Thomas Adès

Mixtape #49 : Untitled

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For the latest 5:4 mixtape, i’ve turned my attention to that most elusive of artistic statements, the untitled work. When i set out to assemble a shortlist of pieces in my library that had adopted the word ‘untitled’, it wasn’t immediately obvious what i’d find. Yet, with one or two exceptions and to varying extents, untitled tracks tended to yield a very particular type of soundworld: generally dark and/or monochrome in terms of their tone, tenor or palette, with slow, patient use and deployment of sound, often including extended periods of quietness, overall lending the music a pensive, deliberate quality. Above all, i found these pieces to be music highly abstract in character, and while use of the word ‘untitled’ can often provoke frustration when we encounter it in works of art (“doesn’t the artist know what they’re trying to say?”), the intangibility of such music seems to strongly justify the suitability of this word. However, artists use the word ‘untitled’ in ways that are as playful and deceptive as they can be aloof and distancing, and for this mixtape i’ve therefore included not only tracks that are simply untitled but also tracks that use the word ‘untitled’ as part of a longer title as well as untitled segments of larger titled works.

In the first hour, having begun with something of a red herring by Hecq, i’ve concentrated on calmer, darker examples that tend to focus on explorations of texture, from both static and variegated perspectives. Near the centre of the mix is the unexpurgated 15-minute Untitled Drone by Aidan Baker that isn’t just the highlight of his wonderful 2009 album Blue Figures, but one of the most beautifully coruscating exercises in slow-burning ambient that i’ve ever heard. In the wake of this, in the second half i’ve explored untitled tracks that are generally brighter and more colourful, introducing more beat- and pulse-based pieces, some of which even feature vocals (a real rarity in the world of ‘untitled’ music, it seems), and more overt use of instrumental sounds, both raw and cooked.

Throughout the mix, there’s a wide temperature range demonstrated in these pieces, from the warmth (not always gentle) and/or balmy intimacy found in pieces by, among others, Subsea, Zbigniew Karkowski & Kelly ChurkoJames Clarke, Sea Oleena, Ochre, Aphex Twin and 36 to the varying forms of chilly remoteness, some of it seriously aggressive, exhibited by the likes of Noto, CD-R, AutechreHelena Tulve, Nordvargr, Lethe and Christopher McFall & Ben Fleury-Steiner. And that playfulness i mentioned before – plus a fair amount of inscrutability – can be heard manifesting particularly in tracks by Natasha Barrett, John Wall & Alex Rodgers, Marc Behrens, DJ Yo-Yo Dieting, Øyvind Torvund and John Oswald.

Ultimately, though, i don’t want to labour these descriptive terms or indeed the putative aesthetic connections i’ve been making between them, as they may belie the fact, as i said at the outset, that these are above all strikingly abstract pieces of music, and their ostensible lack of a title (if indeed that is what it is) is perhaps all that needs to be said about them.

Two-and-a-half hours of unidentified musical objects; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music (interesting to note how many of them are available free of charge: another ‘untitled’ connection…?). Due to the inherent ambiguity of some of the track titles, where relevant i’ve also included in the tracklisting the track numbers. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded via the link below or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Royal Opera House, London: Thomas Adès – The Exterminating Angel (UK Première)

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Among the plethora of quasi-quotations that litter (and that is the right word) Thomas Adès‘ operatic ‘take’ on Luis Buñuel’s cinematic masterwork El ángel exterminador, there was one quotation missing that, had it appeared at the very start, would have made at least the first two acts make total sense: the Looney Tunes opening titles. Surprisingly – and, actually, it was a very pleasant surprise – The Exterminating Angel bears a much closer similarity to Powder Her Face than The Tempest; in terms of compositional technique, his new opera is clearly an extension of The Tempest, but its overall tone and attitude is very much more that of his debut opera. Yet the key word here is ‘similarity’: Powder Her Face was sarcastic but subtle and sophisticated, the bite of its wit matched by an undeniable aesthetic elegance and dazzling compositional ingenuity. Those are not words that suit The Exterminating Angel. From the outset, Adès seems to feel his characters are inhabiting a cartoon, the music often literally following their movements, replete with orchestral crashes to coincide with the character of Raúl being slapped about the face(!). The quotations Adès draws on – familiar fare: waltzes, Spanish outbursts, faux-Romantic piano variations, etc. – don’t so much flesh this out as act like musical Post-It notes to make quick and dirty allusive connections in lieu of something more considered and musically argued.

When not behaving like this, the music regularly took on a curious habit of treading water. It’s interesting to note Adès’ words in his conversation with Christian Arseni (originally published to coincide with the Salzburg première performances, and reproduced on this occasion): “When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C…”. Adès seems to have meant that very literally, producing great tracts of material that one can only meaningfully describe as ‘underscore’. Sometimes this material undergoes the chord progression processes that now typify his work, and in Act 1 in particular they were so aurally transparent that following their movement provided some interest, but elsewhere the music at times exhibited such neutrality that the singers felt entirely disconnected from it, as though skimming above the accompaniment’s surface. Read more

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Mixtape #38 : Organ

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The theme of the new 5:4 mixtape is one i’ve been wanting to explore for a long while: the organ. It’s an instrument with which i’ve had a pretty infatuated relationship since my teenage years, both as a listener and as a very occasional practitioner (organ was my second study alongside composition during my first degree, and for a few years i co-directed a church choir). People tend to have a certain idea of what they think organ music is like. People tend to be wrong. i hope this mixtape will go some way to illuminate what the organ is capable of, what it can be, when wielded with real imagination. As always, the mix consists of personal favourites, encompassing a pretty wide range of approaches to the instrument. i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each lasting roughly half an hour. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: Moments of Weightlessness, Music for Piano and Film

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Cheltenham Music Festival got both seriously and playfully pianistic on Sunday. And theatrical too, first in a 50-minute dramaturgical discourse from experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls, and later in a recital by Clare Hammond including two works involving film. Nicolls’ Moments of Weightlessness was a genuine curiosity, insofar as it wasn’t exactly a concert or a piece of performance art, but was instead something beyond either. From one perspective, it was a kind of statement of intent, a demonstration of the aesthetic, the capabilities and the potential of the unique new piano Nicolls’ has developed over the last few years, an instrument that brings to mind the vertical arrangement of the ‘giraffe piano‘, erected on a large steel frame that enables it to be moved and rotated on its axis. Read more

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Proms 2013: the premières – how you voted

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Now that a fortnight has passed since the deafening broohaha of the Last Night, it’s time to look at how you, esteemed readers, have voted in the 5:4 Proms polls. 545 votes were cast this year, and having crunched the results in a variety of ways, here’s a summary of what you thought. Read more

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Proms 2013: Thomas Adès – Totentanz (World Première)

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Hot on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas AdèsTotentanz. Composed for a large orchestra with mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, Adès has set to music a sequence of German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed in 1463 to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck by Bernt Notke. Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting death interacting with a collection of diverse characters, including a monk, a king, a doctor, a knight, a merchant, a maiden and even the pope, interactions that inevitably result in terrorised laments at the protagonists’ prospect of impending doom (the entire text, in its original Middle Dutch with an accessible English translation, can be read here; a high resolution photo of the wonderful original artwork is available here). Clocking in at just over 30 minutes—considerably less than the inflated estimate of 45 minutes in the Proms guide—Totentanz is the latest in a succession of works that together demonstrate Adès’ innate and enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, and it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn and Simon Keenleyside (who famously portrayed Prospero in Adès’ opera The Tempest) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read more

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Thomas Adès – Arcadiana

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Being Ash Wednesday, today marks the start of Lent; last year i spent the season exploring a variety of choral and vocal works, but this year i’m going to focus attention on the string quartet. To begin, one of my favourite contemporary quartets, Thomas AdèsArcadiana, composed in 1994 for the Endellion Quartet, who gave the first performance in November. My first encounter with the work was the following summer, when the Endellions brought it to the Cheltenham Music Festival; it made a very deep impression on me then, and it still does today.

Adès conceived the piece as a series of short evocations, each of the seven movements being “an image associated with ideas of the idyll, vanishing, vanished or imaginary”. As such, fantasy and allusion are richly present throughout, Adès deliberately intimating at various composers while refraining from obvious quotation. The opening movement, ‘Venezia notturno’ (all of the odd movements reference aquatic subjects), is the least assertive of them all, undulating arpeggios and a lilting leitmotif sitting beneath a fragile duet. In truth, though, the whole texture is as fragile as crêpe paper, and just as translucent; there’s a flash of something half-familiar—and it’s gone, washed away in the momentarily aggressive coda. ‘Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schon’ is a title directly drawn from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and Papageno’s bells seem to be the source here, with the Queen of the Night putting in an appearance right at the end. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ switches to a Schubert lied as inspiration, the downward pattern of the well-known piano part becoming a preoccupation of the entire quartet, first as onomatopoeic pizzicato drips, eventually as a more passionate cascade; it’s the first time in Arcadiana that the quartet becomes really substantial. Read more

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Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

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In many of the hymns and carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables and shepherds can be found pointed references to the bleak fate of the child lying in the manger. Sometimes, these are sung again during Passiontide, making for a particularly painful connection: “see the child” becomes “behold the man”. With that in mind, then, the next piece in my Lent series is Thomas Adès’ setting of the anonymous 15th century ‘Fayrfax Carol’. Adès wrote the piece in 1997, as that year’s commissioned work for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. From the perspective of Christmas music, you’d be hard pushed to find a piece of more anguished character.

The text describes a dream featuring the Holy Family. The recurring refrain, as spoken by Mary, is a touching lullaby to her son, but this is interspersed with some terse comments between Mary and Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—and she seems to find the context in which her son (no less than “a Kyng / That made all thyng”) has been brought into the world to be unfitting of his status. Yet the infant himself intercedes, imploring his mother to “Amend your chere”, explaining that not only is it his Father’s will, but that he is destined for very much worse, remarkably described as “Derision, / Gret passion / Infynytly, infynytely”. The child’s words end with clarification, that his dreadful end will achieve something utterly triumphant: “Man to restore”. Read more

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Thomas Adès – Polaris (UK Première)

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At the Barbican this evening, Thomas Adès‘ latest orchestral work, Polaris, was given its UK première by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert. It’s fortunate indeed that Adès has left behind the ludicrously lavish plaudits that were rained down on him in a ceaseless golden shower throughout the mid- to late-1990s. For a time, Adès could seemingly do no wrong, irrespective of what some might describe as a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. However, both then and since i’ve almost invariably found myself impressed by the endeavour even if the achievement isn’t quite so convincing (i’m excluding Brahms; no-one should have composed that particular bit of doggerel). The recurring spanner in the works, it seems to me, is Adès’ penchant for playing intricate compositional games with himself; hardly problematic in itself, far from it, but one can’t help feeling the music often ends up being convoluted in an unhelpful way, obfuscating the clarity with which Adès clearly wants to communicate his ideas; put another way, his compositions often seem to be emotive or beautiful despite themselves.

Which brings us back to tonight, and to Polaris. Perhaps it’s just me, but from the opening minutes of the piece it all felt rather disconcerting; in a primarily American commission, Adès has, it seems, felt the need to draw on the kind of compositional mannerisms intimately associated with that country. From the overtly minimalistic material that both begins and permeates the work, to the quasi-tonal textural configurations that form a backdrop to much of the development, Polaris seems to project a ‘foreign’ tone of voice (both geographically and personally), not entirely at odds with Adès’ other work, but not necessarily in keeping with it either. Read more

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Mixtape #10 : Melancholia

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Lent: ’tis the season to be dolorous, and so the tenth 5:4 mixtape has melancholia as its theme. Both songs and instrumental music are included, taken from a diverse selection of artists and composers.

It begins with the opening of one of the best of William Basinski‘s Disintegration Loops, “d|p 3”. While as a whole these albums constitute a thoroughly over-egged pudding, this track conjures up a rather wistful sort of atmosphere, like a sad sunset. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble create fabulous nocturnal music, stylishly flecked with jazz mannerisms. All of Burial‘s work is shaded by melancholy; “Night Bus” is one of his shortest tracks, bereft of beats, its melody etching out the contours of a furrowed brow. Biosphere seems to capture remoteness in his work better than most, and “Poa Alpina” (from the remarkable Substrata album) is infused with this, underpinned by a deep bass that makes the music sound, literally, heavy. Fellow Norwegian Deathprod ploughs even darker troughs, and “Dead People’s Things” is like music from the end of time, postdiluvian, exhausted, its haunting melody falteringly singing surrounded by ruins. Perennial favourite of mine, Andrew Liles, has produced nothing so strikingly unusual as his “Concerto for Piano and Reverberation”; i included part of the opening in my Piano mixtape, but felt compelled to include it here as it creates such a black, velvety atmosphere, laden with gravitas. Franz Liszt‘s large-scale sacred work Via Crucis is modelled on the Stations of the Cross; two excerpts from the twelfth are featured here. It explores the moment of Christ’s death, beginning with his desperate cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani” and concluding with a gorgeous setting of the chorale, “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid” (which inspired my own setting). Thomas Adès‘ early string quartet, Arcadiana, has “O Albion” as its penultimate movement, and is a poignant comment on a lost world; Adès once described this movement to me as having two “chest pains”, the moments where the harmony shifts so painfully. Read more

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Mixtape #6 : Piano

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For years, the piano has been to me an object of fascination and awe; its range of capabilities, expressive potential and timbral variety are breathtaking. Also for years, these qualities were the very things preventing me from attempting to compose something for it. Listening to piano music is a supreme joy, and so this new mixtape is a concoction of some of the more interesting examples that have been occupying my ears of late. It also represents some of my favourite composers, all of them bringing something unique to the instrument. Read more

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Thomas Adès – These Premises Are Alarmed, Concerto Conciso, Asyla (World Premières)

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i’ve been interested in Thomas Adès‘ work for many years, so here are recordings of the world première performances of three of his compositions. The tale behind his miniature orchestral work These Premises Are Alarmed is interesting, if disappointing. Adès was commissioned to compose a piece for the series of three inaugural concerts at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, which opened in September 1996 (i was fortunate enough to attend these concerts). For some time beforehand, the word was circulated that Adès was at work on a piano concerto, which—in Classical fashion—he would direct from the keyboard. As the concert approached, however, rumours began to fly that Adès was having difficulties with the piece and things seemed to be getting rather desperate. Eventually, all that could be salvaged from the project was a mere three minutes of music, a pretty meagre offering (George Benjamin, also commissioned for these concerts, wrote Sometime Voices, a substantial work). It’s difficult to be too praiseworthy about These Premises Are Alarmed; the orchestration is interesting and lively, but there’s the ever-present sense that this is material pieced together in haste. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to Adès’ abilities that the result has such aplomb. Read more

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Hoping against hope: Thomas Adès – Gefriolsæ me

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It was at a concert in the spring of 1995 that i first encountered the music of Thomas Adès. The piece was Living Toys, and it was significant to my own development as a composer; i came away from the concert with a new vigour, determination and excitement about the music i wanted to create. Tom and i became mild acquaintances, and i even went to spend an afternoon with him in Cambridge, to discuss my work. While i don’t follow his music as closely as then, i still find it fascinating, and feel he’s one of this country’s more interesting composers.

A CD of Living Toys was released in 1998, and tucked quietly onto the end of that disc is a short work for male voices, entitled Gefriolsæ me. The text is an Anglo Saxon rendering of part of a verse from Psalm 51, a psalm that, due to its powerful penitential sentiments, is closely associated with Lent:

Gefriolsæ me of blodum, God hælu mine.
(“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God my saviour.”) Read more

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