stories from the Sea – P J Harvey

SC:…and a book?:AA: A Voyage to Arcturus – David Lindsay

SC:…a film?

AA: Again, very difficult. Probably a choice between Apocalypse Now (Coppola), 2001 A Space Odyssey (Kubrick), The Seventh Seal (Bergman), Solaris (Tarkovsky).

SC:… and a luxury item?

AA: A bottle of Ardbeg whisky, unless I can have a crate of mixed Islay whiskies. . .