ADAM VIDIKSIS is a composer, conductor, percussionist, improviser, and technologist based in Philadelphia whose music often explores social structures, science, and the intersection of humankind with the machines we build. Often drawing from both acoustic and electronic sounds, his critically acclaimed music has been heard in concert halls and venues around the world. Adam’s research in music technology focuses on techniques for real-time audio processing, designing gestural controllers for live digital performance, and machine improvisation. Adam holds degrees from Drew University, New York University, and Temple University, culminating in a doctoral degree in music composition. He is an Assistant Professor of music technology and composition at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance. Read his complete biography HERE
THE VALUE OF DREW
Adam was attracted to Drew because it offered strong musical training coupled with a liberal arts education. He majored in Music and minored in Humanities and loved that he was given an opportunity to see how “art intersected with all these things.” He anticipated a future career as a percussionist. At Drew, he was involved in every instrumental musical ensemble as well as the Earth House, which was focused on environmental issues. Everyone had an Earth House project—Vidiksis’s combined his interests by having music concerts and festivals that raised money for environmental organizations. One of his favorite memories of Drew was working with his housemates to organize a musical festival on campus to raise funds for the first Fern Fest, a part of the Drew Reforestation program. Another favorite memory for Adam was writing a symphony-length work, entitled Nocturnum, for Drew’s orchestra during his senior year. His mentors in the Music Department were Professor Emeritus of Music Dr. Norman Lowrey, Former Chair of the Music Department Dr. Lydia Ledeen, and former music professors Dr. Virginia Schulze-Johnson and Dr. Garyth Nair.
Did you go right into grad school (New York University) right after Drew?
No, I moved back to NYC and worked as a freelance percussionist and teacher for 5 years. I performed concerts and other live gigs in the evenings, and during the day, gave private lessons and taught in two elementary schools. Later, I left the elementary school positions to become an assistant band director at a high school. During this period before and while at grad school, I returned to Drew to direct and conduct the Drew University Wind Ensemble and was an Affiliate Artist in Percussion.
What inspired you to go to grad school to pursue a Master’s in Composition?
Thanks to the support of my music professors at Drew and the opportunity I was given to compose a symphony my senior year, I was inspired to pursue composing professionally. At the first stages of my career right after my time at Drew, I composed mostly for myself, but eventually more people began to request compositions and it began to generate a stream of income. My decision to go to NYU was based on my desire to have the time and guidance to improve as a composer.
When did you first get into music?
My great-grandmother from Sicily came here at 18 after she studied in the conservatory in Palermo and she lived to be 109 years old, so even though my parents and grandparents weren’t musicians, I grew up exposed to music through her influence. I started piano lessons at 4 years old, and later, in the 4th grade I started learning drums. Throughout high school, I was in various bands, including concert and marching bands, and was working on musical side projects.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play many percussion instruments including marimba, vibraphone, bells, timpani, drum set, etc. as well as live electronics.
How would you define electronic music?
There’s a general definition and a genre-based definition. When people say, “electronic music,” they are typically referencing electronic dance music, or “EDM”. Electronic music in the classical tradition is typically called “electro-acoustic music”, but there is a lot of crossover. Electro-acoustic music typically traces its lineage back to classical mid-20th century European and American composers, while electronic music traces back to musicians presenting their art in dance halls, clubs, and other popular venues around the world from around the same period. I write and perform music that could at times be considered in either or both of these definitions.
When did you first start composing electronic music? What attracted you to this genre?
I was interested in computers and making amateur electronic music back in high school in the 90’s. I was particularly interested in bass-forward electronic music, like drum and bass, house, and jungle, as well as IDM (“Intelligent Dance Music”). It had a huge influence on me as a drummer. There is a feedback loop between people producing electronic beats and people trying to replicate them live on drums. Beats that at first seemed impossible—that only a computer could play them—were pretty quickly absorbed by real players. They would become somewhat commonplace and then producers would make new seemingly impossible beats and the cycle of increasing virtuosity would continue. It was an exciting time—the bar kept getting raised.
Did your background in percussion help you move into this genre easily?
Yes, people usually know that percussionists study complex rhythms and beats, but we also have a unique understanding of timbre. Our sound world contains metal bells, ratchets, cymbals, wood, skins—we need to expertly understand how to produce these sounds with diverse resonant qualities. No other acoustic instrumental practice has as wide of a timbral palette as percussion. This is a perfect lead-in to electronics. It’s a dissecting of timbre. Every sound we can hear or can dream to be heard can be produced electronically. We are only limited by our imagination.
How do you use your genre of electronic music to communicate emotionally?
As a composer you are trying to create a space where people can respond. Music has the power to affect people emotionally and intellectually—and music is most powerful when these come together. When composing, I am not trying to unlock one thing, but rather trying to build a space where people can bring their own responses. I can’t decide what or how my music will resonate inside someone else, but if it does in some way, then I feel it is worthwhile.
What are the challenges of conducting an ensemble in this genre as opposed to a standard orchestra?
At Drew, I was given an opportunity to study conducting with Prof. Nair and electronics with Prof. Lowrey and this has served me well in my career. I’ve conducted both types of ensembles—traditional orchestras and electronic instrument ensembles, such as laptop orchestras—and they both have their challenges. Large ensembles of any type are complex. You have to understand all the instruments and figure out what information the musicians need to do their job. Electronic instruments like computers are malleable meta-instruments. With something like a jazz band or classical orchestra, you generally know each instrument’s role and you know who is leading, playing melody, soloing, in the rhythm section or accompaniment, etc. With electronic instruments, roles can shift very quickly. It changes every time because a computer can do so many different things. Plus, electronics are now frequently brought into traditional orchestras.
What are your influences in percussion and composition?
An early influence for me as a percussionist is Evelyn Glennie, who is such a phenomenal performer. For composing, both Pauline Oliveros and John Cage had enormous early influence on my music, as well as Richard David James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin), Daniel Williamson (a.k.a LTJ Bukem), and Tom Jenkinson (a.k.a Squarepusher), among many others.
Can you describe your work as a technologist?
The technologist part of my work has many offshoots—it is more of a research role looking at emerging technologies and how they can be used in music, how technology has an effect on us, and what it reveals about us. This leads to musical innovations. For example, if I use sensors to build some musical device, I consider what music it can produce. Then I write a piece for it or perhaps get other composers to write for it. Music technology asks a lot of big questions about what music means to us, its relationship to our mind and body, and how our means of exchanging or making music changes our relationship to music and to each other.
What types of software do you use?
I write a lot of the software myself. I also like to use Ableton Live because it’s a robust program that lets you code your own programs and effects and then use them easily in the program. It’s an excellent hybrid tool where I can code from scratch but work with a preexisting software platform. I also use Logic Pro, which I love for visual media like film scoring, and Pro Tools, which is my favorite for recording.
Do you think A.I. can eventually compose and perform what you do?
It’s hard to say, but I do believe that automation and robotics are part of music in the future. This reveals something interesting about our society. In the past, we typically contrasted our humanity to nature, or perhaps to other humans, other societies. In the 21st century, we now have machines that can hold their own. What effect will driverless cars have on our society? What will that mean for our economy, for joblessness, for self-worth? This process is happening in music, too—but it has been a part of music technology for a while. The Telharmonium was developed in 1897 in part to replace musicians in cafés. Though there is greater accuracy and consistency in machines, we still prefer human performances. We have nearly all the recorded music in the history of the world at our fingertips on the internet, but live shows and concerts are still tremendously valued by nearly everyone. We need to question to what degree we define ourselves in relationship to other things, including machines. Music in the 21st century will still include human beings. A machine’s virtuosity can blow a human performer away, no doubt. Self-playing pianos are flawless, but we’d rather hear a human person perform on a piano. We’ve learned pretty clearly that the transmission of expression between people is at the core of the musical experience. If a machine or A.I. can get that close to being human, then perhaps it is the same thing anyway—the transmission of expression from one intellectual, emotional being to another. But humans will still be at the core of that, too.
Your music has been described as an exploration of sound, science, and the intersection of humankind with the machines we build. Can you elaborate on that?
Science has always been fascinating to me. I’ve also been reading science fiction since I was a child. It was at Drew that I first had an opportunity to explore electronics through Prof. Norman Lowrey’s excellent electronic studio. I loved his classes and used the tools Drew offered that I didn’t have access to growing up—for example, I had my own laptop for the first time. I became particularly interested in how science connects to sound and music in my 20’s after graduating Drew. This interest developed over the years and culminated in my going to NYU due partly because of the music technology courses they offered.
What is a gestural controller? I know you were a semifinalist in the 2012 Guthman Musical instrument competition. Do you make instruments?
Yes, a gestural controller is a type of musical interface for a playing music on a computer. A simple and wide-spread example is a MIDI keyboard. One of the difficulties of designing an instrument that controls a computer is that, like any instrument, it takes many thousands of hours to learn to get really good at playing it. So one strategy that engineers take is to piggy-back on an existing instrumental tradition. If you are a virtuosic pianist or organist, you are probably going to be able to be virtuosic on the MIDI keyboard pretty quickly. There are lots of examples like this for drums, but they largely focus on triggering the rhythm (timing) and dynamics (how loud and soft) of the sounds. Control of the timbre was not as subtle as on acoustic percussion instruments. I wanted to build an instrument that could draw on the percussion tradition of subtly manipulating timbre within rhythms. I built a gestural controller called the Tapbox DSP to play computer sounds somewhat like a hand percussion instrument, for example like a tambourine. I created original hardware and the software to manipulate and synthesize different sounds.
Performances once consisted solely of traditional live instruments. Currently, the use of computers on stage and digital instruments during live shows is very prevalent. What are your thoughts and experiences with that transition?
It’s interesting to see how our relationship with electronic music has shifted and what our reactions reveal about us and what we want out of music. DeadMau2, a Canadian electronic musician, producer and DJ, wrote a blog a few years ago about how many famous EDM (electronic dance music) performers don’t actually perform very much at all when they are on stage. I don’t find that mode of performance particularly compelling, but it sheds light on how an audience wants to experience this music and about how we all experience live music generally. Many EDM shows still continue this way, and fans still attend. The fact that EDM generally is not performed in the manner that we might expect has not impacted the enjoyment of these shows. It demonstrates that performance—namely that transmission of expression in real time—is on a spectrum with an incredibly porous border. I find it most interesting that we are bringing digital instruments on stage. I want them to be expressive and to include the human element. I want the expression to be as close to real time as can be. Improvisation is a big part of it as well. Humans can do this incredibly well and machines can’t—that’s where I believe a big part of music in the next century will focus. This is a huge topic and there are so many interesting facets.
With the almost unlimited capacities of computers and recording software today, have you found it more satisfying or more frustrating that you can engineer and manipulate whatever sounds you want to hear?
There are elements of satisfaction and frustration. One of the most exciting things is the limitless possibilities, but paradoxically, that is one of the worst things you can present to a composer. Limitless possibilities mean more decisions to make to get the job done, so to speak. It is easy to be overwhelmed in making good choices. I encourage my students to be clear in what they want to achieve. Try to stay within those boundaries to come up with a concept that guides the sound. Then when you make decisions or changes, you can reference the guiding principle of the piece. If you are suddenly going to change the foundation of the work, then you are fundamentally changing what you are making. (And sometimes that is a good move, but often it is not.) This is difficult in electronic music because it is so easy to add more to the music. Add another track, then another. No big deal. But is it serving the music? In traditional composition, it is truly a big deal to add another part. It means that you are writing instructions for another human performer, like adding a cellist to a piece. Now you have to find and/or hire another musician to realize the work. It’s no small thing. I try to keep that idea in mind even when adding more to electronic music, even though it is so easy to do. Creativity blossoms where there are boundaries. Even maximalist works, like Mahler symphonies or big EDM tracks, have boundaries that define their guiding principles, which is why they work so well. A perfect example is what is happening in music during the pandemic. Limitations push you to be creative. Every music technologist is working on how to perform remotely now, and musicians are doing interesting things within the limitations of our current technologies.
I listened to Mitochondrial Dreams and it sounds both futuristic and ancient (vaguely middle eastern.) Was biology/cells/energy your inspiration?
I have always been fascinated with our relationship to our bodies and the complexity of our personal ecosystems. Are the bacteria in my stomach really me? One of the most interesting things to me is that the genetic material in mitochondria are passed through the line of women in your family, mother to daughter, over and over again through all the generations of humanity, and finally to me through my mother, whereas the Y chromosome is passed from the males in my family. Regardless of the fact that I am a father, that mitochondrial line ends with me, in me. I will not pass it on directly (although it will continue through the women in my family.) It serves as a means of considering my own death in a larger context. I wanted to write a requiem for my mitochondria. So yes, this piece was influenced by science and humanity through all of history, with particular gratitude and reverence to the women who have made me, both those I have known and my ancestors long deceased.
I am interested in a broad range of musical sounds. I had the sense of wanting to bring a contemplative sense of the ancient into it. One of the primary sounds you heard is the same metal instruments I am performing recorded and stretched out over a very long period. I was creating a relationship to time. It is interesting that you heard a connection to Middle Eastern music in it, but those sounds were what was in the changing resonant overtones of the metal instrument when stretched out over time, as well as the artifacts (or small noise effects) resulting from the algorithm I use to do this time dilation. It is a haphazard combination of acoustic and electronic phenomena that I selected, but which created a space in which you could find meaning and connections to other things. I don’t hear it that way, but it is beautiful that you do. People bring their own responses to the experience. In the end, the best music is conceptionally interesting and creates an emotional reaction that can’t be pre-defined.
How often do you compose new pieces?
I’m always working on a number of shorter and longer pieces. Some of my longer pieces can take a year or more. I have a set schedule of time each day to compose. It’s fortunate that I know how long it takes to do certain things. That comes from experience. When I was younger, I had a hard time working on more than one thing at a time because I had no idea how long it would take me to do it. It is useful to log your time on each project task, so you know how much time to plan for it in the future. As for how often I complete a new work, it all depends on the scope. I dedicate about approximately 25 hours a week to composing. The rest of the work week is distributed between rehearsing, practicing, performing, teaching, and various administrative tasks like email.
Who are your favorite science fiction writers?
My first favorites were Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert. Most recently, I love the work of N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. There are so many authors I love though!
If you could try any other career other than your own what would it be?
Researcher in physics or biology
If you could travel anywhere tomorrow where would it be?
Japan. I was supposed to be there this summer as Director of Arts technology for one of the National Endowment for the Arts performances at the 2020 Summer Olympics. Everything is pushed back to 2021 now. But if I could, I wish we could all be back in Japan now for the games.
What do you think is the key to your success?
Being constantly curious and also disciplined to follow up on my interests.
What advice would you give a Drew student who is interested in a career in music?
It’s really important to figure out what you want to do and focus on that, while staying open to where your interests take you. I am not solely a percussionist as I had planned in my freshman year at Drew. Percussion is still a big part of what I do, but I discovered and developed many other interests along the way that have allowed me to have the career I have now. I could not have found what makes me happy without a careful combination of both dedication and flexibility. Find mentors or at least one mentor that can guide you. This can help you move forward in your career more quickly. They can point you in the direction you need to go, see over hurdles that are blocking your path, and steer you away from mistakes that you wouldn’t have known to avoid. Their experience can become your wisdom. I am in my mid-career now and I try to be a mentor to my own students and others. And I still rely on mentors who are wiser and more experienced than me, as well as my friends and peers in music. I owe a lot to all of them, and particularly, Prof. Lowrey. I couldn’t have found my path without mentors like my professors at Drew.
Where can we find your music?