Thomas Adès

Photo by Brian Voice

Photo by Brian Voice

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Born in London, Thomas Adès is one of the finest composers of our time. By age 30, he had received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle, and had performed his first chamber opera, “Powder Her Face.” His opera, "The Tempest", is one of the most significant creations in recent memory. Friday in San Francisco, he performs a two-piano recital with Gloria Cheng at Herbst Theater. Below is the transcript of our October 21, 2015 conversation with composer, conductor and pianist, Thomas Adès.

EH: One of the most commonly accepted ideas of our time is that of relativism. You once said in an interview, “I can’t stand The X Factor because it celebrates people not doing something well being told they are”. Along these lines, is there such a thing as bad music ? What are your thoughts on pop-music ?

Adès: I think there can be music that’s dull, repetitive, derivative, predictable, and it’s done in a kind of bad faith for economic reasons (laughs). I’m wary of being that guy in his mid­40s who says of pop music that it isn’t what it used to be (laughs).

I think a lot of people in their 20s, intelligent people, might agree with me, that what’s happened is there’s a huge homogenization that has happened quite quickly, and we all know why. It all has to do with the way, you know, for a while anyway, everyone’s got their music, in theory, from the same sources, and the format of the source comes before format of the music. And what’s different and what’s new, I think, is on such an enormous scale that it’s really sort of worldwide.

The Australians have this thing they call the ‘cultural cringe’, which means, basically, they automatically flinch when Australia’s mentioned because they think 'it’s not as good as from other places'. I think at the moment we have the ‘classical cringe’, where we think we have to make it appealing to young people -- let’s have colored lights, wear interesting hats, etc. I think we should all stick to our guns and continue to do great concerts in concert halls, talk about it, and not be ashamed of our art form. I think we don’t need to make excuses and apologize for it. We should be proud that we’re doing something at a top level, it strives, and we shouldn’t be talking down to people; we should be talking up to them (laughs).

There’s nothing wrong with the music itself. It can probably speak for itself. But ‘bad’ is a very tricky word, and I think music that follows its impulses will probably be okay.

EH: On the other hand, the Germans and the Austrians, for many, appear to be the summit of serious music-making, some fusion of metaphysics and philosophy, if you will. That’s certainly what Leon Fleisher told us in an interview. Is there any truth to the idea that the works of composers like Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Britten, etc. are less profound, less metaphysical, than, say, those of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart ?

Adès: Well, of course, it can’t possibly be true that that’s the case (laughs) -­ of course it’s not. With the greatest respect to Leon, whom I admire very much, and of course I've heard that view before. I would actually distinguish between German and Austrian in a subtle way, because Austria – certainly at the time we’re talking about – was many countries, many languages, many cultures that have very little in common: Hungarians, Czechs, what we now call Serbians, Bosnians, Slovenians etc. All of those things fed into Viennese music, and I also really feel for that reason that Vienna is the capital city of music, if it has one, because Music is its first language.

When you hear Viennese speaking German, you are actually hearing a foreign accent, or many different accents that feed into it, and so it’s a place that needs to be drawn together around another language, and that language I think is classical music. It always has been, since the high days of the Austrian empire, and during Beethoven, who originally of course was German, but became Viennese, certainly. So that’s one thing.

This is possibly one of the things that bother me. It’s all a little bit of an act, this idea that German is serious and other things are frivolous. It’s just another form of performance, and I think this is one of the reasons that Beethoven suffered from such ponderous performances, particularly just after the war. You have German conductors trying to convince you that, ‘Yes, we may have lost the war, but this is still the most serious music’. Whereas poor Beethoven is really a composer of fire and thunder and huge natural power, natural forces, lightning, and he becomes this rather stodgy, heavy deutsche character. And I simply think that this is wrong.

I wouldn’t name the conductors because I think we all know who we’re talking about (laughs), but you listen to those recordings now, and I’m afraid many of them just sound absurd, and that’s why. So it was a sort of, a little bit, if you like, German pathology of themselves,­ ‘we must be more serious’ – and it’s clearly not true. You can’t hold Pelléas et Mélisande or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony against a Beethoven Contredanse and say the German is more serious. It just doesn’t make any sense, really, and I don’t think anyone would think like this anymore – I hope not. For the German composers’ sake, I hope they get over this idea that they have to be very heavy and serious.

EH: One of the unfortunate things in music that happened at the turn of the last century was when musicians turned strictly into performers. Do performers of ability have a responsibility to compose ? Has their lack of attention in this domain affected their ability to communicate with audiences ?

Adès: I wouldn’t say anyone has a responsibility to compose if they’re not driven to. I think that would be difficult. You compose because you have to, because you’re compelled by inner urges of one kind or another. In a way, I’d turn it around and say that perhaps it’s natural for composers to perform. I think that’s possibly where something odd happened in recent years, probably since the 50’s in a way -- I don’t know when. But I think it used to be fairly normal - let's say, the 19th century - for composers to get out on stage and perform. Whether they were as good at performing as a great violinist or conductor, who knows, but it was a natural thing. I’m just lucky that I get the chance to actually appear on stage and play (laughs) because I would feel like a caged animal if I wasn’t allowed to do that.

EH: With your work, Polaris, you concentrated your attention on a C-­sharp, and the rest of the piece developed from there. This certainly isn’t what they teach in music school. Is this generally your method of operation when you begin ?

Adès: It’s very hard to say any one thing that would cover all types of composing that I do in my different pieces (laughs), but that was certainly what happened with that piece. That’s quite correct. I just thought, 'Well, C -sharp, then what else, and if what else, then...' – it really was a process. And I think that piece is a good example, a pure form of what I tend to feel, in general, about composition, that there is a kind of biological element. If I look at the way any form of natural life develops or evolves, I recognize certain things in the way I try to do what I do. There’s definitely an organic side to it. So I’m not, if you like, a composer who looks from the outside --­­ there’s a bit of both, in that a plant doesn’t know anything about botany, however it is botany (laughs).

I like that you bring up about how one is taught to compose, and I think any good composition teacher will probably admit there’s a point beyond which you can’t teach. I’ve tried to teach and I’m not very good at it (laughs).

EH: As a pianist, I was taken by Inon Barnatan’s recording of your 1992 work, Darknesse Visible. Can you talk a bit about your development as a composer through the piano ? With the Chopin competition having just wrapped up, is Chopin a figure who means anything to you ?

Adès: You’ve really alighted on the number one piano composer for me. Really, the first music I heard of classical music, in that sense, would have been Chopin’s Polonaises. It really had this visceral effect on me – I don’t know what age, certainly 6 or 7, very early. My parents would know (laughs). It communicated with me much more quickly than, say, Beethoven, later Bartok, and also Liszt. I don’t know why, although I think in retrospect, it was that feeling I got from Chopin that the piano was a bottomless pool. You very often have no sense of the seabed in Chopin. It can just seem to float freely and rise or fall and have no stability at all, both harmonically and in terms of their meter and rhythm. It has this total aquatic fluency. Of course, I wouldn’t have put it like that at the time (laughs).

Actually, about that piece you mention, Darknesse Visible: I had been a reasonably serious piano student through my teens, especially, and when it came to be time to write a piano piece of my own, I had trouble figuring out where to start. I was thinking: what if I just play a piece of existing music – I didn’t use piano music but a song with lute, a very, very delicate piece from a much earlier era – and play it on the piano in the way that I feel and hear that music. I experimented with it and wrote it down. It is very much in the tradition of transformation and transcription.

One has to remember that the piano is the one instrument that, even more than an orchestra, is a sort of landscape. It’s not just a piano, ever, particularly with Liszt. It can be anything, any sound, any landscape, any picture. Liszt is often explicit in the title, and while Beethoven is not explicit, it’s there. A piano can be anything. So I think these might be some keys to the way I think of the piano. Only a pianist would probably say this (laughs).

EH: With the decline of newspapers and the rise of music blogs, what are some of your thoughts on the role of today's music critic ?

Adès: They have a lot to do. I think of the example of Alex Ross, how he’s changed that role in very imaginative ways. I wouldn’t prescribe anything and what anyone should do any more than I’d expect to be told what piece I should write. I think we’re all discovering these things. I think what I would like to see is an acknowledgement that we are all in the same boat, if you like. People operate different parts of the equipment, but rather than being someone who stands outside the boat and fire holes at it – I’ll say no more (laughs). At a certain point, you realize you’re firing from the inside and you might go down with it (laughs).

EH: Arthur Rubinstein, at the end of his autobiography, writes, “The proclamations of the new composers of music, painters and sculptors, that no emotion need be expressed belies the very reason for the artist’s existence,”. Is the purpose of art for emotional or aesthetic fulfillment ? Was Rubinstein wrong ?

Adès: I feel rather sorry for Rubinstein, because all that’s happened there is he’s fallen squarely into the trap laid for him by Stravinsky, who was only trying to provoke a certain kind of slightly conservative performer when he said that thing about music being powerless to express anything at all. He really didn’t mean that it’s cold. He just meant that it’s above and beyond and separate from all those things, that it’s not a language in which you can communicate concrete things. What Stravinsky’s saying is it transcends those things, that music is a transcendent language.

I do struggle with the idea that it has to be one or the other, the head or the heart. I’ve really never understood that. You can have a music that on one level is Apollonian, you know, which is also incredibly emotionally powerful, like Les Noces, and you can have a music that is very instinctively written and has a cold, satisfying effect. I think the two things are linked, even part of one bigger thing, rather than a choice you have to make. To me, in a way, it’s sort of humanity versus nature. I wouldn’t look at nature as being cold and heartless – I mean, it can be – but take Sibelius, a composer who writes about things, an un-peopled, unemotional landscape, but that in itself moves us. I mean, of course it does. Tapiola for example - it’s extremely cathartic.

EH: This week in San Francisco, you’ll be performing your concert paraphrase on Powder Her Face with Gloria Cheng, along with your arrangement of two Nancarrow Studies, Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen, and Ligeti's Sonatina.

Adès: There are two versions of the concert paraphrase on Powder Her Face. The one I made with Gloria is a new version for two pianos. They’re different animals – not that it’s easier, you still have to play together, which is a problem you don’t have with one piano – it’s probably more enjoyable to play. You don’t have to play quite so many notes. The opera itself has a very odd, specialized orchestration. I have come back over the years to that music, to try to capture some of it that gets lost in the larger opera house – it was never meant to be played in a large opera house, but meant for a tiny room. So that was the spur for this program. SF Performances gave me the opportunity to make this arrangement, which I’ve always wanted to do.

Around that, we simply put the arrangements I’ve already done of two Nancarrow studies. Nancarrow is a composer I absolutely adore and worship, and he presents a unique problem in how you actually program his music, since most of it is for player-­piano. I wanted to do the most faithful arrangements I could of these studies, close-­ish to the sound that he might have had in mind, to have that different kind of visceral excitement that comes with live performance. He’s a very good example of a composer who, on the face of it, is highly crystalline and ordered, yet, his music has this amazing emotional excitement, power and charm.

The Messiaen is a unique extraordinary thing from the darkest years of occupied Paris. It is this explosion of life and color and praise, celebration. And then the Ligeti ­- Gloria’s very good idea – is an early work, which is nice because you’ve got a pull between the real avant-­garde ­which Ligeti became and Messiaen was a part of in the 50s and ­60s, and a much more popular, folkloric music. Nancarrow is full of jazz, very specific jazz riffs, and Mexican modal things that were around him and very worked over by him. And then my work has a lot of tango influences and various other things like that. So I think that really unites the pieces – half of you in the streets, and the other half indoors (laughs).

EH: A question we ask every pianist: which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?

Adès: (laughs) The very first one! I tried for weeks and weeks. It should be easy for me because I have extremely large stretch, but that’s obviously one of the things that makes it so difficult – you have to change your hand position. It’s definitely the first one. Actually, that was the piece that made me think, I’d better try to be a composer instead! (laughs).

EH: Mr. Adès, thank you very much for taking the time.

Adès: Thank you, Elijah!