Thomas Ades: Vanishing Spirals, Time, Entrapment and Reference: Pwyll AP Sion Explores What Characterises This British Composer's Works

By Sion, Pwyll Ap | Gramophone, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Thomas Ades: Vanishing Spirals, Time, Entrapment and Reference: Pwyll AP Sion Explores What Characterises This British Composer's Works


Sion, Pwyll Ap, Gramophone


This year marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Thomas Ades's Asyla for large orchestra, whose dynamic synthesis of primal power, rhythmic intensity, melodic invention and lyrical subtlety prompted many to hail it as a contemporary classic and latter-day Rite of Spring, with which it shares a certain Dionysian abandon.

While Asyla remains Ades's most well-known and widely performed work--having within 10 years of its premiere received more than a hundred performances--it is worth pausing momentarily to retrace the steps that led the composer to this extraordinary piece, and the direction his music has taken since then.

A gifted pianist and talented composer, Ades studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a junior student before reading music at King's College, Cambridge, where his teachers included Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. In different ways, both left their mark on Ades's early works: Goehr in terms of instilling a sense of formal control and methodological rigour, and Holloway in allowing past historical models, idioms and allusions to filter through into his music.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Ades's early compositions--many of which were written while he was still a Cambridge undergraduate--is an inherent fluency that appears to have emerged naturally from a creative wellspring that had fully absorbed, mastered and reinterpreted the then-current techniques and practices of contemporary music. However, Ades was already developing his own voice, for example in the Chamber Symphony (1990). On one level, the work displays several textbook modernist traits, such as complex multilayering, polyrhythmic patterns and processes, the use of extended techniques, extreme instrumental registers and an emphasis on both individual dexterity and ensemble virtuosity. But it is also multilayered in its musical reference and historical resonances, fragments of quotes bubbling underneath before being propelled to the surface by magnetic forces latent in the musical material itself.

Many subsequent works leading up to the composer's first opera, Powder Her Face (1995), grappled with similar issues, from the inventive and dazzlingly colourful Living Toys (1993) for chamber ensemble to the more introspective Arcadiana (1994) for string quartet. The latter's sixth movement, 'O Albion', represents something of a departure, being the first to allude more or less explicitly to a past historical model (in this case, Elgar) to evoke a sense of lost innocence and nostalgia. In its direct tonal style and serene simplicity, 'O Albion' was in its own way as stubbornly radical as the complex, uncompromising Living Toys.

Complex or simple, modern or postmodern, hermetically sealed or replete with cultural significations, Ades's music has often navigated a course between these polarities, resulting at times in a rich synergetic alchemy. One of his most immediately compelling and powerful works is the two-act Powder Her Face--a vivid and visceral portrayal of the colourful and celebrated life of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll. Ades's borrowing of references and allusions expose the lurid, subversive and sensationalist aspects of the duchess's life. The opera pillages from all manner of forms and styles, including a Carlos Gardel tango and other popular dance forms, 1930s light song and the repertoire associated with the Palm Court Orchestra, Jack Buchanan, Paul Anka, 1950s pop songs, Walton's Facade, Berg's Lulu, Janacek and Stravinsky, all of which prompted Harrison Birtwistle to observe that Ades can't make a musical move without relating to something historically: 'Nearly everything relates to something else, a model.' At the same time, a parallel process informed by the music's own internal models is set out in Ades's opera: a grizzly double-edged paradox places the duchess as both architect and victim of her own downfall. The music's inherent logic serves to deepen the Duchess's sense of desperation as the world she once possessed is squandered away by excesses of various kinds. …

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