The Sound of Minimalism

Published: November 1, 2016   •   By: Larry Keigwin


You’ll hear minimalist composer Adam Crystal’s music where you least expect it: in indie films, on the ballet-drama miniseries Flesh and Bone, while browsing Instagram, and in national ad campaigns for Persol, Moncler, and H&M. His work was also heard at last summer’s Green Box Arts Festival in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, where he was the resident composer. During the festival, he spoke with ArtDesk dance editor Larry Keigwin (and several audience members) about his musical journey and growing up in Berkeley, California, as the son of two professors at the University of California.

Larry Keigwin: Tell us a little bit about how you made the transition from musician to composer.

Adam Crystal: I started my music career super-young, when I was four or five. I went to a music conservatory for many years. I quit classical music and started playing in rock bands, electronic-music bands, toured around the world and had a lot of fun, and then one day I just woke up and I heard the calling to come back to classical music.

You were in an alternative-pop band called Fischerspooner.

It was sort of a performance-y type band, so there was a lot of dancing and a lot of costumes. The calling to come back to classical music happened on this big party island in Spain called Ibiza. We were playing this show at three in the morning in front of 10,000 people, and they decided it would be fun to string me up on a flying machine and send me out and start playing over all these people underneath me. So I’m out there playing this electric violin wirelessly, and everyone is dancing and having fun, and all of a sudden my battery went out on the violin.

Oh, my God.

And I was just sort of swinging there looking over the crowd, and I really remember this one person shouting out to me, “What are you doing?” And the rest is history.

We both work in many different mediums. What is some of the variety you get to do?

I do film soundtracks. I work in television. I do commercials and fills. I do sonic branding, mnemonics: When you turn on your Apple computer, for example, it makes a sound, and that makes you feel like you’re interacting with this thing that makes you happy. I’ve recently worked on a TV show on Starz called Flesh and Bone, about the dark underbelly of the ballet world. I’m doing collaborations with a lot of pop musicians for small branding things on Instagram, people from Rihanna to Selena Gomez. I’m also working on films and documentaries.

Are you composing using technology, or are you at a piano?

Yes. All of the above. Thankfully, technology has reached a point now where the virtual instrument world is very powerful. We can get pretty close to what it’s going to sound like, which is helpful for a choreographer or whoever is funding the project. Twenty years ago, you could hand someone a piece of paper and then hope for the best.

Audience Member: I am curious about your background, how you came to music.

I grew up in Berkeley and Oakland, California, started with the violin, and then started music conservatory in seventh grade, a small little violin-and-cello school. It was only string instruments. So it was bowing class all day, tennis at lunch. Everything was working on your right arm. I went to this sort of hippie-commune kind of school in Berkeley named after a famous architect there called Bernard Maybeck, who liked to incorporate the outside environment into his inside structures. So some of the homes have redwood trees growing from the middle of them. They wanted you to incorporate the outside world into your education, and we’d spend several months of the year researching a trip we’d like to go on and then doing fundraising and writing grants, get the money, and then go away actually and study there. So I went to Israel. I did sociology. We did archaeology in Egypt. We did biology in Central America. It was amazing. For high school, I went to a place in Michigan called the Interlochen Center for the Arts, then I followed my violin teacher to Syracuse University. After a couple of years there, I went to school at the Prague Conservatory, and then I moved to New York.

Audience Member: What’s the most challenging project you’ve had?

I think a challenge all artists have today is the difference between your art and your craft. Most of the time you make money by implementing your craft. There are very few opportunities where you just purely do your art, and it gets exhausting to tap into your creative well and keep on doing your craft all the time. Especially with commercial work, you’re collaborating with people who don’t have that understanding of your art. I’ve done advertising projects where you’re on the phone with a boardroom of people who say stuff like, “I like it here, but I want it to sound—I don’t know the word. What’s the opposite of major?” And they want it to sound exactly like something else, and then they think that they’re going to get sued and hire a lawyer, a musicologist, and then you have to call the musicologist about the theory and the structure of the piece, and it’s exhausting. A lot of artists have an opportunity at a certain point in their life to create something meaningful and significant, and the world attaches themselves to that, and they just want more and more of that. But no one would be happy doing the exact same thing for forty years of their life, especially a creative person who wants to try new things. So it’s important to have the experimental time.

Audience Member: How would you define your compositions?

The kind of music that I like to write might be defined as neoclassical meets minimalism, with a sprinkle of serialism on top. We did this thing at Lincoln Center, and there was a review with one sentence that was sort of an insult. It was called “minimalism without tears.” I’ve sort of started to embrace it, and maybe that’s my style of music. Minimalism without tears.

Photo credit: Philip Cheung

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