Bruce Adolphe on Composing, Creativity, and His Opera-Singing Parrot

Victoria Looseleaf on August 2, 2019
Composer Bruce Adolphe and Polly Rhythm | Credit: Ralph Gabriner

Bruce Adolphe is never at a loss for words — or music. The composer of operas, chamber music, concertos, and orchestral works, he is also an educator, author, and performer (he calls his talks Standup Scholarship), while his investigations into connecting various ideas and disciplines, from neuroscience to dinosaurs, have led to a wide-ranging career in which he also seeks to build community by exploring diverse manifestations of human creativity.

Adolphe’s music has been performed by a who’s who of artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, and Itzhak Perlman, while renowned institutions such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Zürich Philharmonia, and the Washington National Opera have also played his works. Indeed, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, where Adolphe is the resident lecturer and director of family concerts, has premiered nine of his compositions; and in October the composer debuts his string quintet, Are There Not a Thousand Forms of Sorrow, commissioned for the organization’s 50th anniversary.

Needless to say, it’s been a fiendishly busy time for Adolphe, who was born on Long Island, New York, in 1955, and went to Juilliard at 16, eventually teaching there, as well as at Yale and at New York University. In fact, he recently returned from Off the Hook Arts Festival, in Ft. Collins, Colorado, where he has served as director since its founding in 2012. After a brief respite at home in New York, Adolphe then jetted to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he watched a rehearsal for his premiere, No More Bad Dreams (the story of how the dream catcher came to be), with the Young People’s Chorus.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Adolphe by phone from the Bay Area, where he had just given one of Music@Menlo’s Encounter lectures. (He’ll also be the final Encounter speaker on July 30, giving a talk, “Roaring Twenties/Music at the Millennium, 1920 – 2000,” which will be live streamed). And Adolphe will be in attendance for the August 3 performance of his 1998 work, Couple, written for and performed by festival founders David Finckel and Wu Han. We spoke of Adolphe’s many passions, including composing for disparate artists, his enthusiasm for neuroscience, and, yes, his 54-year old green Panama parrot, Polly Rhythm. Though not yet a YouTube star, the bird loves to sing along with Dawn Upshaw recordings, as well as operatically warbling his way through many a day.

Bruce Adolphe and Polly Rhythm | Credit: Sally Herships

Okay, let’s talk about Polly Rhythm. I understand he came into your life when you were 10, making him a veritable longtime companion. What is the life span of a parrot, when did you discover that he had this talent and how do you nurture it?

First of all, he is a bird. He’s not a male human being. I got him when he was three months old and he was ready to learn. My mother’s mother had a parrot — they were a thing in the family — and I happened to be wildly into operas when I was 10. I listened to recordings of Beverly Sills and Elly Ameling singing lieder. One day the bird was singing along with the recordings and he’s been doing it his whole life. When he’s happy he starts singing operatic phrases. Also, when he has something to eat, he lets out a high soprano note.

Most parrots have a tremendous ability to imitate [but] it depends what your home life is like, and different kinds of parrots have different kinds of lifestyles. African greys live into their 30s, but parrots are long-lived birds, and the kind of parrot I have, they say can live to be between 60 to 80. But it’s hard to know. With pets, people have a hard time keeping a pet that long. My bird’s vet has been seeing him for 20 years and she doesn’t have any other parrots that old. But he still sings the same. It’s interesting about Dawn Upshaw. Most of the time he’s just listening, and then he lets out a note. He’s really moved by the music and can’t help himself, because he’s so musical. It would be great if people could be so musical. It’s also great having a pet whose profession is the same as mine.

Your first book, The Mind’s Ear: Exercises for Improving the Musical Imagination for Performers, Composers and Listeners was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 and was released earlier this year in Chinese. Do you use any of these exercises on Polly and what about when you’re composing — does he sing along with you at the piano?

He doesn’t need any exercises — I can’t tell if you’re serious — but he doesn’t really speak English. They hear words and react. One of the things he does is laugh in all the right places. He laughs when people laugh. When they’re not used to birds, they wonder, ‘Did he get that joke?’ As far as when I compose, that’s an interesting issue. He likes to be next to me where I write and it’s a problem, because he starts singing and he wants my attention. If I play something that scares him, he starts screaming. He reacts to everything, so I give him something to eat and put him far away.

On a more serious note, when you’re composing music for an artist such as Itzhak Perlman, who once said about you “Bruce Adolphe is an inspired teacher and a wonderful musician with an unusual ability to translate complex musical concepts into words,” what were your criteria and considerations for the 1995 solo violin work, Bitter, Sour, Salt Suite?

It’s about the personality, and it also depends how the situation comes about. Itzhak asked me to write him something and he wanted it to be about food — a strange request — but something where he could read poetry about food and play solos [in which] people were hearing the food. I worked with a poet and she came up with things. And because I was thinking of Itzhak — his great technique and he’s so warm, I wouldn’t have written that for anybody else — I wanted it to be like the way he plays, full of humanity.

There were two funny moments: I forgot to write a tempo marking on one of the movements and the first time he was reading through it, because I hadn’t written anything, he said, ‘Just write, ‘’Play fantastically’’ and I will.’ There was another fast movement that I thought was going to be difficult, but he was sight reading it much faster than it was supposed to go, and he was talking to me, saying, ‘I think this is going to be a hit.’ I said, ‘I thought it was hard,’ and he said, ‘I’ll make it sound hard.’

Speaking of keeping things personal, you wrote Couple in 1998 for cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. The duo, who recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary, premiered the four-movement work the following year at SummerFest La Jolla, which was the commissioner, and they’ll be playing it again on the closing night of Music@Menlo. What’s the story behind the piece?

It is very personal, as my daughter was born right after it premiered. I wrote the piece knowing my wife, who was very pregnant at the time, was going to have a girl. The movement I wrote first is a lullaby for my daughter who hadn’t been born yet. For me, it was one of the most soul-searching, personal, introverted kinds of composing I’ve ever done. I thought, ‘[My daughter] won’t understand it now, but later she will.’

I surrounded it with other things, like fears, and the last movement is a child’s game. It’s not the kind of piece that’s trying to say something new or [introduce] a new technique. It’s not like an event, but it was about as personal as a piece of music can be. You can tell that they have been playing it for 21 years. I read a review of it where the [journalist] said, “Of all the pieces written for them, this seems to be the most personal.” It is called Couple, and I did write it for them, and it still comes across.

Self Comes to Mind, is a 30-minute work composed for Yo-Yo Ma and two percussionists, with video imagery based on brain scans and with text by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who directs the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. It premiered at the American Museum of Natural History in 2009. Were you always intrigued by neuroscience and its relationship to music?

Not always, but since 1993. What happened was, I was invited that year to speak at the Aspen Institute at a conference on higher brain function and creativity. They invited 40 scientists but didn’t know how to find people from the arts, so there were only four of us. At that point I hadn’t begun giving any lectures, but there had been a picture of me in The New York Times with Polly Rhythm sitting on my knee as part of a story they were running about composers who live in New York. So this guy calls me and says, ‘I saw that picture in the Times. Do you want to speak?’

At that time Damasio was only known to the science community – his first book was about to be published [Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain], and he read a paper that was basically from the book. But he said so many things about creativity, musical thinking, emotion, and reason that I went back to my room and rewrote my talk that night to address the things he said. The next day I presented it and he came up to me at lunch and said, ‘You must have written that last night,’ because my science background had only been those four days. ‘You did pretty well,’ he said, and we became friends and started to talk all the time. He sent me manuscripts where music came up and we collaborated on that piece for Yo-Yo.

You’re constantly writing — music, books, lectures, and even your Piano Puzzlers, which air on American Public Radio and have been broadcast for decades. And for those who aren’t in the know, these are popular melodies disguised as pieces by great Classical composers, after which contestants call in to guess the tune and the composer whose style you’re imitating. I’m wondering if you ever sit at the piano and find that you’re blocked?

Blocked? I’ve actually written a chapter about that subject in a book, Secrets of Creativity [soon to be published by Oxford University Press]. I’m not blocked and the reason I’m not is that blocking comes from thinking of yourself as extremely important and that what you’re doing is making a major statement. What I think is more important is, ‘What is the piece about?’ ‘Am I telling a story?’ Keep it at a personal, simple level. It’s like writing a letter. Okay, it’s like writing an email, only better.

The idea is not to be wildly concerned with your reputation — or even judging the piece — but it’s more a matter of keeping it about writing for you. And when you write for someone, there’s something beautiful about that. That would unblock most people — it’s more of a gift and it’s personal and that’s why I’m not blocked. The other thing is the technical aspect. I like to think of composing as having two personalities — the dreaming, where there is no censorship, no judgment, no assessment — you just write and allow yourself to dream. By dreaming I also mean first you let yourself hear the music — where you don’t feel like you’re controlling it or manipulating it [but] you feel like you’re in a concert hall and playing something you’ve never heard before. It’s like improvising, but before improvising it’s purely mental and imagining. You go to the keyboard and then make the decision of selecting what to work on. When you get into that second stage you can be critical, but if you try to criticize yourself as you’re dreaming, you could be blocked.