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Composer alumnus recalls music studies at MIT

Adrian Childs
Adrian Childs


Adrian Childs

When Adrian Childs came to MIT as an undergraduate in 1990, he intended to become a mathematician and continue his involvement with music -- as a pianist, bassoonist, cellist, vocalist and composer. Ten years later, he holds two bachelors degrees from MIT (math and music) and a doctorate in music composition from the University of Chicago, along with several major prizes for his compositions -- the Cathy Heifetz Memorial Prize from the University of Chicago, the 1998 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Award and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago's "First Hearing" Prize. He is currently a visiting lecturer in music at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

One of Mr. Childs's compositions, Time Into Gold, will be performed by the MIT Wind Ensemble (Fred Harris, conducter) at a special concert in celebration of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences's 50th anniversary on Friday, Oct. 6 at 8pm in Kresge Auditorium. The piece was originally commissioned by the MIT Concert Band on the occasion of its 50th anniversary and conductor John Corley's retirement last year.

Senior library assistant Forrest Larson of the Lewis Music Library interviewed Mr. Childs recently for the "Music at MIT Oral History Project." Excerpts of that interview follow.

Larson: Were there aspects of the MIT environment that helped you as a musician and composer?

������Childs: The atmosphere for music is fundamentally different at MIT. I am now teaching at a very traditional music school, where the students are planning careers in music and know that there are a lot of other people out there who essentially do the same things that they do and probably do them about as well, if not better. It creates an atmosphere in which the people around you are not so much your peers or colleagues as your adversaries. I think that's a real problem with the way we educate musicians. We had none of that at MIT. The MIT environment is about collaboration and it's about learning by doing. I really felt then, and now, that it was an incredibly nurturing sort of place to be at that stage of my music career.


Tell me about some of your formative musical experiences at MIT.

Certainly, my participation with the Concert Band would have to rank high. Not only could I grow as a performer by continuing to play, but John Corley was willing to program my pieces and gave me opportunities to conduct. Also, because the ensemble played only 20th-century music, I became more aware of what was out there in the world of music from the last 100 years or so. I learned to form opinions about that music, understand stylistic norms and tendencies, and grow as a person who needed to know a lot about music.

I would also say that very high on the list are interactions with the faculty. Because the community of music majors at MIT is very small, we have the luxury of working closely and significantly with world-class faculty members.

Performing, in general, really has to be highlighted. The performance community at MIT is very enriching and I think a lot of that is owed to the fact that the people who are playing aren't music majors. They aren't worried that how they do on their next concert will cost them their chance at Juilliard or their chance at a career or an important audition.

I spent my entire senior year working with the Shakespeare Ensemble, writing incidental music for their projects. Here I was, coming to an existing close-knit group focused not on music, but on acting and theater. Trying to work with them within a musical realm forced me to see things in a very different way. That was a powerful experience.


What are some of the things you learned from composers John Harbison and Peter Child of MIT's music faculty?

John is very good at helping people to realize their own compositional voices. A lot of composition teachers expect that because you are studying with them, you want to write music that sounds like their music. That's not something that John ever did. The seven of us in his advanced composition seminar were writing in a very wide diversity of styles. He was always able to get inside that style, to think about the piece in ways similar to how we were thinking. At the same time, he could step outside and make his own insights and guide us in directions that were musically more fruitful.

The tonal composition classes that I took with Peter Child were really the first time I, as a composer, was thinking about the active compositional craft -- about how a piece gets put together, what materials are involved, how they can be manipulated effectively. Peter has a tremendous ear for that. One of our class projects was to write a keyboard invention in the style of Bach. If you analyze the inventions, they seem to be very simple. To this day, that is still the hardest thing I've had to do as a composer.


What are your thoughts on the arts and humanities at MIT and what they mean here?

It would be very easy for the Institute to sort of box off the arts and humanities and treat them like something that has to be here because, somewhere along the way, someone decided they were an important part of a well-rounded education. In the same way, I have students now who think about the one math class they have to take in order to graduate. They're very steeped in music and so it's science or engineering that gets boxed off.

While I think there are people at MIT who think of the arts and humanities in that kind of boxed-off fashion, they're definitely in the minority. For the most part, the MIT community realizes that there are fundamental relationships between the arts and humanities and the sciences and engineering that form the strength and core of the community. I think that makes for a mutually supportive relationship, a symbiotic relationship in which both are equally strengthened by the presence of the other.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 27, 2000.

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