Pianist Adam Tendler Mixes Music and Meditation in Rothko Performance

Adam Tendler lives in New York City and serves on the faculty of Third Street Music School Settlement, the country’s first community music school.
Adam Tendler lives in New York City and serves on the faculty of Third Street Music School Settlement, the country’s first community music school. Photo by Ben Tran
Pianist Adam Tendler doesn't just play the instrument — he manipulates it. True to form, Thursday's upcoming performance at the Rothko Chapel won't be a run-of-the-mill concert. Instead, the musical mastermind's selections will require active listening, audience participation and maybe even some meditation.

For this show, Tendler plans to manipulate the very conventional piano to produce music and sounds in a nonconventional way.

"One of the pieces that starts the show requires a manipulation of the keys...It’s all about fingertips tapping the keyboard. In terms of sound, it’s almost microscopic," says Tendler. "Another piece of the program requires the piano lid to be closed, and it has music boxes tapping on the piano."

Other twists come throughout the show. One piece will feature pre-recorded elements on tape, while another will feature the piano as a soloist against the sound of drones. The audience participation comes during an Earle Brown composition via cell phones.

Regarding the Brown piece, Tendler says, "There are four parts, and I’ll be playing one of them. I’m going to make it so people in the audience can trigger the other piano parts. They can choose which part they want to play using their phones. We’ll have several sounds floating around the room depending on where you sit."

Tendler has worked with the Rothko Chapel for nearly two years to plan this event, and the music selected was chosen to reflect the space in which it will be performed.

"The space totally formed the program...It fits emotionally and acoustically," he says. "I wanted to create [a] program that was rather still, almost like a prayer program. Something very meditative that would not be super-extroverted."

The full program includes Brown's "Forgotten Piece" (1954) and "Home Burial" (1949), Nico Muhly's "Drones & Piano" (2010), Marina Poleukhina's "for thing" (2013), Morton Feldman's "Palais De Mari" (1981) and Philip Glass's "Two Pages" (1968). Though the event starts at 7 p.m., Tendler recommends people arrive early for the pre-show performance of Charlie Sdraulig's "collector" (2014-15).

Tendler describes the music as a mix of experiences. He says it will be subdued yet intense. The quietness of the music, coupled with the required attention to the smallest of details, will make each individual's experience as different as the black and white keys he'll be playing.

"It requires your attention at all time, but not in a bombastic way. It’s a lot like a meditation. One piece is 30 minutes long, and it’s quiet and slow," said Tendler. "It’s like having someone give a powerful speech in their quietest voice. It can be kind of overwhelming."

Previous recordings provide a glimpse into the abstract, artful type of music with which Tendler has come to associate himself. The handsome maestro, wearing a sleeveless shirt that highlights his nicely toned arms and shoulders, shows us his emotional as well as analytic side while also fully committing to the music and the journey it explores. At times the music is nuanced and incongruent; at others it shows beautiful combinations of chords and musical phrases.

Tendler is no stranger to the Rothko Chapel. He played a sold-out show there five years ago, and his connection with Houston goes back even further. While on a 50-state tour, he played at MECA (Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts), where his presence made an impact. Listeners in the audience from Houston’s Foundation for Modern Music were so impressed they gave him a position as artistic director.

He also spent almost two years working as an announcer at KUHF — now part of Houston Public Media — and his taste in music was sometimes a hit, other times a miss.

"It was definitely a cool experience," Tendler says. "I would tend to get complaints from listeners because some of the music I was playing, they would think something was broken."

Although playing in Houston is not a first for him, this will be Tendler's first time to perform a selection of contemporary pieces meant to be a trippy and meditative experience on 4/20.

Is the date a coincidence? It seems the answer falls somewhere between a "yes" and a "no."

"We were looking at April dates, and because of scheduling, 4/20 looked like the one," he says. "We immediately started making jokes about it, but really, it’s kind of perfect. [The show] is about surrendering and leaving expectations at the door...It’s ironic, but it actually kind of works."

And there you have it, pot smokers, music lovers and meditation enthusiasts. Here's your chance to unite during your favorite hobby — whichever it may be — while also supporting the arts.

"If [people] come totally high, they’ll have the best time. This program, in a funny way, really fits that situation," he said.

Adam Tendler plays the Rothko Chapel (3900 Yupon) at 7 p.m. with a pre-show performance beforehand. Tickets are a suggested $10 donation and can be purchased at
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd