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From grief to music: Adam Tendler and Liquid Music explore ‘inheritance,’ one piece at a time

After Tendler’s father died, he found out he’d be getting an inheritance. He sat with the money for a while, until he came up with a way to use it: He’d commission composers.

Pianist Adam Tendler
Pianist Adam Tendler: “This project is a way for me to process grief, and experience it in a way that I don’t feel I was able to at the time.”
Photo by Cameron McLeod

Luminaries from the world of performance art, contemporary classical and experimental music — including Laurie Anderson, Nico Muhly, Ted Hearne and Twin Cities-based Mary Prescott — are joining forces for an evening of new work presented Saturday by Liquid Music. The concert features pianist Adam Tendler, who initiated the project after the death of his father and wanted to explore the notion of “inheritance.” 

Tendler wasn’t exactly estranged from his father, but they weren’t close. His father’s politics and life views were very different from his own. “I think he became radicalized in terms of Trump language and conspiracy theories and stuff that in my childhood I thought was entertaining and fun, but then became something very different and seemed very different from my values or me,” Tendler says. 

They’d talk maybe once or twice a year, on holidays and birthdays. “I think he kind of trusted that my life was OK,” Tendler says. “He didn’t really need to be involved. There was no hostility — even estrangement has to be too strong a word — we were just sort of in different places.” 

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Then, his father died suddenly in the fall before the pandemic hit. 

“It wasn’t like there’s this missing part of my life anymore, because he wasn’t really there, it was more about the access to him. I can’t mend this relationship, if I wanted to,” Tendler says. “The grief was about grieving the potential for our future, but also grieving an entire chapter of my life.”

A photographic image of Adam Tendler’s father.
Courtesy of Liquid Music
A photographic image of Adam Tendler’s father.
Months later, Tendler found out that he’d be getting an inheritance. “He’s the type of person who was so eccentric, I expected to get zero, because I don’t expect anything from him, or something really weird,” he recalls. “And it ended up being something really weird.” 

Tendler met his stepmom at a Denny’s on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, and she handed him a vanilla envelope with $10,000 in cash inside, wrapped with a rubber band. His stepmom told him his dad had saved money for Tendler and his sister left over from his first marriage, and had it lying around the house. 

“It was just such a weird amount that I was like, ‘What do I do? Do I pay off like my credit card? Let it get sucked into my subway fare?” Tendler says. “It could very easily be spent meaninglessly, like a vacation or whatever.” 

Tendler sat with the money for a while, until he came up with a way to use it: He’d use it to commission composers. “I was actually at a concert, and I just heard a beautiful piece,” he recalls. Somehow it just hit me that I could do, $1,000 commissions for a bunch of composers. That’s a way of investing this.”

It wasn’t an investment in his own career, but rather as a way to let the money live on in some way.

He reached out to a few of his friends, like Nico Muhly, who said yes to the project right away, and the project was underway. Unfortunately, the Inheritance Project was born just at the beginning of COVID, so the chance of presenting it live in New York where Tendler lives didn’t seem likely. Then, at the end of the summer of 2020, he reached out to Kate Nordstrom, of Liquid Music, who got on board with the project coming to Minneapolis. Soon, Tendler was able to secure additional funding besides his inheritance dollars, and the project grew. 

Tendler wanted all of the composers to know they could do anything they wanted with the commission. “I’d say all of the composers know my work and they know me as a pianist and they know that my interests can range from really straight-ahead piano music to some weird stuff,” Tendler says. “They knew they could sort of fly their freak flag with me.”

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There wasn’t going to be a photo of his father projected on stage, or photos of Tendler as a child at birthday parties. Still, many of the musicians dug into notions of grief and their relationships with their own family. 

Tendler was clear with the composers that he didn’t want their pieces to be about his dad. “This project is a way for me to process grief, and experience it in a way that I don’t feel I was able to at the time,” he says. He told the composers they could create work as broadly as they wanted. 

Some of the pieces have text, one uses props, and there’s even a quasi-therapy session couched in one of the pieces. 

One of the composers, Scott Wollschleger, early on wrote a series of questions for Tendler to answer about his dad. He was hesitant, but reluctantly answered the questions and sent it to the other composers as well. Many of the composers ended up using that text as source material.

Ultimately, Tendler says he wanted the composers to have a carthartic experience creating their new pieces, and now he wants to share that experience with listeners. “Now we actually get to create that experience for people,” he says. “They can actually go through these pieces, and hopefully, it’s going to be a compelling experience.” 

Adam Tendler: Inheritances takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at the Parkway Theater ($25-50). More information here.