Twin Turnage memorials: interview with the composer
Mark-Anthony Turnage introduces two new works premiered in London in coming months: Remembering reunites the composer with Simon Rattle, and Martland Memorial features Colin Currie as percussion soloist.
How did your new orchestral work become Remembering?
I was invited to write a big new piece for the London Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic and Boston Symphony – something of a composer’s dream – and, while thinking about it, hard reality woke me up with an unexpected death. I’d worked closely on Blood on the Floor and Scorched with guitarist John Scofield from the mid-’90s and got close to him and the family – his wife Susan, daughter Jeannie and son Evan. So it was a shock when Evan died of cancer at the age of 25. I’d come to terms with older figures such as Henze or Richard Rodney Bennett passing away, but losing a young guy seemed particularly cruel. Having my own family made me think what it would be like to lose a loved one too early in this sudden way.
How did you approach writing the piece?
Well, it was a challenge — I had to reconcile something very personal and private with a compositional statement that would inevitably be experienced in a public space by an audience. Across the 30-minute span I was determined there should be enough variety to reflect Evan Scofield as an original and positive person, avoiding a mournful tone throughout, opening up a wider humanity.
Is Remembering a Symphony by another name?
It could be in many respects. I admit I’ve been scared of calling a work ‘symphony’, particularly titling a score ‘Symphony No.1’ which strikes me as pretentious. Perhaps No.2 would be easier? As soon as you create something in four movements, particularly in a Fast-Slow-Scherzo-Finale sequence like my work Frieze, the Symphony issue immediately rears up. I might be getting over the similar titling problem with concertos, calling recent works Cello Concerto and Piano Concerto, so who knows as I get older? The difference in Remembering is that the final movement is definitely not a traditional summing up: it’s an expressive ‘Song for Evan’ as if his voice is heard through the orchestra.
How special is it working with Simon Rattle again?
Knowing Simon is conducting the performances with the LSO and Berlin Philharmonic makes it very special and seems like old times. We built an unusually close working relationship when I was Composer in Association with the CBSO around 1990 and the intimate workshopping of new works there had a big impact on me as a composer. The partnership continued when Simon moved to Berlin as he programmed Blood on the Floor very early on and many other pieces. And now he’s coming back to London. He understands my style and instinctively knows how to approach it so we have a mutual trust. When we had a play-through of Remembering recently he suggested some slight adjustments to metronome markings and they were bang on.
Did composing your new percussion and orchestra work, Martland Memorial, also take you back?
Yes, right back to 1982. I got to know Steve Martland in a very strange way. We were competing for the Mendelssohn Scholarship and fortunately they gave it to us jointly that year. Our friendship continued in London and when Steve was studying with Louis Andriessen in the Netherlands. We had a lot in common – I guess we were angry young men together, railing against Thatcherite politics. And musically we were both into the Test Dept industrial band, so there were similarities in the music we were both writing then: punchy, percussive and metallic. I went to concerts by the Steve Martland Band and that was where I first heard their percussionist Colin Currie.
How did you fold percussion into the new work?
I wanted to write a concerto-style work for Colin Currie, while creating a fitting tribute to Steve following his death in 2013. He wasn’t anywhere near as young as Evan Scofield but it was still early and unexpected. A grand concerto in the traditional three movements wasn’t right here, as Steve was quirky and volatile, with strong beliefs offset by Liverpudlian humour. I knew Colin was a brilliant mallet percussionist, so marimba and vibraphone were a must, but I also included toy instruments to reflect Steve’s lighter and mercurial side. It ended up as a sequence of six shortish movements, largely upbeat in mood beyond the opening Cortège, with a Rumba, Pavane, a Courante cadenza and a Hornpipe before the closing Lachryme. It’s a long way from the Mahlerian elegy you might have expected from a memorial.
You seem to be embracing suites of movements in recent works.
That’s right. In my early output many pieces seemed to typically be a 20-minute slow build-up, with multiple sections but driving continuously through. But in Act I of Anna Nicole and a number of ballets I experimented with short self-contained sections which establish character quickly, providing strong contrasts. That seemed to suit a tribute to Steve. It also gave a chance for Colin to shine on different instruments with time to move. I’d usually have the orchestra on an equal footing with the soloist, but here the percussionist is allowed to be much more virtuosic.
Why is it that elegies and memorials play such a big part in your output?
That’s a very difficult question. I’m aware if you look at Hibiki, Shroud, Remembering and Martland Memorial, all these recent pieces have memorial aspects. However, it isn’t a conscious obsession. You could say I sense it in the background, both on the classical side thinking of English composers from Dowland to Elgar, and on the jazz side with soulful trumpet or saxophone. If you look at funeral bands in New Orleans jazz it is there on the street. Death is part of life and what makes us human, taking on many different guises.
Interviewed by David Allenby (December 2016)
Remembering (2014-15) 30’
In memoriam Evan Scofield
Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker and Boston Symphony Orchestra
19 January 2017 (world premiere)
London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
21/23/24 June 2017 (German premiere)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle
Martland Memorial (2014) 20’
for percussion and orchestra
Commissioned by the Southbank Centre, Britten-Pears Orchestra, Royal Flemish Philharmonic and Minnesota Symphony Orchestra
7 April 2017 (world premiere)
Royal Festival Hall, London
8 April 2017
Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh
Colin Currie/Britten-Pears Orchestra/Marin Alsop
> Further information on Work: Remembering
Photo: Philip Gatward