Adam Tendler: Contemporary pianist performs the intimate "Inheritances"

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday July 9, 2024
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Pianist Adam Tendler (photo: Cameron McLeod)
Pianist Adam Tendler (photo: Cameron McLeod)

You never know what pianist Adam Tendler is going to perform next. He's graced concert halls with orchestral works by Bach, Beethoven, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Franz Lizst with the London Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and at Carnegie Hall. He also wrote "America 88x50," a memoir of his extensive journey performing one concert in each U.S state.

But he's also known for his unique performances of contemporary experimental works by John Cage, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt and others. His latest collection of pieces takes on a very personal theme.

With "Inheritances," Tendler commissioned 16 composers to create short piano works related to an unusual moment in his life, when in 2019, his late father bequeathed money to his children, which their stepmother gave them in envelopes full of cash.

Pianist Adam Tendler performing 'Inheritances' (photo: Jan Gates)  

Tendler, now 42, who since childhood maintained a distant relationship with his father after a divorce, had conflicting feelings about the death of his father. This led to the inspiration for the commissioned works, which he paid for initially from the cash inheritance.

Composers Devonté Hynes, Nico Muhly, Laurie Anderson, inti figgis-vizueta, Pamela Z, Ted Hearne, Angélica Negrón, Christopher Cerrone, Marcos Balter, Missy Mazzoli, Darian Donovan Thomas, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Scott Wollschleger, Mary Prescott, Timo Andres and John Glover each responded to Tendler's requests.

When the pandemic happened, he wasn't even sure if he'd ever be able to perform them live. He expanded his funding from a private donor and was able to complete the project, which he's performed several times in different cities since 2022. The concert also includes projections of family photos and videos. Tendler will perform "Inheritances," presented by Other Minds, on July 17 at Brava Theater. The collected works will be released later in 2024 by New Amsterdam Records.

The suite of works, about more than the monetary or familial aspect, has elicited unusual and sometimes emotional responses from his audiences. In a phone interview from Brooklyn, Tendler discussed the personal nature of autobiographical music works, as well as the technical process of commissioning works and performing them.

Jim Provenzano: Adam, you've said that while the works are personal relating to the death of your father, there's also an aspect of your being gay.
Adam Tendler: The program in many ways touches on it. Many of the composers are gay or trans or just queer. A lot of the themes and elements are more about identity than certainly about grief or loss.

Pianist Adam Tendler in his Brooklyn studio (photo: Lila Barth)  

The pieces that have live or recorded words; people may latch onto those like the Laurie Anderson piece, or the Pamela Z piece. I found those fascinating as well as the more abstract music pieces. How did you get these scores? Were they electronic versions or handwritten? There was one that looks like a diary entry.
They came in different forms. Most of them are conventionally notated in terms of just rhythms and notes on the page. I'd get them by email and it would actually be so exciting, because I would have no idea what the composer did with the assignment. I wouldn't know. What sort of investment was required of this piece? Is it conceptual? Is it technical? Is it emotional?

What were the challenges of interpreting them?
Some of the scores can be graphically notated or by using alternative notation. It was always exciting to see what would happen. Sometimes I was in on the process. The one that looks like a diary entry is Darian Donovan Thomas' piece ("We Don't Need to Tend This Garden, They're Wildflowers"). That's actually the most explicit one about my dad, because Darian designed it to be almost like a stream of conscious therapy session. He asked for pictures, and some of the prompts are questions he wanted me to frankly explore on stage in front of people.

It's not technically hard, but that one, for instance, when I recorded it, I saved it as the last thing to do after two days of recording. It's hard to do much after that, because it's emotional draining. Each piece has levels of difficulty in different places. But what's exciting is that because they're so diverse and they're so different from each other, I find that each piece really hits people in different ways.

Pianist Adam Tendler performing in Philadelphia in 2019 (photo: Ben Tran)  

And I really love to talk to people after the show, really get their feedback about which piece resonated with them. It's always very different across the board. I remember someone, a camera person when I performed the show in LA, who apologized that her camera got shaky because she got very emotional.

I said, 'Which piece?' And it was Laurie Anderson's piece, the very first one. And I thought, oh, wow. That piece is sort of the coolest with a capital C; almost distanced (Anderson used an AI voice to ask Tendler for different excerpts) and it sets up the works, in a way. I never thought of that as being the one that might reduce a person to tears, but it did.

Whenever this program is happening, you get waves of energy fields; I could feel the audience reacting in their own way. The energy is changing all the time. And it does for me too.

My father died in very late 2019, just before the pandemic. It was right around autumn of 2019. I learned about this inheritance at the —

The diner experience.
Yes, what's become the stuff of legend, the wad of cash in an envelope. I made a date to meet my stepmom on the Vermont border where she passed it to me in the Denny's parking lot. That happened on New Year's Day 2020. It took at least a month or two after that to decide what to do with this. I just went home and put it in the bank.

Months later, I had the idea of commissioning the music. I don't have great luck with grants and doing things conventionally. I thought, for once I actually have a little money and I could do something with it. I could actually commission my friends instead of watch other people with institutional funding commissioning them. I can do it; it was my grant. I just sat on the idea for a little bit waiting until it didn't sound like a good idea anymore, but that never happened.

I started the process of reaching out to people in early 2020. The pandemic just basically froze everything. Everyone said yes, but then lockdown happened, and as you know, there were no concerts, no stages. All I had was a bunch of yeses and no one was writing any of the music yet.

For a while, I kind of regretted the whole thing because I was like, well, actually, now I could have used this money. This was not a good time to promise away your cash, but I already had. Around summer 2021, things started to thaw a little bit in terms of seeing live performance. I started to think, 'Okay, I'm going to poke this idea a little more to see if it can grow some legs and actually get it off the ground.'

Pieces started to trickle in, up until Spring 2022, which is when the first iteration of this program happened, and it's been the same 16 pieces. They've evolved over time, even though they're fixed pieces. My relationship with these pieces has evolved in the span of two years. It always feels fresh to me.

And you've performed it several times since then?
Minnesota, LA, Vancouver, Utah, Houston; five or six, I might be forgetting one. I've been intimately living inside of these pieces for a while now, so they're really a part of me. And to bring them back for San Francisco is kind of exciting.

In the beginning it was more like, will this work? Can I do it? Does the arc of this program, as abstract as this narrative might be, work for people? Does this whole thing activate together? Because these artists all composed their pieces independently. It's not like we were forming a show, but I arranged them that way.

I know that it is possible and it's working because people have such strong reactions to it, and I have a strong reaction to it. And my process of grief that I hoped would kind of catalyze has happened. I feel closer and more accepting of the arc and relationship that I had with my father that began to kind of drift and disappear toward the end of his life.

I was hoping this project would help reclaim that he didn't just drift away and then die, which is how it felt, as if he had been snuffed out. And I hadn't had a chance to reclaim our relationship. At least I could grieve because it all was just too shocking and too fast.

a page from Sarah Kirkland Snider's commissioned work for 'Inheritances'  

Although it's not exactly autobiographical, there are parts where, as in the Pamela Z piece, she's very clever to create a John Cage-style of collage and wordplay, since his work is a big part of your repertoire. It'll be interesting to see how you do it on stage.
That's another piece that can really sneak up on me because it's playful, until you start to explore the questions she's poking at, which I've questioned throughout my whole life. I couldn't believe she picked up on it.

It's all taken of me talking about other composers who I'm an expert in. And the truth is, I've devoted myself to all these ghosts, figures whom I've never met and never will, but I am a disciple of them because I play their music, and yet I couldn't manage to call my dad more than once a year.

And she just extracted that out of my brain. The piece is so playful, but then there's an underbelly to it. Several of the composers nudged me to get a little more personal about my own story with my dad. I was really hesitant, a bit cagey about that at first, because I didn't want them to write music about my dad or for this to be a kind of theater piece that frames it as a way to honor my father.

I didn't want it to be that, and I certainly didn't want them to think that was their job. But the more they urged me to be open with them, the more they didn't make pieces about him, but felt permission to make it more personal about themselves, which was really interesting.

I finally let go of my own baggage and my own walls that I had up about how personal this project could be. And once I did that, it became more universal. My fear was that the more personal I made it, the more indulgent it would be and the more irrelevant. But the opposite happened. The more I became vulnerable, I let my family be a part of this, which was scary. And again, I didn't know if it was the right choice.

But the composers required this of me. I wasn't going to say no. People have very different kinds of relationships with their family. They come to this program and they take from it what they need, and maybe even what they didn't know they needed.

And most of the people who are coming to it are not coming to it to see what's going on in new music right now, or premieres by all these composers. They're coming for the same reason I put it together. It's like a cathartic vessel. And that makes me super happy, because when I see that happening for people, I think it's working. That's what this was all about.

Pianist Adam Tendler (lower) performing Nathan Hall's 'Tame Your Man' in February 2024. (photo: Hunter Canning)  

But you've taken unusual performance risks before, like Nathan Hall's bondage-themed 'Tame Your Man.'
This program definitely has some WTF moments for people. 'What is he doing?' 'I've never seen someone do that to a piano,' or 'I've never heard a piano sound that way.'

It makes sense in the moment because we're on a journey. Even if I'm being tied up and blindfolded and playing the piano with my chest, I still have some checks and balances. Is there something that's going to create a powerful shift for my listener? And if the answer's yes, then great, I'll do anything.

You still may have audience members who've never witnessed a prepared piano piece that reminds everyone that the piano is a percussion instrument.
And that it's capable of so many things. My piano-playing during this concert can be a bit disturbing, but I also think that there's an arc to this program. By the time we get there, people have opened up and they're receptive to the unusual, and with what could be seen as shocking.

Darian Donovan Thomas' handwritten draft of his commissioned work for 'Inheritances' with Adam Tender's family photos (courtesy Adam Tendler)  

The program has an arc to it. In the beginning, it kind of behaves like a piano recital and the pieces follow each other. But then it sort of begins to fall apart. And that's by design. The wheels start to fall off until suddenly the cards — which were maybe held a little closer to my chest in the beginning of the program — start to fall out. There are more words, it becomes more literal. The treatment of the piano becomes a little more experimental. Again, that kind of collapse of norms is intentional.

By the end of it, even the most conventional-minded listener may not be okay with what's next, but curious about what's next. How deep we can go? The peak of it is just how personal it becomes. It's almost like when you see a star collapse into nothing in the sky and we're left with nothing. I think of that as how the program ends.

And that directness can be really powerful. That's why you can hear sobs in the theater, because it's not doing a million things at once. It's very abstract, but there's a direction to what we're doing for 80 minutes. It's about what we're doing for ourselves. And this program is something I needed to do for myself. But the hope was that that process would be extended to the composers that they would do it for themselves, and that together, all these things would activate in a way that we could actually pay that experience forward to anyone who listens to it. And that's really exciting to me.

It's not even a musical thing, but a kind of spiritual thing that we're using music as the vessel. People who come to the show are coming higher reasons than hearing the new Pamela Z piece. That's like the cherry on top. You get to hear all this great new music, but there's something bigger happening.

Pianist Adam Tendler at home (photo: Lila Barth)  

In August, you're performing in Germany and Toronto in other programs. What amazes me is how you can focus on "Inheritances" and then switch gears to perform orchestral work with a symphony.
That's how this season has been. The juxtaposition has been really extreme; a new piano concerto, then "Inheritances" the next day. It's not an easy program to practice because there's a lot there, but it's been really interesting to balance it with these other programs.

I now find "Inheritances" to be a very welcoming program. It's also interesting to go from a Schumann and Christian Wolf concert, which is pretty hardcore, really hardcore modernism. But this is what makes me happy whenever I am stewing about my career or this or that, I start to think, 'Hey, I'm actually playing exactly what I want to play almost all the time.'

Sometimes it's incredibly complex and dissonant, hardcore modernism music. And then sometimes it's stuff that is really cathartic and gentle. I love being able to have all those things in my garden. I just find that makes me happy.

Maybe they're surprised that this is how a piano can be played. Just like when their expectations are sort of subverted in a good way. That can happen with Mozart, with Beethoven, and with John Cage. It can happen with music and programs that were written right now. So that to me is a very exciting kind of privilege to have to share those experiences.

I do think that this program features a slice of what's happening in queer new music with who these composers are. But it's also about the themes they're exploring in their music, which really has to do with not grief or even family, but just place and identity, and the fogginess of our own origin stories.

When this program is really popping is when I feel that for myself, I'm dipping into that chasm of history. That's where this program lives. And I think every queer person has a version of that. What is my origin story, and who shaped me?

When I think of "Inheritances," I think of the inheritances that we all have; what was given to me that I didn't ask for? What did I inherit? That could be where you live, who you are, and how you were shaped. It resonates with queer people in a very particular way, and especially queer people who had any kind of complex relationships with their family as I did.

Adam Tendler performs "Inheritances" July 17, 7:30pm at Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St. $20-$60.

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