COLUMBIA — The prolific composer Samuel Adler thinks setting poetry to music is a good idea, but not if the poet is e e cummings. A 20th-century poet who favored unconventional pacing and shunned most capital letters and punctuation, cummings never much cared for having his work made literally musical; he thought his poems musical enough on their own, Adler said.
While working with MU student composer Mark Woodward on Tuesday, Adler advised him to find a poem that spoke more personally to him and then to flavor the music with his emotional response to it. Woodward set voice duets to cummings’ poems “! blac” and “nobody loved this.”
Afterward, Woodward, a third-year graduate student in composition, called the tutorial “a fresh perspective from someone at a different place in their career.”
He is still comfortable with his choice of cummings, whether the poet would have liked it or not. “I spent a lot of time with those poems and the music sort of came out of the relationship I created with them,” Woodward said.
Adler, who has written more than 400 pieces and taught master’s classes at more than 300 universities, is at a storied place in his career. Master’s classes at the School of Music throughout the day Tuesday were part of a celebration of his 80th birthday. Brought to MU particularly by the university’s Esterhazy Quartet, which on Monday evening performed an all-Adler program, Adler has also been supported by the Center for Arts and Humanities, the Lectures Committee and the School of Music.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to learn from a great composer and teacher,” said Alex Blanton, a second-year graduate student in composition.
While doing undergraduate work at the University of Louisville, Blanton had a similar opportunity to work with composer and pianist Joseph Turrin. “The process of composing is unique to a composer, so it is great as a student to see and hear how an individual composer works and see what works for you,” Blanton said.
Before the start of the morning class, one of three including a lecture on composition in the 21st century, a charismatic and lively Adler encouraged the class to take his critiques with a grain of salt.
“I am not the oracle,” he said. “I am not the final word on anything. I am here to give a few helpful hints.”
While Adler commented specifically on individual works by students, he tried to universalize his advice for everyone in the audience.
“Sometimes the artist tells us what we don’t want to hear,” Adler said. “It’s important that we think about what our music can really say.”
He encouraged students who followed specific forms to be adventurous and try loosening up in their composing. “Don’t be so square, though you are from Missouri,” he said, drawing laughter from his listeners.