Adam Donen

Classical composer Adam Donen is doing his bit to blow preconceptions around symphonies away with his new First World War inspired piece. We find out how…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 12 Jun 2014
  • min read
Classical composer Adam Donen is attempting to change the way we look at the symphony with his latest work, Symphony to a Lost Generation.

The piece, which is expected to debut next year in London, will utilise an orchestra, choir, 3D holographics, dance and documentary film in a bid to create something Adam describes as ‘total art-work’. It’s certainly a widely ambitious endeavour for the 28 year-old musician, building on an already eccentric musical career. Prior to this new project, he’s collaborated with Brian Eno producer Robert Harder and directed a sell-out site specific puppet opera.

We find out why the only thing holding Adam back is the limit of his imagination…

How did you first get into music?

When I was five years old, growing up in Cape Town South Africa, I saw the video for AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. They were playing in a prison to a mad crowd and I just pointed at the TV saying - ‘I want to do that’.

My grandparents came into the room and started screaming ‘devil worshippers!’ I discovered Alice Cooper and became a six year old metal head. My tastes became a bit more serious a few years later.

How did you develop a love for classical sounds?

My path has been quite a strange one. I studied literature and came to the UK to study, although I was obsessed with classical and modern song. Then I ended up in a rock band when I finished my studies. I played silly music with intelligent lyrics. I met a producer Robert Harder and he’s really taught me everything I know. When he’s not wasting his time with me he works with Brian Eno and Herbie Hancock. He encouraged me to pursue studies in orchestration and basically to treat my music as seriously as I treated my words.

How did Symphony to a Lost Generation come about?

For a number of years I’ve been obsessed with a new form of ‘total art’. It unifies all of the technologies and art forms available to our age, centred around very carefully written music. So thematically, this project allows me my first attempts at doing this.

It’s based around the First World War although I’m not interested in creating a historical piece. I’m obsessed by the idea that in our lifetime it is statistically improbable that such a war won’t happen again. And that people fighting in it would be people like me, of my age and generation.

I wanted to create a work in which the past literally steps into the present. I wanted to do this musically because I feel that music is the manifestation of a truth beyond fact - it’s something more than entertainment. This project allows me to work with such grand ideas. Does that make any sense at all?

I’m bringing together an orchestra, an adult choir, children’s choir, fil, hologrpahics, ballet and butoh - which is a form of Japanese dance invented after Hiroshima.

Where do you begin with such an ambitious project?

asically I start by coming up with a sense of feeling and working out a narrative. Then the music leads the visuals rather than the other way around. Which is the difference between this and a film.

When will it be unveiled?

The plan is that the composition will be premiered in August 2015 and it will be taking place in a very large public space in London. I can’t say where yet for various reasons.

How is the composition progressing?

It’s an 80 minute piece which already has three hours of sketches. The greatest challenge is structure. It needs to be emotionally understood by anybody and therefore it needs to flow. That flow is what I’m struggling with at the moment.

Collaboration must be at the heart of such a composition?

Of course, that’s exactly how it has to be as the goal of any work is to create something outside of yourself - the people with whom I’m working are going to allow me to do this beyond my wildest dreams. At the moment, I’m getting asked what will be happening in the various different parts and giving unduly vague answers. Then the dramatisation and choreography can begin.

The holographic aspect will be 3d projections. Technically I can’t get my head around this but fortunately the company working on this are masters.

Has it been intimidating to work on such a project?

It’s both intimidating and liberating. The opportunity to imagine something so ambitious is very fortunate. But I have an obligation to go as far as I can. I also believe that it’s responsibility of artists to create grand works which attempt to explain existence rather than just entertain. I now feel it’s my job to step up to the plate.

Who do you look to for inspiration?

Conceptually I’m a Wagnerian. I believe that apart from the massive and terminal blind spot of his proto faschism, the concept of attempting to create totality in music is a correct one. Musically I find Scott Walker’s albums of the last 30 years things I go back to again and again. He imagines his works as operating within blocks of sound. He sees them as a bunch of soldiers being moved around a battlefield and that all these parts need to be in the right place for the correct effect to happen. Of our age, he’s a primary inspiration.

Have you got any tips for aspiring composers?

Yes - one is limited by one’s imagination but one shouldn’t be. All my life there have been many people who have known more than me who have told me exactly me what I should be doing – all of which I’ve ignored by learning what they can do that I can’t. It’s important to learn from everybody, even those whose music you don’t like, while also refusing to budge from your own path.

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