Chris Adler ‘94 went to MIT to study mathematics and physics, never imagining that he would become a successful musician and composer. “Music had been a passion and a hobby,” he says. “I never intended to go on with it. But then I met and studied with composer and professor Evan Ziporyn. It allowed me to consider music as a possibility, and it just went from there.” After graduating from MIT with degrees in mathematics and composition, Adler earned a PhD in composition at Duke University. Now an active composer and an associate professor at the University of San Diego, he works extensively with the piano and the khaen, a traditional Thai free-reed mouth organ.
Adler began his musical explorations growing up in Washington, DC, where his mother worked in a church. He spent a lot of time in the church playing the pipe organ, an instrument he studied throughout high school and at MIT. He says it was his mentor Ziporyn who “showed me that there were possibilities that I hadn’t imagined, in terms of taking a non-Western instrument seriously in study and making an artistic career of it.” The khaen appealed to him because, like the pipe organ, it is primarily played solo or in small groups. “I like the intensity that arises from a really close interaction between people,” he says.
Adler’s work now reaches broad audiences. His Music for a Royal Palace–commissioned by the Silk Road Ensemble, a group led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma that explores cross-cultural music, and the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall–premiered at Carnegie Hall in September 2006. Adler’s recordings include new compositions out on the Tzadik label, and another CD is due in 2007. Beyond composing and teaching, he performs with groups such as Noise, a chamber ensemble specializing in contemporary music. “I’m an improviser as well as a performer of other people’s music,” he says. “Improvisation takes a kind of creativity similar to what you need to do math well.”
Adler is also working on a piece for his wife, Supeena Insee Adler, a musician who specializes in traditional Thai music. His compositions and recordings are listed on his website.