A Conversation with Pianist, Composer and Conductor Adam Burnette
Adam Burnette is a pianist, bandleader and composer from Chatsworth, Georgia. He has worked across the United States, from the Kennedy Center to Indiana State University, and in Europe. His work was recently featured in NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Trans and Nonbinary Voices, the very first volume of songs written by and/or for transgender and non-binary people.
Quotes have been edited for clarity. Content Warning: Suicide.
How and when did you first get into music?
I think I was always destined to be a musician. I started playing the piano when I was three, and I think I was just a little obsessed with it. There was a teenage girl playing, and I was just in love with what she was doing and the sound, my parents never really encouraged her, so I kind of found that on my own. I started playing when I was very young, I took a year of lessons when I was five years old. In sixth grade, I took a year of lessons with this lady who taught classical music. But I couldn’t read music, so I imitated what she was doing, and after six or seven weeks, I learned a piece [of music]. My teacher would just throw music at me, and that’s how I learned to read it. It was a sort of trial by fire. In second, I started taking classes again with a teacher who offered me a full scholarship. The first year it was one lesson per week, then we started doing two lessons per week.
I auditioned at Indiana University and got in. I started choir conducting, then opera conducting and orchestra conducting and I made my debut at the age of 25 at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Have you ever found music to be a comfort or a type of therapy during difficult times in life?
I was probably playing six hours a day and luckily my family never told me to stop. I woke up in the morning and played before taking a shower, and at night I still played before going to bed. I think it’s something about the vibration of the string hitting the fingerboard that’s therapeutic, and I understood that at a very young age. [Music] is my identity.
Have you noticed that the world of classical/contemporary music includes musicians who are not straight and/or who are not cis? Is it a diverse career field in that regard?
Yes, in the world of opera, that’s not a problem, and it’s fantastic. We are all here for the music. If it’s good music, it’s good music, whoever wrote it. I think the music world is very inclusive… I’ve played with musicians from all over, Russia, China, Korea, Tunisia, South Africa, Australia, and they’re all fun! There’s a certain universality that we all have, it’s all about music.
One of your upcoming projects is included in an anthology of trans and non-binary music. How important do you think this is for the world of classical music?
I think it’s much more important than the classical world. I think that’s fine, but I think that’s a much broader statement than the classical world. It’s important that people see that.
What about the anthology that made you want to submit your work?
I had this childhood friend named Mark, and he was so genuine, and I absolutely loved that. I knew I was gay at four [years old], and I never told anyone about it. But in 7th grade I met Mark, and in 8th grade he was the first person I talked to.
I didn’t see him for 20 years, but one day I heard he was in town and we saw each other again. I could tell that he had lived 20 very troubled years, that he had really struggled. He had always been in between, which is why I think he was non-binary. We had a great day that day, we had climbed the mountain and jumped off the rocks and had a great time. Then I found out that I had gone to bed and he had committed suicide. The next day I sat down at the piano and wrote a piece. There were no erasures, it just came out. The last line [of the piece] says the birds are dead, the flowers won’t bloom, everything green is dead, and now he can cry. I don’t know, it really spoke to me. I just wish Mark’s mother died two years ago and she couldn’t see this play written for her son.
If you can tell me, I would like to know what is or could be your next project? Would you like to stay in the classic genre or would you consider branching out one day?
I’ve always composed, it’s always been kind of a hobby. Last year, I had four articles published. I was always a little nervous to send my music, rejection is pretty hard and also because the compositions are like your kids, and if people don’t like your kids, that’s not a great feeling, you know? I finally worked up the courage to send some stuff, and it ended up being pretty successful. And I hope that will remain the case and that the trend will continue.
Finally, who is your favorite composer and why?
Bach, all the way. He did it all, man!