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Mark-Anthony Turnage b. 1960

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An introduction to the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage by Andrew Clements

At the age of 45, Mark-Anthony Turnage has yet to reach the mid-point of his career, but already he is one of the most internationally performed composers of his generation. Any attempts at this point to fix his exact position within the musical map inevitably tend to emphasise his connections with the music of previous generations of 20th-century composers rather than with that of his peers. What Turnage, born in 1960, does share with all the composers whose formative musical experiences belong to the 1970s, however, is a wide frame of stylistic reference, and in his distinctive case it was one that regarded elements from rock and jazz as just as valid starting points as any of the standard high-art models.

So from his earliest published works in the 1980s, Turnage incorporated elements from those popular musics into the style he was developing for himself. Alongside the influences of Britten and Stravinsky, Henze and his one-time teacher Oliver Knussen, Turnage found room for Miles Davies and Prince. That imprinted his melodic writing especially with its own, instantly identifiable inflections, gave his rhythms their special propulsive energy as well as lending an acerbic edge to his scoring that created a sound world in which wind instruments in general and the saxophone in particular played key roles. As his music has developed over the last two decades his fluency and flexibility, especially as an orchestral composer, have increased steadily, but those fingerprints of his style have always been detectable.

Those qualities have always been combined with a vivid dramatic gift, and it was no accident that Turnage first came to international attention with his opera Greek, commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Biennale in 1987 and based on a play by Steven Berkoff. If that work marked the culmination of the first phase of Turnage's development, then the series of orchestral pieces which followed, all composed for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (whose composer in association he was from 1989-1992) were characteristic of the next period. Turnage was now integrating his stylistic sources more completely while, in the evening-long ensemble work Blood on the Floor, showing a new confidence to juxtapose the worlds of contemporary art music and jazz directly. This portrait of urban decay is scored for a jazz trio and large ensemble; several movements also include improvised sections.

In further collaborations with front-line instrumentalists like Dave Holland, John Scofield and Peter Erskine Turnage has continued to pursue his interest in jazz, while on the other hand showing an ever increasing command of large-scale musical forms whether the profound dramatic canvasses of his second full-length opera The Silver Tassie, based upon Sean O'Casey's play, or in the ever-growing series of pieces he written over recent years in response to commissions from orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly word has got around that Turnage writes music orchestras find rewarding to play and to which audiences can respond immediately; it's a potent, attractive combination.

Andrew Clements, 2005
Chief Music Critic of The Guardian, and author of Mark-Anthony Turnage (Faber & Faber, 2000)

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