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INTROSPECTIONS: An Introspective and a Retrospective


My goal for this article is to discuss the music on my Albany Records CD entitled Introspections. The works on this disc were all chosen to encapsulate an emotional, introspective, and at times retrospective, mood. I composed many of the works included on this project; some works were composed for me to perform. I will illustrate how each work fits and complements Introspections.


James Adler

The disc opens with a retrospective component: Suite Moderne for Strings. This is one of my earliest post-Curtis compositions, a jazzy take on the Baroque form. The Philadelphia Inquirer had this to say: “The fourth movement, marked Sarabande, could contain the seeds of a longer composition, for the mournful melody is haunting and seems marked by a distinct personality.”

In this 1987 work, the Sarabande (Figure 1 or in PDF File) – a slow, stately Spanish dance – best exhibits the emergence of a dark and introspective compositional style. Notice the modal and angular nature here: m. 11 has the violoncello line pronouncing the moving melody while violin 2 and the viola remain stationery, cantus-firmus-like, forming the basis of a polyphonic texture. In m. 14, the violoncello rises above its neighboring viola and violin 2, while the violin 1 line provides the Sarabande’s characteristic rhythm (stressing beats 1 and 2, passive 3). It is ostinato in nature, serving as an anchor.

Kevin Cummines, my wonderful colleague from Saint Peter’s University, composed his piano suite for me. Having suffered the horrific loss of his partner Kyle Spidle, Kevin characterizes his work as an “external defensive presentation of stability in a time of chaos.” Three Works for James Adler was composed between 2013-2014.

Figure 1: Sarabande

Figure 1: Sarabande and Sound clip

The whole feeling of the suite is summarized Kevin’s note to me (used by permission) summarizing his emotions for “Torque”, the second movement:

“And finally, it’s about learning to politely hide & disguise the grief. The movement ends – it resolves. It’s the polite thing to do. But polite isn’t real. Polite is polite. The B is a lie. The A-sharp is the truth.”

Figure 2: Torque

Figure 2: Torque and Sound clip

In Figure 2 (mm. 34 to 44), the desolation, anger, and despair in Kevin’s work is clear. In mm. 38 and 39, he juxtaposes A-natural to A-sharp in the upper right hand treble line. This gives the listener an indication of hope. Why hope? Because in time, Kevin Cummines wants to accept the reality and then heal, moving forward. His resolution, having dealt with the loss of his partner.

In recent performances of the Three Works for me, audience members told me how incredibly moving they found this moment. Once, a responsive audience member came up to me and said – advising me to tell Kevin – that the resolution is the truth; not the dissonance. While I appreciated this gentleman’s observation, I told him that I defer to the composer. In fact: that final A-sharp in penultimate m. 44 is the truth; it’s Kevin’s truth. The B in m. 45, perhaps a lie, still provides hope. This work by Kevin Cummines – his gift to me – is introspective and decidedly retrospective.

My retrospective and introspective comes full circle in Psalm for Michael (2003). This work deals with my own horrific loss, times two. Inspired by my late brother’s poetry to our mother, this work also deals with her passing just a few months earlier. Michael passed away in May 2002 after many years of battling cancer. Our mother passed away in July 2001. I had to do something. And I had to do it musically.

Psalm for Michael is my musical statement: Mother is represented by the oboe; Michael is represented by the violoncello; and I am at the piano – trying to help keep balance, musically speaking. Michael’s relationship with our mother, while loving, had many moments of disappointment and regret. But they enjoyed a special bond and an unusual amount of communication. But some pretty intense sessions of – politely put – colloquy also occurred. If you think this sounds strange, you ought to hear what my therapist says about this!

Above all, this work is inspired by the writings, poetry, and spirit of Michael’s own words to his mom (used by permission):

I am my light, I am my darkness.
What question of fact could lead me from
There is none…

For all things which may come or go shall fall
into the same stillness which
asks no questions
nor offers answers.

is appreciation.
It begins with yourself.

is acceptance.
It’s your preferences
that separate you
from love.

I’ll forgive you
for not being
who I want you to be,
if you’ll forgive me
for not being
who you want me to

In Figure 3 (in PDF file) mm. 99 and 100, the violoncello harmonic B-flat rise well-above the oboe line. Michael was raising his voice to his mother (at times, she became “his mother” in his discussions with me), arguing a point. Respectfully, yes, but fervently. I put his line into the violoncello – so elegantly performed by Eugene Moye Jr. in this recording – above the oboe line, sung by my friend and muse, Virginia Brewer. I composed this piece for them both; audience members and critics have pointed out how the yearning, introspective nature of my music here goes “straight to the heart,” as one reviewer put it.

Figure 3: Psalm for Michael and Soud Clip

Figure 3: Psalm for Michael and Sound Clip

Continuing in m. 100, the violoncello sings a high F5 which joins the oboe on that same F5. Perhaps a meeting of minds occurred? The piano part is written in sustained, tied figures; my role here, musically speaking, is to anchor the work, providing support. It’s Michael’s and our mother’s voices which need to be heard and musically move the work forward.

In m. 102, the last beat in the oboe is in triplet rhythm. This is independent from the other instruments. In m. 104 in the violoncello part, it’s his turn – on the last beat – to have a triplet rhythm. A dialogue, musically speaking, is occurring. And figures such as that quintuplet rhythm in m. 105 in the violoncello are meant to be unsettling.

Six Little Variations on Noël Ancien is also retrospective and introspective. I composed this work for my husband-to-be Scott in 1986. We would be apart for the holidays; it was a lonely and self-reflective time for us both. My elegant collaborator on the recording, flutist Cain-Oscar Bergeron, captures the dark and reserved nature of the music.

Figure 4: Noël Ancien and Sound Clip

In Figure 4, note the opening 8-bar solo flute figure: it’s in G minor, modal, the opening statement leading to a reflective and almost echo-like complement, indicating desolation and the inner loneliness Scott and I felt being apart. The piano joins the flute, with a single bass note line, mm. 9 through 15, which complements the quiet, dark and brooding motif, retaining the quiet and bare musical palate here. In m. 16 in the upper left hand figure, a mordant-like figure states an E-natural –giving hope – only to lead that line into an E-flat in the same measure.

Those moments in Noël Ancien can neatly be compared to our discussion above, pertaining to Psalm for Michael. In mm. 96 to 99 (Figure 3), the oboe with sustained piano chords beneath add to the lonely, bare and emotionally raw sentiment which leads to, in mm. 100 – 106, more motion, more hope, more major key pedal points. It’s retrospective in my approach and, as shared, quite introspective. To sum up, I like to use a term Brahms and Schumann were fond of: Innig. Intimate, tender, and heartfelt.

Seth Bedford is, as his website boasts, “entirely too enthusiastic about Mid-Century Modern design and architecture.” I beg to differ: Seth has composed Three Postcards for the Piano (2011-2013) for me, two of which are included on the Introspections disc – and his enthusiasm bubbles and percolates, musically speaking, as does he. The first movement of this mini-suite, Christopher Street Rag, was recorded by me previously on the Ravello Records label.

The Postcards are an inspired retrospective, telling a story of someone seeking love. Beneath the Moonlight Tower (Austin, Texas 1904) and Pike-Pine March (Seattle, Washington 1899), on this disc, are places Seth has called home. Beneath the Moonlight Tower looks inwardly, then quite outwardly.

Figure 5: Beneath the Moonlight Tower and Sound clip

Figure 5: Beneath the Moonlight Tower and Sound clip

An example of the retrospective workings can be seen in Figure 5, where Seth states in m. 48, in advance of m. 49, the section mood Coyly. Starting in this measure, the waltz-tempo homophonic texture in the left hand gently supports the dialogue – the two lovers-to-be, as one (musically speaking) seduces his or her partner into a sort-of dance. Two voices, two lines of music, both moving in a yin and yang fashion. One partner, the right hand in mm. 55 and 56, has a poco ritard which in m. 56 shows s/he is in a holding pattern. The deal of the dance has not been consummated. The a tempo in m. 57 again has the two partners continuing the dialogue. In m. 64 onwards in this figure, the previous key of happiness, C Major, now has the two partners moving together – but in C minor. Personal conflict, perhaps. Beneath the Moonlight Tower has the setting in Austin, Texas in 1904; the musical colloquy here evoking a kinder, gentler era. Both of the Postcards on the CD provide a snapshot to yesteryear.

Twisted Tango (2012), commissioned and recorded by David Babich with me at the piano, starts out decidedly introspective. The tango – an Argentine dance – sees the tenor saxophone here in a brooding mood, juxtaposed with joyous and rhythmic interruptions. The “Tango” is dark, while “Twisted” explodes into a jazzy joy. And did I mention rhythm? Oh, yes. The Spanish bandoneón-like figures I employ help the two dancers glide gracefully across the floor.


Figure 6: Twisted Tango and Sound clip

The score page and sound clip I share here, Figure 6 m. 47, exhibit some of the bandoneón qualitiesI tried to place into both the tenor saxophone and piano lines. The brooding, almost precipitous figure in the saxophone in that measure has the piano providing, in the right-hand, a burst of bitonality. Why bitonality? Aaron Copland frequently pulled our emotions by using bitonality, for example in Variations on “Simple Gifts (I still see and hear our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C. towards the end of that gem), and in his music composed for the film version of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Mr. Copland’s sound is decidedly American.

The loping left-hand piano figures, starting in m. 48, have a contrasting series on the motif in the pentatonic – giving the piece elements of this bitonality. The left hand of the piano has the dance figure in the minor, moving in m. 52 into a more hopeful and upbeat mood. Perhaps I should correct that to mode, for the astute listener. The tenor saxophone figures, corresponding to these measures, are leaps. The minor key figure glides gracefully into the occasionally hopeful major key figures. The goal here is, as in the Bedford, the yin and yang of The Dance.

Are they a couple who glides gracefully… through life? If so, perhaps some thorny moments between them might be found in Twisted Tango. Note those angry-sounding growls in mm. 54 and 55 in the tenor saxophone. David Babich beautifully growls and snarls his way through this figure. In fact, he makes the piece totally his own – the greatest compliment a composer can have.

Paul Turok’s Clarinet Sonata, Op. 110 is a dark and introspective piece. I am honored Paul composed this work for me. According to Susan Turok, Paul’s wife, this was one of Paul’s last compositions.

What clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein and I noted in the Sonata is the sharp, angular, and oftentimes misterioso passages. The second movement, marked “Slow,” employs a descending precipitous chromatic line as it ends. Paul knew well my musical tastes and styles, having composed Tango for James Adler which I previously recorded. In his Clarinet Sonata, especially this second movement, the descending figures reflect his spirit. Paul was quite unwell at the time, yet he continued to compose – his own introspections playing a key part in this wonderful gift.

Figure 7: Clarinet Sonata and Sound clip

Figure 7: Clarinet Sonata and Sound clip

In Figure 7 at two measures before N, the clarinet melody sits in the range between the right and left hand of the piano part. It’s the same melody, and the effect is monophonic as they all move in tandem. Note at N, the clarinet sits in whole notes (4 counts for the concluding measures of the movement) but moves above the piano part. The piano provides the most minimal harmonic quarter-note figures – keeping the motion – while the clarinet sings in a soulful, deep and quite reverent mood. And mode. This is Paul Turok’s musical world, juxtaposing major and minor keys within a single measure.
The dark and brooding nature of the illustrated second movement of Paul Turok’s Clarinet Sonata inspired me to compose 3 Introspections, from which this album takes its title.

The lyric here is from David Cote, who shared these thoughts with me (used by permission):

James handed me a poem: Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Walt Whitman.” His simple directive: “Let this be your guide.” As I headed home, words bubbled up: “I dream too much of you yet never sleep.” The rest of “Insomniac” spooled out of that line, a pencil sketch of loneliness that anyone can relate to.

At the library where I write, I peeked into side room. Scores of dusty books, spines cracked and pages askew, were heaped on the floor. I went back to my desk and wrote “Conservation,” about a man more interested in restoring art than living in the world, but realizing that his profession was a kind of vandalism, too.

While text and music are open to a variety of readings, I think 3 Introspections is about a solitary urbanite detached from people, from love, from even the aesthetic passion that drives him. James provides the depth and breadth, the emotional and spiritual subtext, through his evocative music. 

Though the lyric sets an introspective mode, this work is also meant to be very retrospective: 3 Introspections is composed for and dedicated to Virginia Brewer and Malcolm J. Merriweather in honor of many wonderful collaborations and premieres.

We’ll start in the middle. Movement II is marked “Very Slow and Serious” (Figure 8), the piano starting in a slow, angular, almost desolate manner. The brooding, plaintive cry of the oboe moves below the piano part at several times. Note mm. 7 and 8, the oboe starts below the piano’s right-hand figure and then soars above. The parts move in similar lines and directions – that is, until they veer off the path.


Figure 8: 3 Introspections, Instrumental Interlude and Sound clip

Though the lyric sets an introspective mode, this work is also meant to be very retrospective: 3 Introspections is composed for and dedicated to Virginia Brewer and Malcolm J. Merriweather in honor of many wonderful collaborations and premieres.

We’ll start in the middle. Movement II is marked “Very Slow and Serious” (Figure 8), the piano starting in a slow, angular, almost desolate manner. The brooding, plaintive cry of the oboe moves below the piano part at several times. Note mm. 7 and 8, the oboe starts below the piano’s right-hand figure and then soars above. The parts move in similar lines and directions – that is, until they veer off the path.

This is meant to create that yearning, introspective quality – similar to those techniques I employed earlier in the Sarabande movement from Suite Moderne for Strings (Figure 1), and in Psalm for Michael (Figure 3).

When the oboe and piano have their initial colloquy (Figure 8, mm. 5 – 8), the mood turns more hopeful. Major key = Happy, as I tell my students. But this is not always true. In my music, yes: minor key works are more brooding. The use of major key, happier mood, shows the hope and yearning within my own world.

Through the concluding figure in m. 10, we remain in the upbeat. And various modes and moods are interspersed throughout. The has always held a fascination for me; and evidently, this is so for many composers of film music today. Something about the Dies irae evokes a retrospective component to a work: it’s ancient; it’s readily accessible; it gives new meaning from those ancient traditions to contemporary audiences today. And it is employed by me in nearly every composition I write – a compositional “hook.”

Look again at the opening measures of this interlude. The oboe reprises themes from the opening movement of this song cycle, in which “Insomniac” defines the loneliness to which David Cote refers. The “solitary urbanite” is detached from people and from love. This motif is presented in varying textures and voicing styles in each of the 3 Introspections movements. It is meant to be a retrospective, for the composer and for the listener. And this helps to provide the glue that binds the composition.


Figure 9: 3 Introspections, Instrumental Interlude and Sound clip

Later in this movement (Figure 9, mm. 35 – 44), the oboe line presents triplet figures in mm. 36 – 38 against the backdrop of the straightforward moving piano line. Note the brooding, plaintive cry of the oboe which moves below the piano part at several times in this section. The oboe plaintively weaves this emotional palate, painting the mood “blue” which proceeds upward into a soaring, joyous-sounding clarion call of perhaps a “red” hue.[1]

In mm. 39 and 40, the oboe moves through a gamut of emotions. The piano writing complements the oboe, moving upwards especially in m. 40, with the sudden downturn in the right-hand figure on beat 4, meant to dash a bit of the optimism by the previous upward-moving oboe and piano lines. But then in mm. 41 – 42, the oboe’s triplet quarter-note figures sing above the again straightforward-moving, somewhat stolid, piano line.

As in Figure 8, the parts move in similar direction until they veer – as they must – off the path. Sometimes seeing eye-to-eye; at other times, sharing divergent visions and goals. This returns us to characteristics of Beneath the Moonlight Tower and Twisted Tango: partners, dancers, or competing and complementing instruments, move in a yin and yang manner.


Figure 10: 3 Introspections, Conservation and Sound clip

In movement III, “Conservation” (Figure 10, mm. 1 – 9), David Cote’s lyric establishes that “Time is a vandal when it comes to art” in its mood and mode. The musical setting here reflects the lonely, introspective and deeply personal statement about the creative process. Note the opening bars: it’s the same musical figure from earlier movements, only slightly different and in a more urgent tempo. Our insomniac art restorer is sharing his feelings about the creative process.

In mm. 1 – 4, the piano solo starts in a minor, rather sad mode and mood. It also provides the retrospective: this figure, in various iterations, has appeared in the opening measures for each of the movements in 3 Introspections. When the vocal line enters, a dialogue ensues. And the piano, while at times providing some rhythmic “licks” and syncopated figures (note especially m. 7 in the piano right-hand), moves otherwise in a straightforward fashion.

A compositional and emotion-oriented technique, starting from the earliest works on this disc, is emerging. In Psalm for Michael, the aim is for the piano to keep Michael and our mother musically grounded. In Six Little Variations on Noël Ancien, it’s the flute – Scott, my character within this piece –which moves and meanders. The piano writing is meant to underscore the mood and motion.

In “Conservation,” the piano also grounds the other instruments, even though the piano writing here has more motion, more range, perhaps more spunk in its approach.

Figure 11: 3 Introspections, Insomniac and Sound clip

Figure 11: 3 Introspections, Insomniac and Sound clip

In movement I, “Insomniac” (Figure 11, mm. 1 – 9), there is a similar stylistic and harmonic treatment for this lyric: “I dream too much of you yet never sleep.” In m. 49 the loping, single line quarter note triplet-figures descend, in desolate manner, slowly and diminishing volume into a B-flat pedal point. Why B-flat? I employ this as an element, a hue of hope. The vocalist yearns – perhaps, for sleep? The creative process does create many sleepless nights for artists, writers, and composers. But our insomniac art restorer yearns for more. He is dreaming too much, but of or for what.

David Cote has created a lyric of elegance and eloquence. Yearning for a goal for this character, my musical setting occasionally punctuates this with some jarring alarm-like figures, such as the right-hand piano moments in mm. 51 and 52. A sforzando is employed in the lower of those right hand figures, sustained; the top line is stabbing sixteenth note, meant to punctuate. The vocalist is unable to fall asleep, dreaming too much of someone or some thing. Is he chasing a goal? A person? In m. 54, I employ gentle dissonance in the piano right-hand. In mm. 55 and 56, the dissonant chords are less gentle. They’re downright jarring, punctuating and underscoring what our vocalist is sharing.

I chose this score and sound clip sample to end my article here, with the marking above m. 50: Innig = Introspection. Introspective, as I look within and share with you here. Retrospective, also, as I return to my roots and earliest memories – some happy and others, sharing loss, more personal.

*  *  *

James Adler
New York City
May 2015


[1] Synethesia: colors are triggered when musical notes or keys are played or presented. I compose by seeing, hearing and utilizing color – due to my early work in writing music for film and musical theater. Costumes, time of day for a scene, wardrobe of characters, my seeing color and the musical characteristic in a lyric indicates my compositional approach.