Who’s this we see, shambling toward us like an unkempt Elvis Costello? why, it’s Mark-Anthony Turnage, the most unassuming pugilist in contemporary music. No-one likes to pick a fight in sound more than Turnage, and back in the early 1990s, when (thanks largely to Simon Rattle) he first became widely known, his orchestral pieces Three Screaming Popes and Drowned Out were an unexpected and very welcome intrusion into the largely rather staid fare then being offered up by more established composers. Two nights ago, his latest orchestral work, Hammered Out, was given its world première at the Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson.
Its opening sounds are fabulous—vast, radiant, angry chords, alternating with silly little rapid flurries; this is the Turnage one knows and loves. But then something beyond weird happens; bless my soul, can Turnage really be drawing on Beyoncé Knowles in the work’s first episode?! Back in early 2009, Knowles put out a stonker of a single called “Single Ladies”; a thin song, lyrically, but damn it was infectious, the absolutely scrumptious chorus buzzing with bass overkill. So what on earth is it doing here? The brief, brilliant opening of Hammered Out, we’re told, originates in Turnage’s forthcoming opera about Anna Nicole Smith (even more tawdry subject matter than Powder Her Face), a woman whose over-documented marriage was the subject of a great deal of grim squabbling, both ante- and post-mortem. The subtitle of Beyoncé’s song is “Put a ring on it”, so perhaps Turnage has his tongue in his cheek placing his quotation directly after the references to Anna Nicole Smith. Rational explanations aside, hearing Turnage’s attempt at transcribing it is seriously embarrassing (are those sleigh bells i hear, for goodness’ sake?!); orchestras just don’t ‘do’ dance music well—anyone else remember Adès’ “Ecstasio” from a few years back?—and i found myself squirming uncomfortably in my seat.
It stops eventually, culminating in a slow, broad—or, should i say, phat—sequence in the brass which, with a final flourish leads to—oh good Lord, is Turnage now writing theme music for a ’70s TV show? The squirming re-commences as memories of “Shaft” and its ilk flitter across the mind, although the music, schizophrenically, quickly passes beyond and away from all this, back to Beyoncé, now seeking to develop the motivic elements rather than just arrange them. It’s by far the most interesting passage in Hammered Out, reminding one how interesting Turnage can be (and usually is) in his orchestral works. The material skitters around with absolute glee, hocketed back and forth and up and down, exploring as many octaves as possible, before an abrupt shift to a slower tempo, which gradually, unstoppably, returns to the ‘first subject’. And it does seems to make sense calling it that; this is a recapitulation of sorts, and there are clear sonata form demarcations presented elsewhere (the strange, ’70s music episode could be heard as an unexplored second subject). The conclusion returns to the wonderful, all-too-brief sounds from the start, followed by a coda that seeks to be energetic but unfortunately ends up sounding lacklustre, even a bit tired (the piccolos are particularly breathless), the orchestra finally collapsing with a thud.
While he’s not occupied my focus for a good many years, i like Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music, and it was saddening to hear him resort to grafting bits of pastiche together in the hope of making some substance. At its best, in the lengthy development, his skill (he’s a superb orchestrator), enthusiasm and wit are all heard in shedloads, but one can’t forget the principal material occupying this piece—nothing more than ersatz RandB—and how feeble it sounds in contrast to the original. My advice: get yourself on Spotify and treat yourself to authentic Beyoncé; she knows what she’s doing in musical territory like this, and doesn’t end up sounding rather like someone’s ageing dad trying to be cool.