Professor Schoenberg presents concerto on climate change during UN week

Professor Adam Schoenberg describes how important improvisation on the piano is for his composing process. Occidental College in Los Angeles, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. Evan Legrand/The Occidental

Students and staff gathered in Booth Hall to hear music professor Adam Schoenberg talk about his percussion concerto “Losing Earth” on the first day of Kahane United Nations (UN) week at Occidental College Feb. 10. “Losing Earth” is a 23-minute-long concerto the San Francisco Symphony first premiered in October and that Schoenberg said was inspired by climate change. Along with being a professor, Schoenberg is a Grammy award-nominated composer and is among the top 10 most performed living composers by orchestras. Occidental’s UN week focuses on the UN’s impact on global issues, and this year’s theme is climate change.

“I was asked by [professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs] Anthony Chase to present because he had heard that the piece was inspired by climate change and tied in with the theme for UN week,” Schoenberg said. “Also, it allows us to collaborate across disciplines, and I love being able to present to a group of people who I normally don’t interact with on a daily basis.”

Schoenberg began the talk by explaining his inspiration behind “Losing Earth.” According to Schoenberg, he got his idea for the concerto after reading an article from the New York Times called “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

“I immediately knew after reading that article that my piece was going to be inspired by the idea of climate change and what that means today and what that can mean in the future,” Schoenberg said. “Especially just having two young boys and not knowing what’s in store for them.”

Schoenberg said he usually likes to end his music on an optimistic note, but felt he could not do so in a piece about climate change.

“I think the ending of the piece might be my favorite part just because it’s something totally new,” Schoenberg said. “I was really actually nervous and somewhat insecure in terms of what the reaction was going to be.”

Schoenberg continued the talk by explaining the process behind writing his concerto. He introduced the audience to Logic Pro X, a piece of software used by composers and musicians. He also explained background information such as scores, percussion and major and minor chords.

Nancy Yang (first year), an attendee of the talk, said she enjoyed how Schoenberg explained everything so even non-music students would understand his composition process. Cole Tremblay (first year) also said Schoenberg’s detailed explanation was useful.

“It’s good to see him [Schoenberg] talk about his process and how he started his idea,” Tremblay said. “We got to see the inner workings of his mind, how he created his piece and we were also able to hear it.”

According to Schoenberg, a goal of the concerto was to provoke a reaction from listeners — hopefully, he said, a positive one.

“I think to engage the audience so that that they respond one way or another and not to feel indifferent, is really what I go for,” Schoenberg said. “And of course, the ultimate goal is I want people to feel inspired. I want them to feel moved.”

According to Schoenberg, music should be used as a platform to inspire people and motivate social action. Schoenberg said presenting his ideas to a large group of people comes with responsibility.

“When you’re given an opportunity to speak in a public format, then there has to be great intent behind what it is that you are releasing into the world,” Schoenberg said. “In this context, obviously, there is a certain message behind the piece. It also leaves a bunch of questions because we don’t know what is going to happen as the days unfold.”

Schoenberg said his research did not affect his personal opinion on climate change.

“It’s more dire and more concerning than anything, and I certainly did not feel more relaxed after researching climate change,” Schoenberg said. “I feel a greater sense of urgency.”