Building a blueprint that turns to air


Being a conductor has helped me with things like orchestration and how all that works, because I know more about the practical side of things, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

WHAT IMAGE do you have in mind for Thomas Adès, the most successful English composer of his generation? Whose first opera, Powder Her Face, about the scandalous Duchess of Argyll, provoked scandals of its own; whose second opera, The Tempest, was premiered at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and is due at the New York Met and Milan’s La Scala in coming seasons; whose Asyla was chosen by Simon Rattle to open his first concert as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic?

Well, when I meet him for the first time, in London, I briefly mistake him for a courier. I am standing in the dark and cold on a quiet central London side street outside his apartment when a tall man in day-glo yellow biking gear approaches me. I’m expecting to be asked for directions, but instead I receive apologies that a meeting at publishers Faber has kept the composer late.

Adès, of course, is more than just a composer. He’s also a conductor and pianist, and his National Concert Hall concert with the Britten Sinfonia (part of a tour stretching from Norwich to New York) features him in all three roles. How do the three of him get on?

“Better and better as cohabitation grinds on. It used to feel like that, like three separate things, it’s true. It doesn’t any more. It does feel like a continuum, now. I think that my work as a conductor, which is something I never intended – I never studied conducting – is actually quite helpful for the composer in me.

“Being a conductor has helped me with things like orchestration and how all that works, because I know more about the practical side of things. Pianist is the slightly odd one, because I was that first. That, in some ways, is the one that is a wild card, because when I’m conducting I think really like a composer. I wouldn’t pretend to be in the same group competitively as all the many brilliant conductors there are around. I don’t try to be part of that. I’m being a composer when I conduct.”

As a pianist, “I try to play from memory, and to play as a real, Lisztian pianist, in the simple sense that you play the recital and there’s an element of creating a sort of magical space. I think that’s important.”

He describes a solo recital at Carnegie Hall as a watershed. “I just thought, I’m going to do this! It was almost proving a point to myself. Because I was never really going to be a top-rank pianist. In a way, it was that realisation that led me to the understanding that, really, I was a composer, not a pianist.”

HE SCARED HIMSELF by entering the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition as a pianist. He nearly got to the concerto finals, where he was down to play a piece – Bartók’s Second Concerto– that he simply didn’t have the technique to deliver. The sobering outcome has been a glittering career as a multi-tasking composer.

The death of opera has been so often proclaimed, that an opera might seem an unusual undertaking for a composer in his 20s – he was 24 when Powder Her Facewas premiered in 1995. “It was an irresistible challenge. Especially when we’re being told it’s impossible. Anything that is that freakish, and has so little reason for existing, so little reason for existing since the word go, it’s been dying since it was born. “It’s been dying for 400 years and along the way has produced some fantastic freaks of nature . . . that’s the repertoire. I think it’s only as dead as the last terrible opera that’s been written.

“I’m not actually a creature of the opera house. I’m a creature of the recital, and chamber music, really, and symphonic music. I’m not a big sort of operatic person.

“In some ways that makes it more interesting for me, because I’m not approaching it from the point of view of people floundering about on stage. I’m trying to approach it from the point of view of a big musical form, a musical argument, if you like. So that makes it for me very strange and exciting – you write this thing, which is a musical argument, and then you see actual living, breathing, substantial people, as I say, floundering about on stage and singing your lines.

“The operas that I like are ones where the animating idea is to get the humans in a story to be part of a musical process. I like that very much. I’m not so interested in ones where it’s animated by the psychology of the characters. That’s just me.”

Even though he can write an opera and conduct it, the process of production involves a lot of interveners, so that the final product may be well removed from what he imagined while he was composing. “I think I felt instinctively that my job should be to create this rather unreal, otherworldly thing, which was the score, which would have its own logic, as cast iron as I could make it, outside the theatre, first.

“With the second opera I wrote, The Tempest, I knew I had to work with a director who would understand that you are dealing with something that is unreal and otherworldly. And I talked to Tom Cairns early on about that production. I said that my attraction with this piece, and with Prosperoand the whole story, is that he can wave his hands in the air and suddenly there’ll be a storm or an island, and in a way that’s what one was doing with the music. Because you are waving your hands in the air, literally. That’s how that production emerged.

“We looked at blueprints. If you look at a city, if you look at London or Dublin or any city, you’re looking at something that actually began as dream and then became blueprints and then became buildings. And they could then disappear. This is what The Tempestis really about. It runs as a thread through the play all the time.

“That, to a musician, to a composer, is absolutely one’s experience. You are producing a blueprint for something that’s going to be performed once, or however many times it is. But when it’s performed, the score is a blueprint, and the structure emerges in the air. And by the time it’s finished, it’s all gone. There’s nothing there.”

Thomas Adès and the Britten Sinfonia are at the National Concert Hall on Tuesday. He conducts the European premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnestin concert in London (Thursday, April 26th) and Birmingham (Saturday 28th),

Ades on Gerald Barry and 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

Gerald Barry

“It’s too strange to be coming to Dublin and be performing in Dublin for the first time and not have a piece by Gerald. This is just one of the random ways this all worked out. I’ve performed so much of his music and indeed premiered a lot of it. We are very close. I felt immediately with his work that this was a real step forward for music. I can’t explain it that easily, but it’s been a huge influence for me.

“I really felt that he’d opened a new door in music that could not have been opened by perhaps an English or German composer. There is something profoundly Irish [about him]. I see him absolutely in the line of Joyce and Beckett, but in a musical sense, as an inventor. It’s perhaps to do with re-animating a deeply traditional language, but from some kind of absolutely childlike outside perspective, where you pick up these familiar things, you pick up the old bones and you build a new skeleton with them. I find it incredibly exciting. Even the wish to actually build a skeleton, an animal that would move, or a human form that would move at all, in itself was a galvanising ambition at that time. There was a point where the avant-garde of perhaps 30 years older than Gerald is, where the thing had really stopped being fun. There was no brilliance, there was no melody, there was no fun really. I’d been to concerts of Stockhausen through the 1980s and was increasingly distressed, and thinking, I am bored. I really am. What’s the point? What are we all here for?

“And hearing Gerald’s great works, Chevaux-de-frise, The Triumph of Beautyand Deceit, which I think are just incomparably brilliant, I suddenly thought, this is a real way forward. Because it’s exciting. It’s hilarious. And it’s also, what’s the word I want, it is irresistible . . . you want to sort of touch it and feel it, like you want to do with Tchaikovsky, or great music like that. It has that sensual excitement from the harmony.

“It’s very radical. The idea that The Triumph, a piece in which everything is foreground, it’s foreground upon foreground upon foreground, and everything is brilliance, everything is excitement. And also, a very simple thing, you follow the melodies in the simplest way. It’s like hearing somebody speak, they say something, then they say the opposite, and then they say the next thing. You’re not alienated in that sense from the meaning of the music. That, to me, is really rare in the late 20th century. That to me was quite profound. I find it incredibly liberating.

“And the way that he would use existing forms. It’s the same thing, he would use existing forms and existing music, and take that kind of Frankenstein approach, that this is all DNA that you can just throw into your golem. I just found that very exciting. I think that from the perspective of someone very different, which I am – we come from very different angles – that possibly is why it was fruitful rather than difficult.

The Importance of Being Earnest

“It was a wild experience in Los Angeles [Adès ignores the pun]. One of the players in the orchestra who was not involved in the piece, he came to the rehearsal, and he came up to me afterwards and he said: ‘I can tell this is murder for all of you on stage.’ And then he said, ‘It’s very entertaining for us.’”

See Fiona Shaw, Stephen Fry, Thomas Adès and Gerald Barry discuss The Importance of Being Earnestat version) or version)

Recordings: Powder Her Face; The Tempest; Tevot; Violin Concerto; Couperin Studies; Dances from Powder Her Face(all EMI Classics)