Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
It was a combination of things. In one regard, I took piano lessons since the age of six and, at least in my own memory, was rather unremarkable as a student. By middle school, however, I was playing certifiably classical music, though not well. By high school, when I hit the more advanced work of Chopin I started to see the creative possibilities of classical music—how I could really express through it—and then a kind of riptide dragged me from Chopin to Rachmaninov to Prokofiev to Copland to a whole world of modern and classical music. Totally obsessed, it was then that I started to practice, study, and really hustle to prepare for conservatory. On the flipside, I was bullied pretty relentlessly growing up, and the piano eventually served as a kind of escape. Not only could I retreat into my practice regime and not really have to navigate the hallways of my high school, but my talent itself—you know, this idea being special or exceptional at something—worked as a kind of shield or barrier from the harassment. And I guess it almost worked.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
The first pianist who really inspired me was William Kapell, an American virtuoso who died young, in a plane crash, in the 1950s. His playing had such personality and fire, and he had such strong convictions as an artist and such a complicated inner-world, almost debilitatingly nervous as a performer. I needed an idol who was both astonishing and complex, when in classical music everyone else seemed so perfect and unflappable. I should add that, while I’ve worked with dozens of teachers in my lifetime, all of them great artists, it was really my first teacher, a local piano instructor in Barre, Vermont, who let me truly explore music as I wished until I grew to love it on my own terms. He allowed me to play in the truest sense of the word, and as a musician I owe everything to him. He received my book’s dedication.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I tend to wrestle with time, and always have. If I’m not practicing or reading or working on something, I’m apt to spiral into depression and guilt over what I didn’t get to and how that’s a reflection of my own deeply personal failure. This probably stems from a sense that I started late as a musician. I mean, I don’t even really know if I started late, and evidence probably shows that I actually didn’t start late, but it’s a perception I have and I battle it all the time. Even at Indiana University, I told myself that I had a tremendous amount of catching up to do, even though I really had an astonishingly accomplished number of years there. So I might also owe my life in music to this impulse to absorb and perform and push forward, but still, it’s a challenge and can feel kind of miserable in the day-to-day. I tend to believe that everyone else has it all figured out and that I’m the only one who can waste a whole morning drinking a cup of coffee.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I love the recording I did of my book, 88×50, which I don’t think a lot of people know about even though it’s on iTunes, streaming on Spotify, and is pretty much anywhere online. I spent months recording it at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York, and the result is really fun and full of surprises. I also like the life that my live recording of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes has taken since I released it for free on the web over five years ago, though I think I play the piece quite differently now. Also, Autumn Lines, is a very personal speaking-pianist piece that I released a few years back. Frankly, I’ve found that it’s too traumatizing to do live, so I’ve stopped performing it, nor will I really listen to it or watch live footage from concerts of it, but people seem to like it and I do like it, too. It’s just an intense composition from an intense period in my life. I’m proud of it, I just don’t like being around it. In terms of performance, most recently I performed a concert of music by Cage and Cowell at the open-air Maverick Theatre in Woodstock New York, where Cage’s 4’33” had its premiere in 1952. That was an incredible honor and a huge career highlight for me. Also, this week I organized a twenty-four pianist performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, featuring mostly new music pianists, which was an epic and totally shattering experience in all the best ways.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I tend toward modern music by Americans, and love exploring the wide range of whatever that means. That said, I also like when a program pushes me out of my comfort zone, either backwards or forwards.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It really depends on the series, the space, and sometimes the specific requests of my hosts. This season I learned a program of music by Luciano Berio, another by Henry Cowell, and for this festival coming up in London, I learned Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari—all simply because my presenters asked. The great thing is, I’ll probably play this music for the rest of my life.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Probably the Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas. The space itself… the air… it has a kind of epsom salt effect on a person, just pulling stuff out that one doesn’t even know is there. I’ve played three concerts at Rothko Chapel, and would like to do a fourth! They consistently present inspiring and fearless programming for free to the public, so I’m proud to call it home.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
There are certain pieces I come back to, like the Cage Sonatas and Interludes. I’ve played that for eight years now—not constantly, but coming back to it once or twice a year—and each year it feels a little more settled and a little more internalized. It’s like seeing an old friend and jumping right back into a conversation, but then being like, “Hey, what’s different? Did you do something with your hair?” Something’s always a little different when I come back to it. I finally think I play that work with total assuredness—no traps or doubts or anything like that—which makes me think that perhaps it takes eight years for me to truly know a piece! Honestly, though, I find myself totally enrapt and obsessed with whatever I’m working on at a given time. In the days before a concert, I feel totally consumed with that music and its world, and after, I feel a little lost and desperate. In terms of listening, I only occasionally listen to classical or concert music. My brain buzzes too much with it on. I’d rather listen to bluegrass or artists outside of my field.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Nonspecifically, I’m taken with musicians who have a firm sense of their own creative identity, an unshakable passion for their craft, and the humility to understand that their journey is their own, and they have no obligation to mirror anyone else’s life or standards. I have countless examples of these kinds of people in my life, and aspire to their grace every day, people who seek to move their listeners rather than impress.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Gosh, that’s really tough to answer. Every concert on my fifty-state tour from about ten years ago felt like a miracle. The good ones and the disastrous ones, they all still beat the odds in that I was creating a life in music when for all intents, people… experts…had told me that there were only certain ways to do it, certain avenues to take, and of course all were supposedly closed to me. So the experience of just getting out there and doing it and having people actually respond…well, yeah it was simply miraculous.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That there’s a place for anyone in music. Truly. Everyone has a seat at the table. One has to envision that place, though, be open to it shape-shifting over the years, which it will, and put in the work to build it, simply carving into that identity, that little niche, every day. Some days will feel super tough and other days effortless, but faith and tenacity and a great deal of devotion—those are the ingredients to a life in music. Not Hanon, I’m afraid.
What is your present state of mind?
Anxiety, worry, dread, fear, embarrassment, doubt, wonder, joy, gratitude… a regular morning.
Adam Tendler has been called “an exuberantly expressive pianist” who “vividly displayed his enthusiasm for every phrase” by The Los Angeles Times, an “intrepid…outstanding…maverick pianist” by The New Yorker, a “modern-music evangelist” by Time Out New York, and a pianist who “has managed to get behind and underneath the notes, living inside the music and making poetic sense of it all,” by The Baltimore Sun, who continued, “if they gave medals for musical bravery, dexterity and perseverance, Adam Tendler would earn them all.”
Tendler has performed solo recitals in all fifty United States, including engagements at Columbia University, Bard College, Princeton University, New York University, Kenyon College, Boston Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory, Portland State University, University of Nebraska, University of Alaska and Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, as well as artistic landmarks including Houston’s Rothko Chapel and James Turrell’s Skypace in Sarasota, where he was the space’s first musical performer.
Tendler’s memorized performances of John Cage’s complete Sonatas and Interludes include a sold-out concert at The Rubin Museum in New York City and a featured solo recital in the “Cage100” festival at Symphony Space on what would have been Cage’s 100th birthday, listed by New York Magazine as one of the Top 10 Classical Music Events of 2012. In 2014, Tendler performed Cage’s 31’57.9864” in an appearance with the John Cage Trust at Bard College’s Fischer Center, presenting a realization of Cage’s 10,000 Things, and in 2015 he performed music by Cage and Henry Cowell, including Cage’s 4’33”, at the famed Maverick Theatre in Woodstock NY, where 4’33” had its premiere.
Tendler’s memoir, 88×50, about the year he performed solo recitals in all fifty states, was a 2014 Kirkus Indie Book of the Month and Lambda Literary Award Nominee. His premiere recording of Edward T. Cone’s 21 Little Preludes will appear in 2015, and he is developing an album of piano works by American composer, Robert Palmer. He also maintains the blog, The Dissonant States.
A graduate of Indiana University, Tendler presides over a private teaching studio in New York City, and in 2013 joined the piano faculty of Third Street Music School Settlement, the country’s first community music school.