Art Talk with Composer Julia Adolphe

By Rebecca Sutton
Head shot of woman with curly brown hair and sleeveless red dress

Compser Julia Adolphe. Photo by Stephen Busken

Of all the career guidance composer Julia Adolphe has received over the years, it was advice offered by an inmate she met while teaching music theory at Auburn Correctional Facility that has proven to be among the most impactful. "Julia, all you have to do is write the music that you love and then other people will love it too,” she remembers him saying.

This advice has encouraged her to believe in the power and gifts of her voice, which has been described as “melodically entrancing,” “musically vivid,” and “alive with invention.” She has garnered commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the LA Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and has seen her work performed across the world by orchestras and ensembles such as North Carolina Symphony, the Eastern Festival Orchestra, and the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra. In 2013, she premiered her chamber opera SYLVIA at New York’s Bargemusic, and she is currently working on a comic family-friendly opera called A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, based on the eponymous Jules Feiffer book, which was Adolphe’s favorite book as a child. We recently spoke with Adolphe about the attraction of creating classical music, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field, and how she creates inspiration.

NEA: Did you grow up in an artistic household?

JULIA ADOLPHE: Yes. My dad is a painter and my mom is an architect. I grew up in a family where being an artist was an absolutely acceptable career path, if not expected.

And I grew up in New York City, so I was really lucky to be surrounded by the arts. My parents were very thorough in terms of exposing me to all of the arts at a really young age. I did theater, I did musical theater, I danced. My dad, of course, wanted to teach me how to draw because he was a painter. So I was granted access to all of these different disciplines. Music and theater were really the things that I was compelled to pursue. I think that's why opera has become such an important medium to me because it's really, in a way, kind of my both first loves combined.

NEA: You started writing music at age nine, originally pop music pieces. How did you become drawn to classical?

ADOLPHE: I always listened to classical music. My parents always had that playing, and we went to concerts at Lincoln Center. I remember trying to figure out how to play classical pieces on the piano. I started taking piano lessons when I was eight, but I got bored very quickly because when you're eight, you have to learn how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and things like that. I just didn't get into it. I didn’t like practicing.

But I always loved classical music. I think I just felt it was maybe beyond my reach in a certain way. I didn't see a lot of women doing classical music, and it felt like a very elite field. I admired it and maybe fantasized about it, but it didn't feel like it really related to my teenage life maybe.

But then as I started writing more, I felt like my vocabulary was limited. I wanted to learn about classical music not necessarily with the goal of becoming a composer with a capital “C,” but because I wanted to expand my knowledge and have a greater understanding of instruments and colors. I felt like that would enable me to write the music that I really heard in my head. It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I really tried to write a “classical” or concert music piece, however you want to define that genre. I did that explicitly with the intention of being able to get into school where maybe I could study with a composer that I was excited about.

NEA: You mentioned that you didn’t see a lot of women in classical music. Could you talk about the challenges and maybe even the joys of being a woman in classical music?

ADOLPHE: I don’t think it was a conscious thought as a teenager. But it became very clear to me when I started college. I went to Cornell because of Steve Stucky, who was an incredible composer and teacher. He was at Cornell University to teach the doctoral students. He took me on even though he didn't have any undergraduate students. He invited me to the doctoral classes, and I was the only woman in the room. Steve communicated that I was welcome there and that I was supposed to be there. But I still felt very self-conscious, of course.

That's when I became really aware that this was going to be an issue that I would have to think about and face. My mom had always prepped me for that, because she also works in a male-dominated field as an architect. So growing up I was always encouraged to not be afraid to share my voice, and to know that I had just a right to be there. She really set me up for that and modeled how she would navigate those spaces.

I think the joyous part has come more recently. There have been increasing opportunities specifically geared towards women composers. There's still a long way to go, and we’re still not even really talking about composers of color in a real way. But things are definitely shifting for female composers. Again, they're mostly white female composers which I think is worth saying. But it is kind of joyous to feel like there is a growing community that's getting larger and louder about what it means to be a woman composer, and [to feel like] you're not just being programmed in March for Women's History Month or on concerts that are like, “Oh, look, a concert of women.” It's being more integrated into the typical subscription series season.

NEA: What else do you think needs to happen so that we can further lower the barriers for women and people of color in classical music?

ADOLPHE: That's a very important big question. Ultimately, we're talking about accessibility. You can talk about it from different levels. The level that should be the easiest to change is at the level of the programmers. So we're seeing directors and programmers who make more and more of an effort to actually spend the time looking for women and composers of color and really doing their research. It's a question of going beyond the names that you keep hearing over and over again and trying to actively search out composers.

Programs like American Composers Orchestra and Earshot do calls for scores from emerging artists. They bring the composers in, and then you meet with mentors and you discuss what's working and not working about the piece. So you come away as a stronger composer with a better understanding of the orchestra. So bringing in young composers, specifically with an eye out for women composers and composers of color is a great way to cultivate young artists and increase the field.

The part that feels really challenging is this idea of actually making the pool of composers larger, and that has to do with early education and what it means to have a really great music education program in public elementary schools. I feel like we’re moving further and further away from that right now, but that's how future generations of music are created. It's also about exposure, and orchestras and ensembles bringing their music to young, diverse communities that might not have access, and inspiring those kids when they're at the beginning of their creative lives.

NEA: You've done a lot of work as an educator yourself. What’s the most important lesson you can impart to your students?

ADOLPHE: I think the most important thing for a composer or writer at any stage of life is to believe and trust in your own voice. It's especially true when you're starting out. Also, that it's okay to take the time to find your voice and experiment. I think there's a lot of pressure to be unique right off the bat and to be saying something new and different. I would try to remind students that it's the intersection and culmination of all your diverse influences that make your unique voice, so you don't need to shy away from the influences that you love, or think that you have to strike out and do something completely unheard of, because I think we know that's not really possible. I felt a lot of fear coming from this love of pop music, and it took me some time to learn that it was okay to embrace that side of myself and to find how it fits into my language today.

NEA: And how do you feel like it fits? How would you describe your musical language?

ADOLPHE: I love writing for the voice. I'm a singer—that's my instrument. So I have this love of melodic line and that's always going to be a part of me. And I love chords. Steve Stucky used to playfully call my language “wrong-note chords,” where you have a chord but then you throw in a “wrong” note. It's basically bi-tonality—two or more tonalities interacting with each other. Then I usually try to have an emotional reason for how those tonalities are shifting. Color and gesture are also really important to me. I think a lot about creating certain images or creating an emotional narrative through my music. In a way, it is very visual. I think my parents had that influence on me. I think a lot about shading and color and texture, more than say, pitch classes.

NEA: Can you walk me through the rest of your creative process?

ADOLPHE: With each piece, I have an emotional narrative in my head. What I mean by emotional narrative is some kind of story or journey from one state of emotional being to another. I always base it on something that's happening in my life or that I'm drawing from my direct personal experience. I purposely don't share that, because that's not really what it's about. That's just my way in, because I feel like the more specific that I am to capturing my own thoughts and feelings and ideas, the more accessible the music becomes in terms of people being able to read their own lives and stories and imagination into my pieces. You can't sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. That's a romantic idea of what it means to write. Usually you have a deadline and you need to start. So it's about creating inspiration, and then at a point that inspiration is just a springboard for the music and the music tells you where it wants to go.

NEA: How do you create inspiration?

ADOLPHE: I spend a lot of time looking at different imagery. When I get stuck, sometimes I’ll be very specific. If it's an image that I have of a forest, I challenge myself to capture the way the root of the tree twists. I'll try to find something to spark a musical idea. I also write a lot, so if I know that I want this piece to be aggressive and agitated, I'll write down a lot of adjectives and images that are related. I kind of free associate, basically. So if I'm feeling angry because I need to start this piece and I'm struggling, then I’ll write a bunch of adjectives about that and then they’ll morph into images or metaphors and then eventually that will turn into something gestural or musical.

NEA: Does your creative process differ when writing for an opera or an orchestra or different ensemble?

ADOLPHE: When I moved out to Los Angeles, I studied with Stephen Hartke. I think the most important thing he taught me was to embrace this very process that I'm talking about for all aspects of my music. I wrote my first opera while I was studying with him, and he noticed that it was always so much clearer to me what I wanted to do with my opera than [with my instrumental pieces]. When I started writing instrumental music, it was kind of vague and I had a lot of different ideas and I would jump around. He really encouraged me to embrace this idea of essentially turning my instrumental music into operas where I didn't tell people the story. So there are specific themes, there is a specific landscape and setting. The pieces that I have written since that realization are the pieces that are getting performed because I think they're stronger. So no, the process is not that different.

NEA: You have an insane number of accomplishments especially for someone so young. What are you most proud of?

ADOLPHE: I think I'm most proud of finishing my pieces. I think the biggest challenge that I faced creatively in the past couple of years is not getting overwhelmed. My first commission was from the New York Philharmonic, and that was a shocking thing. I was about three years into my doctorate when I got this commission. It was my first time not having weekly lessons with Stephen Hartke, I was writing a piece on my own for the first time, and it was going to be premiered by the New York Philharmonic, a 20-minute piece for an orchestra and viola. It was only my second orchestra piece to date. So I’m really proud of myself that I finished it, because I had so much fear and doubt and anxiety around it. That's when I had to keep coming back to this idea of trusting in my voice, writing the music that I love to write and believing that would be enough to translate into a great piece. I feel like every piece is this huge relief when I finish it. Every time it feels fresh. Every piece feels newly important in some way.