The Grammy-Nominated Classical Star You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

5 min
Grammy nominee and assistant professor Adam Schoenberg in his studio at Occidental College. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

What does Adam Schoenberg have in common with Body Count, Los Amigos Invisibles and the entire cast of Hello Dolly?

At the tender age of 37, the classical composer is up for two Grammys this weekend, including Best Contemporary Classical Composition for his work "Picture Studies," and Best Engineered Album, Classical.

You may not be aware of this guy, but in the classical world, Schoenberg’s work is so popular he’s made the annual list of the top 10 most performed living composers in the country. Twice.

Since he began composing professionally in 2006 when he was still a doctoral student at Juilliard, his writing has been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Kansas City Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, among others, and his compositions have premiered at venues like Lincoln Center, the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center and the Hollywood Bowl.

The Grammy-Nominated Classical Star You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

The Grammy-Nominated Classical Star You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

Schoenberg combines that life with his work as an assistant professor specializing in composition and film scoring at Occidental College in the small community of Eagle Rock in Los Angeles. It's also the school where a fellow named Barack Obama spent his first two years of higher education.

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Walk into the leafy, Zen-like courtyard of the small music building at Occidental, pass the tiered, cascading fountain and it’s not hard to find Adam Schoenberg's corner studio.

Just follow the sounds of the piano. Whether he’s teaching or composing, things for this man pretty much center around 88 keys.

Though he’s actually a very distant relation to George Gershwin, Schoenberg’s music is quite close in spirit, and it’s drawn comparisons to his iconic relative and other big names. Not all of them classical.

“One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had is someone came up to me and said, 'your music sounds like Radiohead meeting Aaron Copland,'” says Schoenberg. “In my car I have Sirius radio and I listen to Lithium, which is Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana, and Backspin, which is hip-hop from the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. I really do feel my music embraces the pop idiom or hip-hop idiom because it’s part of my DNA. So yeah, I embody the music of our time and put a little twist to it."

Much of Schoenberg’s work has a cinematic feel.

“I was drawn to soundtracks, but we didn't really own soundtracks,” he says. “My father is also a film composer, and when we would go see movies we always stayed to the end of the credits. And we would always listen, we’d be the last people in the theater.”

Schoenberg is prolific, but his creative process begins with sitting down and winging it.

“I’ll improvise for hours upon hours, record my improvisations and then I’ll extract a chord progression, it could be just a note, it could be a melody, it could be a texture, it could be a rhythm. Then I’ll start to sculpt it and craft it, and at that point I begin to think of myself as an architect building from this base material.”

He’s got computers and keyboards to capture those nuggets, but inspiration won’t always wait until a man’s in his studio.

“For right now, I basically record on my iPhone,” he says.

Sure enough, he’s got all manner of fragments stowed away on his voice memo, bits of singing with his young sons yelling in the background, a few skeletal notes on a piano, chords that repeat over and over as he searches for a path to open up.

In fact, from one 27-second bit of humble warbling sprang the opening line of Schoenberg’s upcoming work, "Orchard in Fog."

Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers commissioned Adam Schoenberg's first violin concerto.
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers commissioned Adam Schoenberg's first violin concerto. (Courtesy David Zentz)

“It’s based on a photograph by Adam Laipson, who’s from the same town in Massachusetts where I grew up, Salem, but not the witch one,” says Schoenberg. “My wife and I got married in an apple orchard on a gorgeous farm, quintessential New England, and Adam happened to take a photograph of the orchard in the winter. It’s haunting and beautiful. It’s in our bedroom and I wake up to it every single morning.”

The piece is his first violin concerto, and it will have its world premiere February 10 with the San Diego Symphony featuring renowned concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who commissioned the piece. But right now it’s still very much a work in progress, and will be so down to the wire.

“Oh yeah,” says Schoenberg. “I’ll be in my hotel room in San Diego making changes to this.”

“Oh God, I don’t want to hear that!” laughs Meyers. “I really wish you didn’t tell me that! Composers."

But Meyers, the consummate pro, will no doubt come through in the clinch. And after all, she commissioned the work, and she’s a big fan.

“His music is easily accessible and I mean that in the best sense,” she says. “Like a lot of other music can be non-transparent, and you feel like you almost need a degree in some kind of science to understand what is going on, but there’s none of that with Adam’s music. It just speaks to you, and it speaks simply and beautifully.”

“I think in the 21st Century we’re sort of at this renaissance,” Schoenberg says. “Every kid who gets a laptop can write a track and upload it to Youtube and say, ‘I wrote this.’ And at that point you have to figure out your voice, who you are, what it is you want to say and then how you’re going to distinguish yourself. But that’s a lifelong journey, I suppose."

At this point, Schoenberg’s well on the road, and the next stop is New York City for the Grammy Awards. After that, it’s back to the piano.