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Christopher Adler
Music Professor draws on background in mathematics to inspire compositions

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Professor Christopher Adler, PhD of the Music Department earned double degrees in Music and Mathematics from MIT before earning graduate degrees in composition from Duke University. When he isn't transforming students' musical perspectives in the classroom, he writes concert music, which sometimes incorporates musical improvisation. His work has been performed for packed houses at Carnegie Hall.

Christopher Adler

"Both [music and mathematics] require an integration of creative thinking, imagination, problem solving, as well as the ability to rationally organize ideas and express them through a rigorous and detailed system of notation."

Christopher Adler

Are people surprised to learn that you earned degrees in both mathematics and music from MIT?

I find most people understand that mathematics and music have underlying connections. In fact, the ways of thinking are quite similar, perhaps more similar than any two other disciplines. Both require an integration of creative thinking, imagination, problem solving, as well as the ability to rationally organize ideas and express them through a rigorous and detailed system of notation. People do tend to be surprised that anyone would study music at MIT, but actually MIT has excellent programs in the arts and humanities.

How long have you been performing?

I have been performing seriously for 25 years, on a variety of instruments including pipe organ, harpsichord, piano, khaen [Thai mouth organ], and ranaat ek [Thai xylophone]. Now I focus on piano and khaen, and specifically on contemporary concert music.

Christopher Adler

"As a scholar, all musics from anywhere in the world are equally valid windows into the sonic experience of human beings."

Christopher Adler

What types of music interest you?

As a scholar, all musics from anywhere in the world are equally valid windows into the sonic experience of human beings. As an artist, I have a collection of thousands of CDs of genres from all over the world, which I find to be a continuing source of inspiration. I think serious artists are far less concerned with categorizing their tastes or their work and far more concerned with each individual project and musical work. As a composer, I write concert music which is either fully notated or incorporates improvisation.

Christopher Adler

"I focus on piano and khaen [Thai mouth organ], and specifically on contemporary concert music."

Christopher Adler

Photo by Lauren Sharon Photography

I understand your compositions have been performed in such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall. Tell us what that was like. Are there any other performance moments that you find especially memorable?

Every performance is exciting. Having performers take up my compositions and breathe life into them is like watching one's child take its first steps. And every performance is different; different performers find different aspects of the work to focus on and motivate their interpretation, and each performer's interpretation evolves over the course of multiple performances. Through performers, each work quite literally takes on a life of its own. The best part of the performances in Carnegie Hall was not the fact that they were in the hall, but that they were given by two absolutely stellar groups of performers, both of which gave some of the most energetic and inspired performances my works have every received. And in both cases, I am happy to say, the Carnegie Hall audiences were supportive and appreciative, and there were no empty seats.

Christopher Adler

"The best part of the performances in Carnegie Hall was not the fact that they were in the hall, but that they were given by two absolutely stellar groups of performers, both of which gave some of the most energetic and inspired performances my works have every received."

Christopher Adler

Almost all the performances are memorable, and I couldn't single any out as being particularly special. Of course, sometimes things do not go well and those are painful memories as well. But in the long run, even those are part of bringing each work to life. Ideally, every work transcends the individual performance.

What is your favorite course to teach? Why?

One of my favorite courses is called Form and Analysis, which is an upper-division course in music theory. Even though my specialization is in contemporary music and Asian traditions, and this course concerns only classical music, it is the course in which student can first fully understand music as a sophisticated and expressive language with both historical and contemporary relevance. After three semesters of learning to become fluent in the technical language of music, Form and Analysis concerns the structure, style, history and performance tradition of entire pieces—no longer small pieces, excerpts and examples but the greatest works of prior eras. This course opens the door to the rich and sophisticated experience of music that only serious musicians and aficionados regularly experience. For a decade, students have consistently reported that this course was their most difficult music course at USD and also the most rewarding, and that afterwards their musical experience is forever transformed. This is the red pill of the musical matrix, so to speak.

Christopher Adler

"I am also delighted by diverse explorations that students undertake in their creative work, which always exceeds my expectations."

Christopher Adler

The other course I particularly enjoy teaching is Art and the Soundscape, which is cross-listed in Art and Music. This interdisciplinary course brings together students in art and music to explore the creative possibilities of sound as a medium and its integration into other forms of art. It is an opportunity to draw lessons from many of the most innovative artistic and musical traditions extending from the previous century and apply them to new works. Preparing and teaching this course is a perpetual process of discovery of the deep connections between music and other artistic forms, especially in the contemporary era, which are often masked by our division into departments and traditional pedagogies. I am also delighted by diverse explorations that students undertake in their creative work, which always exceeds my expectations.

Where can we buy or listen to your music?

My CDs are available at all the major on-line retailers, as well as at the USD bookstore. I also sell scores of my compositions and my CDs through my website, www.christopheradler.com.

- Anne Malinoski '11

Quick Facts

  • I have observed 637 different species of birds in six countries (as of today), and 266 in San Diego County.
  • I co-authored two papers on the subject of computational fluid dynamics while I was an undergraduate at MIT.
  • My improvising trio, The Christopher Adler Trio, performed every week for one year and nine months straight at the venue Galoka, in La Jolla (now closed).

Useful Links

www.christopheradler.com

www.sandiego.edu/cas/music/

www.sandiego.edu/cas/asianstudies/faculty/biography.php?ID=191