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Interview Transcript: Thomas Adès, 2013

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Thomas Adès [00:00:00] It has the strongest sense of place of any piece I can think of up to that time, and it really is uncannily as though you're on that little boat with him in the Hebrides. It's incredibly vivid. And I think, to me, it really paints a very literal picture, like a seascape of the time. I can hear the mist, I can obviously hear the waves, you can hear the cliffs. And of course, you can sense this amazing cave. You can tell when the water is completely calm and flat and glassy, as it gets in Scotland, and blue skies and sun. You can also tell when it's the opposite. And it's incredibly vivid. It has all the British varieties of weather that we so love.

Brian McCreath [00:00:48] Pretty uncanny for the German traveling through the area. Well, when it comes to Charles Ives, [he's] well known, but still maybe puzzling to a lot of people. I think, though, it's one of those things, maybe, that's hard for Americans to get a clear perspective on. And I wonder what the reception of Ives's music is right now in England and in Europe, from your perspective?

TA [00:01:12] Well, he's much, I mean, when I say much loved, I'm talking, of course, in a fairly narrow field. I'm not going to say it's going to be on 100 favorite classics any day soon. But they are, he's program regularly and is believed to be a great, very moving composer. I think he does go very deep, actually, Ives. There are strange areas that he can he can reach that no other composer can, as it were, reach. I mean, this piece is less well known, possibly because it doesn't have as brilliant a title as the First Orchestral Set, "Three Places in New England." But it's as powerful, I think. It's a similar kind of shape with an eerie hymn at the beginning to evoke the American past, very beautiful; a roistering, if that's the word, well, you know, rather inebriated second movement, and very, I don't want to speak out of turn, but it feels very, sort of, Harvard. It's like a kind of, lots of students singing and on a big night out, different songs, different ragtimes. The third movement is very special. It commemorates the date the Lusitania was sunk during the First [World] War, a terrible disaster of the time, many people lost their lives in that. And, you know, I think he was in New York, and he heard an accordionist, perhaps, or someone singing this, playing this hymn tune, "In the Sweet By and By," which erupts with tremendous power right at the end.

[00:02:50] And it's a very overwhelming moment. And you have this wonderful offstage chorus and the instruments, the most eerie effect. You almost feel you can picture the sort of disaster and the people going through the water. I mean, it's very, very spooky. So I think it will be very nice in Symphony Hall.

BMcC [00:03:10] Describe the idea of "a point of reference," the idea that, I believe, underlies the piece that you wrote for the New World Symphony, Polaris.

TA [00:03:17] Polaris, of course, being this the fixed star by which the ancients used to navigate at sea. And I was thinking really about what it is to have a key, a note which is a key, A or C-sharp, in this piece, are the two. And I thought, what really is that? I mean, nobody still quite understands why if you play C major and G major and go backwards and forwards, just those two chords, you can think, is this one or is this four? Is this five? It's very mysterious and no one's really quite understood how this works. What is it? But the fact is that something, I think something to do with weights, you know, one of them will feel heavier and it has more gravity, literally like a thing, an object having magnetic pull of some kind. So this piece is about, it just begins with one particular note, and it has, it's a magnetic series, it keeps coming back to that note, one-two, one-two-three, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four-five, all the way to twelve. And that's where it goes on its head. And it's as if the polls are reversed. And more than that, it will probably be confusing, to say that I, really... The whole piece is one melody which is played at the same time as itself up to five or six times, upside down, different speeds. But I'm hoping that it creates this feeling of shifting magnetic forces.

BMcC [00:04:47] That's actually a really clear explanation. I appreciate that. Yeah. Thank you. The Franck Symphony in D Minor: does this piece have a particular connection thematically to the works on the first half of the program?

TA [00:05:00] It's an abstract piece, of course, in some ways. But I've always adored this piece. It's a very special work. And the connection, if anything, would be that I think Franck discovered various things in harmony and rhythm, which are not even just ahead of their time, but I think he stumbled on Gershwin, I mean, quite by accident. This sort of material, this kind of way of making this harmony that slithers and is unstable and also the syncopations, it's very cle-, and I think he didn't, obviously, know what it was then going to imply, you know, so many years later.

[00:05:43] It just, I think it made him feel, sort of, all sorts of strange things, you know. And I always picture Franck, the wonderful French, very devout organist, in his organ loft in Sainte-Clotilde all day long, in Paris, presumably, occasionally prey to strange, wondering, troubling thoughts. And it's almost as though it shifts between this intense, devout, wonderful faith, and these kind of weird, you know, or spooky, or whatever they are thoughts. And I just felt that it's a piece with lots of perspectives and lots of a sense of voyage. I feel this great second movement is a sort of pilgrim. And I feel that the cor anglais [English horn] is a pilgrim and is beset by will-of-the-wisps and all this kind of thing. So, and there's a great sense of communal and some kind of almost religious hymn-like thing which does, to me, connect to the Ives, actually. Yeah.

BMcC [00:06:42] Thomas Adès, thanks so much for your time today.

TA [00:06:46] Thank you very much. Nice to see you again.

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