Magazine article Musical Times

Resounding Tinkles

Magazine article Musical Times

Resounding Tinkles

Article excerpt

Resounding tinkles Thomas Adès:full of noises Conversations with Tom Service Faber & Faber (London, 2012); ix, i88pp; £16.99. isbn 978 o 571 27897 8.

THE MOST VIVID IMPRESSION left by this text might well be that of a topsy-turvy musical world in which Berlioz and Liszt outrank Verdi and Wagner, and Walton's Façade is to be preferred to Britten's Peter Grimes. Some Woody Allen-style banter isn't excluded either: 'being alive is a difficult situation. But it's preferable to the alternative'. There is an air of post-prandial, senior-common-room phrasemaking which gives such very personal thoughts a robustly provocative context, and sometimes veers into the simply silly: 'key signatures have been against the law there [in Germany] since the war because they make the Germans feel guilty for some reason'. But such barbs are only a small part of a carefully-projected, though at times enigmatic, discourse on the nature and history of music.

Adès has some mainstream 20th-century enthusiasms - Debussy, Stravinsky, Janácek, Nancarrow, Ligeti and Gerald Barry, among others. And even though it's always possible to identify things not talked about which one would like to have seen covered - Adès's views on his education and the state of contemporary British music, apart from Barry, for example - it makes sense if one reason the book takes the form it does is the belief that preserving, even intensifying a certain degree of mystery about what really matters is no bad thing. Since one of the composer's highlighted stances is that what he calls 'irrationally functional harmony' - as in Berlioz and Janácek - is to be admired, the reader can imagine that approaching the border regions between things rational and things irrational is going to be a special challenge. But if 'writing music is like trying to draw the face in the fire', it should always be difficult to talk or write about music without getting one's fingers burnt.

Adès is certainly not shy of either/or assertions, especially when it comes to detecting the presence of what he calls 'animating musical life' in a composition, or 'gestures' with 'a real emotional life ', as in Kurtág, in contrast to a prevailing 'dryness and almost a conscious and deliberate lack of warmth' - how does he know it's deliberate? - in other music of our time. At an early stage Adès pushes at an open door in saying that he doesn't believe in 'the official distinction between tonal and atonal music': few have done, for quite a while. Much more significantly, he seeks to downplay the role of conscious decisionmaking in composition, speaking of 'the desire of the material', of what the material will or will not 'allow'. For example, the Dl» major ending of his opera The tempest 'was somewhat unexpected but it arrived with so much force that it was clearly the right thing. But I hadn't foreseen it.' (Also, on a later page, 'I don't know where it [Dt>] came from, really. It was there.') Adès seems content to slide into postmodern mysticism, or mystery, at such moments, as also when he declares, of Tevot and Polaris, 'the world is in A major. That's what I think. I think the earth revolves in A major, a low A.' Nevertheless, it is surely the case that foreseeing one compositional possibility is quite different from not foreseeing any possibilities at all. And accepting a possibility still requires recognising - identifying - that possibility in the first place. Sometimes, presumably, and especially when working at speed, the composer adopts the first solution to present itself because it feels like 'the right thing', and later finds no reason to change it. Other times, several possibilities might be (consciously) considered in turn: and even if, as in opera, 'there's no absolute way to make this completely absurd thing watchable', to assert that 'you just have to do it instinctively' still leaves open the possibility that 'instincts' will relate to other parts of the creative organism, establishing something less than an infinite range of options. …

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