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Interview Transcript: Thomas Adès, 2016, Part 1

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Thomas Adès [00:00:01] The Sibelius is his last piece. Very unusually, he then lived for another 30 years. Most composers write the last piece and that's pretty much it. But it's like there's something like a sort of ultimate statement about this piece, Tapiola. It's like he really got to the core of something, and sort of right into the heart of things, and how all things are one thing, and that's that, you know, it all comes from one melody. And it's got this feeling of being like the end of the world, in an interesting way. Like, he writes about the forests of Finland. And the whole feeling of it is it's this endless and unpeopled, wonderful wilderness. And there's the great wind at the end. The Great Storm, famous storm, which is one of the great bits of orchestral writing. And this is, it feels like the right thing to put in a program about, kind of, you know, ultimate destinies and that sort of thing.

[00:00:54] Of course, my piece, Totentanz, the medieval attitude, with a medieval text and dance of death, they had a kind of much more, almost like a comic attitude to the whole thing. It sounds weird to say so, but there's a certain Halloween and horror movie element to it, like it's supposed to be entertainment as well as incredibly scary.

Brian McCreath [00:01:16] Well, I, I somehow, from our previous conversation when you've been here in the past, have had in mind that Sibelius is actually a really central composer to you. And I somehow have in mind that maybe Britten is too. Can you just mention a word or two about why those two composers, or what role those two composers play in your own sense of artistic identity?

TA [00:01:37] Well, I mean, you know, Britten's our national composer of the 20th century. And I mean, in a piece like this, it's by far the most violent piece of music that anyone in England had written at that time. He broke a lot of, you know, I suppose, rules in Britain and conventions back in my country, which, even in the '30s, was [a] much stuffier, more conservative place in a way than than it became. And you had the Second World War, and everything, of course, changed pretty quickly that. This piece dates from the height of that time. And it really feels like he's writing about the Blitz. But, you know, there's a whole change of sensibility. It's the same time, Francis Bacon [1909-1992] was starting to paint his scenes of disturbing pictures. I think it belongs in the same world. So, I mean, you know, someone like me, my generation, absolutely, we wouldn't be where we are without Britten.

[00:02:38] And Sibelius as well. You know, he was pushing the language of what he could do all the time. So he tends to be... Composers always love Sibelius, because you can really hear him thinking. You can hear the, you know, like in math, they say, "Show the work." In Sibelius, you can hear the working, you know. And there's this fantastic sense of, what's the word, like a titanic struggle. And like he's hearing material from red hot metal. You can really hear it, like the metal, like a blacksmith, you know, he used that image himself, of course, famously. So, "I forged one few pages today" sort of thing. And you can hear that.

[00:03:19] And also the way he gets to this point, especially with this final piece, you feel he's saying, "I can't," you know, "I can't go any further," because it's like, if he'd written another piece, it would be too far ahead of its time. I get the feeling he couldn't go into atonality, quite, or it gets pretty close. But that wasn't his, in a way, his world. But there was something else, some other way that he still wasn't quite ready to be discovered. And, you know, in a way, ask a composer now and say, yeah, you know, I can see carrying on from Tapiola, where he could have gone, if he'd lived another 50 years.

BMcC [00:03:57] That is great, though. I love the idea that for composers, there's a particular way that you can see the inner workings. So that's really cool. Totentanz: I don't know a lot about the origin of the piece. I know what the piece is based on, this frieze in Lübeck that has been destroyed, but I wonder whether the text of that frieze was something that you had already wanted to set and this was sort of the opportunity, or did it sort of present itself with the project as it came to you?

TA [00:04:26] I discovered the frieze and the text at the same time, in the same book, but standing in that church where they had a gift shop and there was this book. And I'd wanted to, I don't know, I was fascinated by the idea of a medieval text and something, because there's something very uncensored about the medieval texts, you know. Things written in the 19th or 18th century, or 20th, maybe, sometimes they kind of sugarcoat things a little bit. But the medieval text really doesn't. And the actual medieval words that were on the frieze, which, the thing was actually made of cloth, it was quite fragile, had partly got lost. So we get we got sort of half of it down to us with holes in it. And it's a very, very sort of brilliant, violent early German, a very ugly language, actually, but beautifully ugly.

[00:05:21] And then they restored it about, you know, 300 years later in 1700, with a much nicer text, like not quite, a bit gentler, like "It'll probably be OK as long as you pray and you do this," that sort of tone. So what I did was reconstruct the medieval text using elements of that. So it's like as close as you can get to restoration, like of a painting, where there might be a couple of bits where there's something missing. You just fill it in as best you can and in the style. And so it's kind of "Anon." with a bit of help from me, and some very good German speaking parts.

BMcC [00:05:58] Yeah, yeah. Well, and so when the idea for a musical piece based on that frieze comes to you, was it something where you saw this work of art in its restored form or the reconstructed, and  you had a big picture plan, kind of like, "Oh, I can do this as a set of voices and messages," or was it more, "I hear some musical ideas, some small musical ideas that I could develop through this kind of art?"

TA [00:06:27] I immediately thought, I mean, I think even standing there looking at the book in the church, I thought, this is for two singers, you know, it's a conversation between one of them, Death, who will be a man, and the Human Race will be the soprano. But I think that I didn't even have to think about that. That just sort of came. And I more or less sort of thought, I really ought... This is going to be my next piece, you know. [laughs] When you have, when that happens, it's a real gift because you don't have to think for months or years about what I'm going to do next. It's just there in your head and that's that, you know. You just have to do it. And I think then I went back to London. And I wrote down, the first thing I wrote down was the tune that you hear at the very end, the sound of a lullaby, and I sort of just wrote this tune. And this whole piece has got to get to this point somehow, convincingly. So I hope it does! [laughs].

BMcC [00:07:26] Well, and the way that it gets there is through these characters, you have Death and you have all these people, these characters who represent those people we see around us every day. Are there are some of those characters that took longer to sort of figure out how to voice them, how to structure the textual part around them, you know, more than some others? Were there some characters that came very easily to you?

TA [00:07:52] [I'm] trying to remember which were the easy ones, which were the hard ones. They vary a lot in length, you know, I mean, the Pope is given a lot of time, the Emperor, they probably get sort of... And then, as, you know, because Death speaks to each character in the way that they'd understand, so in a way, in their own language, because they only exists because of them, in a way as well, because they die. So he gives the Pope a very good talking to. Then as he gets down, he likes to cut these very powerful people down to size. But then as you get further down into the sort of middle classes, as we're called now, you know, the Doctor, the Usurer is great, and the Mayor, this kind of character, he's got little time for these people because they're ambitious. And the whole point about Death is, he's no respecter of ambition or status at all. That's the whole point. So he swats them like flies one after the other very quickly. Some of them almost happen at the same time. It's really, "Next." He literally says to the Doctor, "Next," like you would in the waiting room of the surgery.

[00:09:06] And then there's a sort of thunderous climax, which is after the Merchant. And that, sort of, was my, I suppose, idea. I mean, it just happened that that was the point in the piece where I needed to have the whole ton of bricks fall on top of one of the characters. It ended up being the Merchant, because, I suppose, also, you could say that the Merchant is to our world today what the Pope was in medieval [times] like, it's all powerful. You know, money is all powerful. So, I don't know whether that's true or not. But I just had this, that's the way it turned out.

[00:09:41] And then you immediately go from that to these people who are the working class, I suppose. You know, the guy who opens, who unlocks the church door. And, you know, and then there's the Craftsman [The Handworker], which is a self-portrait. [laughs] It sounds like all of his sculptures or whatever he is supposed to make are kind of melting wax in the face of Death, so quite, quite macabre, really. And then they get a bit longer at that point because it all starts to slow down gradually towards the final character, of course, who's the child, the baby, actually. And the baby is two things at once. He is a baby, but he's also everybody because everybody was a baby. You know, we all have been babies. So there's two aspects to it. And so it's really, like, kind of, like we were saying in the Sibelius, kind of aiming towards one sole point on which the whole pyramid is kind of balanced, and then gets right to this, sort of, final point. That was the way it worked out.

BMcC [00:10:54] That's fantastic. I love that. You're beginning, as I mentioned, your position here as Artistic Partner. And just very quickly, I wonder what it is about this situation that you've constructed with the BSO that made this really something you wanted to devote time to. Because this will take up a significant part of your schedule for the next few years anyway. What opportunities did you see here that you really thought, "This is so attractive, I really want to pursue this?"

TA [00:11:21] Well, I mean, actually, you know, I've been coming here more or less once a year. I mean, give or take. You know, there was there was no plan to it. And every time I'm here, I just love it. I love it. I love the orchestra. And I just, I can't ex-, there's many reasons why it's so easy and rewarding to work here with them. I mean, you know, and then I thought, "Well, if we simply give it a name and a kind of shape..." And I will be here a little bit more, which is good, but it's essentially, it's just naming something that was already naturally occurring. But, also, it's like a three-year, is the idea, a three-year span. And, of course, that means that when you're planning what to do, you can see beyond the end of, as it were, the next visit, next week. You can sort of see a bit further. And, you know, I mean, I'm not going to be sort of telling anyone, let's do this, let's do that. That's not my place at all. I just feel I will do my thing and the Symphony will do theirs. And I think they'll, as they have been so far, will coincide very happily. Plus there'll be Tanglewood, which I'm looking forward to enormously. Very excited about going there.

BMcC [00:12:46] Yeah. Have you been to Tanglewood?

TA [00:12:49] For sort of one day in 1991. So I was 20 years old and it made, in fact it was the first place I went in the United States, as it happened, just you know, coming from New York and then straight to Tanglewood. And so I remember thinking, as an English person, "This is so huge." You know, it's just, I couldn't, I had to get my... so that's a memory. But it was also the extraordinary combination of people that you met there, not just, of course, the brilliant students, but these people from the highest, kind of, history of music. Like I met Louis Krasner, who premiered the Berg Violin Concerto with Webern conducting. You know, this is kind of, I mean, you know, even now I kind of think, "Does that really happen?" But it did really happen.

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Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.