Turnage interview: A Man Descending - A Relic of Memory - Scherzoid
Mark-Anthony Turnage discusses three major new works receiving their premieres in the coming months
Your new concerto, A Man Descending, is written for American saxophonist Joe Lovano. When did you first hear his playing?
I heard Joe Lovano first on CD about ten years ago, playing with guitarist John Scofield on the album Time on Your Hands. Then I was lucky enough to meet him after a Barbican concert featuring the Scolohofo group (Scofield, Lovano, Dave Holland and Al Foster), and again when he was working with my teacher Gunter Schuller. All this was around the time I was starting to think about incorporating jazz musicians into my works.
What is Lovano’s special sound?
I really love his very distinctive tone. It is soulful and smoky in a Stan Getz sort of way and is technically finished. Though there can be rough sounds it is very different to the hard-edged world of Coltrane. I think of Lovano as being a pure figure in his field but he is also pushing at the boundaries and experimenting. Although we come from very different backgrounds we think in the same way.
How did you approach writing for the tenor saxophone?
This is my first piece ever to use the instrument. I’ve always avoided it, even within the orchestra, because it plays in the cello register and this can cause balance problems. That shouldn’t be an issue in A Man Descending because the sax is out in front, it is a fairly small orchestra, and there is no competing rhythm section. Listening to Joe’s playing has taught me a lot about writing for the tenor sax. And, as with all the jazzers I’ve worked with, his improvisation skills have changed the way I compose so everything now is less fussily notated, giving more space for the performers to express themselves.
How is improvisation built into the work?
There is much less improvisation in this collaboration. There are opportunities for the sax to improvise at the opening and end, and it is optional during a middle section, but otherwise the score is notated throughout. So it is a slightly different approach to other pieces in that more is written down - and this may have unsettled Joe when he first saw the score - but I’m offering freedom for his melodic line to move away from the printed notes as the interpretation develops - as I am sure it will - during the run of performances. Because he is such a brilliant improviser, the music will loosen up and float free, rather like the realisation of the shorthand in an operatic recitative.
Many of the jazz musicians you’ve worked with are skilled composers in their own right. How do you view this relationship in the pieces you create?
It depends on the boundaries set for each piece. For instance Scorched was based on tunes by John Scofield so he played a big part in the creativity. A Man Descending on the other hand is all me. Some jazz musicians are so individual as composers, such as Keith Jarrett, that it is hard to think how a collaboration might succeed. The most stimulating thing with jazzers who are composers is that they are more open-minded about trying new ideas and approaches, and this means that they understand the creative process. The same goes for conductors like Vince Mendoza who is directing the premiere with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He is also a much-admired composer and arranger so that informs his whole approach to the work, and we’ve been able to talk through many technical aspects.
At what level of the new work can the jazz influence be heard?
Well it’s not overt in the orchestration of this piece. Some listeners may find that the soundworld is fairly Romantic, certainly more so than recent hard-hitting works such as Crying Out Loud. Where the jazz comes through for me is in the sound of the soloist and in the whole philosophy of improvisation.
Why did you choose a scoring that might not be typical Turnage?
It was chosen for me in a way, because I always envisaged A Man Descending being played after Vaughan Williams’s A Lark Ascending and being a sort of opposite twin. It won’t be coupled like that in Scotland but may be at some of the other first performances. That was the starting point for the work. The violin in the Vaughan Williams depicts the flight of the lark, whereas for me the saxophone has a much more human quality. Just as the soloist reaches up for the sky at the end of A Lark Ascending, so my piece starts in the highest register and then circles lower and lower. Though I could never write in the style of Vaughan Williams, I admire a lot of his works, particularly his slow music such as in the fifth symphony. There are subtle links between the two pieces, for instance the chamber orchestra with a single oboe in the woodwind section, the use of the triangle within the percussion, and some formal aspects. It is certainly not in any sense a parody of The Lark Ascending and there is no wilful distortion - it is intended as a tribute.
Turning to A Relic of Memory for choir and orchestra, did the work develop from the similarly named Seamus Heaney poem, and if so why didn’t you set it?
The starting point was in fact Bach, specifically the St Matthew Passion, which is my all-time favourite work. The opening chorus’s music of lamentation, Come ye daughters, share my mourning, set the ideas going and I started looking for a suitable text, but this proved to become something of a nightmare. Knowing it was a commission for the Berlin Radio Choir I first explored German texts including the poetry of Ingeborg Bachman who I had set in The Game is Over. Then I got a long way down the road with a Dylan Thomas text with 150 pages of composition sketches before I realised it wasn’t going to work. I liked the Seamus Heaney poem Relic of Memory with its imagery of objects petrified for eternity, but in the end I just kept the title and moved on. Then when I re-examined Shakespeare I found one of the sonnets had just the right mood.
Why is it that loss and grieving play such a central role in your output?
They aren’t things I intentionally go out looking for. I just find that they deliver a powerful emotional charge, and I guess as I get older that trigger is pulled more often as I observe the world. The dark stuff needs to be relieved with something optimistic and this is why the Shakespeare sonnet was ideal. Its message is that you shouldn’t mourn after death or it will also bring you down. That is hopeful and avoids negativity and is very similar to what I tried to achieve at the end of The Silver Tassie: the idea that you musn’t get dragged down because life has to go on. I decided that the last section of A Relic of Memory should incorporate Calmo, a tribute to the late Sue Knussen for choir and handbells premiered at the Proms this summer. This provides the close of the work with a simple, positive plea for peace, Dona nobis pacem.
How do you blend in elements from the Passion and the Requiem?
As I am not a believer my response always comes from a human standpoint, so in a Bach Passion it is the dramatic and emotional situation that affects me, or in the Requiem it is the collective gathering of human mourning. The opening six bars of the St Matthew Passion are woven into the fabric of A Relic of Memory but this is at a fairly deep level, such as using a compound time signature or a fragment of the lamenting motif, so may not be audibly discernible. Deciding to set the Lagrimosa from the Requiem was a sonic thing, offering a way to depict chorally the tears of weeping through syllabic note-setting.
How do you approach choral writing?
Well I have to be honest - I find it very difficult. It’s partly that I haven’t written many choral works and I’m still exploring some of the technical aspects like chordal spacing. The other problem is having the great weight of the British choral tradition that I want to escape from. Though I admire a lot of the Britten works with choir, such as the Spring Symphony, I just don’t want to end up sounding like that. I feel closer to works such as Stravinsky’s Mass and Symphony of Psalms and some of the Henze choral works from the 1960s including Cantata della fiaba estrema. What I think I’ve achieved in A Relic of Memory is a true variety of choral styles, from homophonic chordal writing at the opening and in the Calmo final section, through a more contrapuntal rhythmic style, to the linear micropolyphony in the Lagrimosa section.
Has the fact that Simon Rattle is to conduct the premiere affected the work in any way?
Not the music itself, other than knowing I could include some tricky corners, and be confident that he will instinctively home in on them straight away at rehearsal. He’s conducted more of my premieres than anyone else and he’s got a deep understanding of my style. He also has a gift of sensing the overall shape while focusing in on the details. Having the Berlin Philharmonic is a great luxury. I got to know many of the players when Simon performed Blood on the Floor soon after he started in Berlin, and there is a wide age range and an enthusiasm for trying new things. I’ve also been asked to compose an asteroid for their Planets project, so the good relationship should continue.
Moving on to your orchestral work Scherzoid, the title might imply playfulness, but the music isn’t playing jokes.
No, although the focus of the work is the scherzo, it wasn’t the light dance movement as much as the high energy aspect I was after. So, it is the ghost of Beethoven’s scherzos in the Eroica and the Ninth Symphony that hovers in the background. I wanted to write a piece that was one in a bar and drove right through. My first ideas were fast but too intricate, and I rethought it with less chromaticism and more anchor points so the players could hold the ensemble together.
Is the pun on schizoid intended?
Yes, it is, because the piece developed into something exploring changes of personality. I realised it would be too much to have one giant 17-minute scherzo, and broke things up into three scherzos divided by two trios. The scherzos have the same mood but the music is different, while the trios offer some contrast with more slow and sustained writing, particularly the second trio which introduces melodic ideas that are much more lyrical. Yet even here there is an element of schizophrenia, because the harmony relates to that of the scherzo, here being sustained rather than punched out.
It sounds as though variation technique plays a big part in your thinking.
It is something I’m using all the time. There is very little literal repetition in my music - rather I try and achieve the Stravinskian thing where everything is being constantly varied. Formally this can mean that returning music can be cut up and reordered like in a film, something Eisenstein described as ‘intellectual montage’. Free variation can also apply at the local level, where harmony, rhythm and melody can be manipulated, with intervals or shapes inverted and tessitura switched upside down so what was at the top moves down to the bottom of the texture.
There are many colourful things flashing by, but the orchestration itself is fairly straightforward.
Yes. I tried in this piece to write something which uses a standard line-up, which in itself imposes a certain discipline. You can’t fall back on odd instruments or exotic percussion - in fact apart from a soprano saxophone the orchestra is entirely traditional. This helps to focus attention on the scherzo energy itself.
Interviewer: David Allenby
For full details of the first performances of the new works discussed, click here.
Photo: © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL