Composing is inherently chaotic – Interview with Thomas Adès

Thomas Ades - Credit Brian Voce

With the city blossoming in its full spring splendour, Thomas Adès has arrived in Leipzig to conduct the European premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018), with its dedicatee, Kirill Gerstein as soloist. Following a morning rehearsal with the Gewandhausorchester, we sit down at the conductor’s dressing room for a chat, under the watchful eye of Mendelssohn’s bust over our heads.

”With the concerto, I was fascinated by the way a 19th century piece, I’m talking about a symphony or a sonata or whatever, has this way of seeming like a complete sphere, a sort of rounded emotional experience. It starts and something happens and it moves on… Suddenly I got technically interested in how that works, and why and what, and I thought that’s what I want to do.

The dialogue element of music can really be stronger expressed in a concerto, for obvious reasons. It’s actually fun for a composer. It’s not just one group of people talking to each other. It’s more obvious. From my point of view, I’m articulating this story, but it makes it clearer when you got a concerto.

With this one, I had many, many attempts at the opening and other bits of it. I had sketches for it, and I just kept going and worked my ways through. It is quite hard work, but you go on, and get to the end. Then I looked at the beginning and I was like ’that’s not how it goes’, because by that point, I’d gotten used to what I thought it was like. And I went back to the beginning and it wasn’t there.

All the work I had done six months before, becomes like a big lump of clay, like a sculptor has. And I go chip, chip, chip, basically removing things, and revealing the clear thing underneath. It is quite weird way to work, but I like it that way round, rather than have something clear and make it more complicated.

My stuff is often a result of, believe it or not, reducing and reducing, it’s not adding and adding. I did that with The Exterminating Angel as well. I wrote the whole thing with a big brush, to make sure I kinda see what’s going on, and then condense as much as possible. And it’s a bit I did with this one.

With the Finale of the Concerto, the big question was, is it going to be shot out of a cannon like the Ravel or something. Or is it going to have this moment where it implodes like a lot of other piano concertos do. And it took me a long time to see that it had to have that in.

It is so funny how these things become a thing of their own. You simply listen to the material like a doctor, take its pulse and diagnose it and give it the medicine. I’ve never thought of it this way before.”

For Adès, composing is about finding the right way to organize a musical chaos.

”I try to work in the morning. I have sort of a routine, that is increasingly important. When I was younger I just sort of threw myself at the wall just at any odd time of the day. But now I’m more consistent. I try to sit down and write the piece.

Composing can be so abstract, when you’re doing it. The material you’re organizing, which is what I am doing, is, in some ways inherently chaotic. It’s as chaotic as the air around us. You are taking lumps of that chaos and organizing it. You might decide where are the beats in this and so on, and it starts to form a thing from this cloud.

I make a reasonable amount of mess when I’m working. I like different versions. It’s quite good way to go with things, because then you can see more clearly. This is probably going to sound mad, but I do increasingly believe, gosh can this be true, that there’s a right version of the piece, a sort of master that exists outside of me somewhere, or inside of me, but it exists before I’ve written it down, and my job is to write it correctly.

And that’s a new thing I’ve come to feel a bit more. It is almost like trying to be a radio receive, though nobody is broadcasting this thing. In the old days, when I was younger, I had fun of deliberately playing with the dialer, and kind of distorting the transmission. And now I think, I could actually make the distorting a part of the piece as well. Why not include that too?

I don’t know what it is, but it is helpful to believe in this fantasy that there is correct version of it out there somewhere, at the X-Files. ”

And what if it is not there?

”I think of Schubert, and his unfinished pieces. They’re very fascinating. And I think of those pieces that there’s something in the DNA of the material that means it can’t be finished. Whereas Beethoven would just have bullied it, bang, bang, bang… Sometimes, just being a bully, being determined is just the thing.”

For Adès, hearing a new piece played for the first time is a special moment.

”When I’ve finished a piece, it goes off, for example to Kirill Gerstein, and he gets it, and starts playing me little videos of it. It is an amazing moment to hear it, it’s like, ’ah it’s real!’ I love that moment, it’s kind of a permanent Christmas. I’ve got rather addicted to that sensation. It is so exciting, as long as the music is exciting to me.”

As an active performer, both at the keyboard and on the podium, Adès is often involved in performances of his own music. Conducting orchestras was not, however, something he had planned to do in the first place. In fact, his conducting career started completely by accident.

”The first time I conducted anything, actually, was the premiere of my Chamber Symphony (1990) when I was nineteen. I think there was thirteen people in the audience or something. I thought it was going to be unconducted or was there somebody else to do it, I can’t remember, but anyway, somebody asked me to do it. And I did. It was very strange. After that I thought, well OK, this is fun. Then I did it a bit more in the Cambridge University Music Society.

I definitely never ever thought of myself as being a conductor of orchestras, going around and doing what I’m doing now. I never thought that was going to happen. But one thing lead to another, in the usual way.

There was this wonderful group called The Composers Ensemble in London, it was fantastic, run by a composer called John Woolrich. We would tour all over England. It could be just three players or five players or a little bit more, with little bits of conducting, and it was really nice. I wrote my piece Life Story (1993) for them.

I didn’t conduct my first opera (Powder Her Face, 1995) for the first time, but I did the recording. Still, at that time, I was definitely not thinking about I want a conducting career, in fact, almost the opposite. Then there was a brief period, when I somehow got involved with this agent type of person, who’d start putting in all this thing that ’you are going to do this concert with this orchestra, and do this and that now’. I actually had this sort of animal reaction against it, I think. I got ill, because I hated the whole thing and couldn’t understand it at all.

It’s settled down a bit now. I can’t imagine not performing, I would find it quite difficult and would probably get mad. I would become a headline, but in a wrong way. Increasingly, I like crossing over that bridge between composing and performing. I really enjoy the crossing over part.”

For any performance, rehearsals are an essential part of the process. With many orchestras, this means squeezing a lot of hard work into a relatively little amount of time.

”Every orchestra is so different, you never quite know what’s gonna happen. With my Concerto for Piano and Orchestra here at Gewandhaus, we actually didn’t use all the rehearsal time. There’s definitely what’s called truth universally acknowledged, you know the expression from Jane Austen, which means that it’s not true but that’s what everybody thinks, that German orchestras are slower to read. Everybody will say it all the time, and it’s definitely not true here, it’s quite not the case at all. Once they got the hang of how the music actually goes, it was incredibly quick to get it all together. You just have to know what you want to start with.

I suppose, that now I’m quite and animal of concerts and rehearsals as well, and I think I got a sense of how much is possible to achieve in a rehearsal. Surprisingly large amount is possible within that time. You’d be surprised how much you can do in an hour with a good orchestra, if you’ve written it well. I hope I’m getting better at this. If you write something for all the violins and it’s a total nightmare, they have to take some hours to learn it, that’s different, of course. But I think, if you thought about the practicalities and got it, then it should be all right. And it is boring if things are too perfect.

One often has to just make one simple general observation, and then everyone goes ’oh, right, yes’ and they understand something broader about it. It releases a kind of general way of thinking, that makes it all work better. You don’t have to think every little bit. Rehearsal is actually process to get everybody to breath and think in the same pulse and the same way. As long as there is a general, consorted movement, or whatever the word is, that’s what the rehearsal is for.”

For Adès the conductor, early experiences of playing in an orchestra provide some essential insight.

”I’ve only been playing in an orchestra myself before I was about twenty. I had to do it quite a lot back then. And I played the piano in Les noces with Simon Rattle. It was just very interesting experience to be on the end of his baton, and I thought, ’Ah, that’s how it works’. He really made you aware of what your role was.

It helps having a little idea of remembering what it is like if you are to be looking at the conductor, and reading the thing while you obviously don’t have a score and you might not know the music. It’s quite different. ”

Alongside his own music, Adès has conducted a wide repertoire of pieces by other composers. Recently, he did a programme in Helsinki with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, featuring Sibelius’ Tapiola (1926) alongside his own masterpiece, Totentanz (2013).

”You know, you have this idea, when you think, I’d love to do Tapiola, because it is my favourite thing, and because they’ll like it too.  And then you get there and you start to think, what am I doing? Coming to Helsinki and doing Tapiola with Paavo Berglund’s orchestra. Oh my God, I can’t believe it! But it was fun, and they were very nice about it. And there’s always someone there who may not have played it before. But that was thrilling to do it there. And they were kind enough to say that they want me to do Sibelius next time as well. So I must have done something right!

When conducting his own music, there is, obviously, interaction between Adès the conductor and Adès the composer.

”Usually it is just a marking that is an ambiguous one. Like every time someone’s written a mezzo piano, some people play it as piano some people play it as forte, and you have to sort of decide which one you really meant. And that happens all the time. And metronome marks, I really had a weird relationship with that, but now I’m a bit better, I think.

Still, I don’t think being a performer affects the material of my music, I really don’t. I mean, to the extent, I like it to sound clear and everything, but I don’t think so.

The experience from performing affects only in terms of increasingly thinking it’ll work better with a certain way of bowing, or if I make this a ¾ bar. There’s a few things like that I’ve got more aware of while I’m writing. It’s just professional stuff. Boring.”

Still, there are some old pieces, Adès the composer would like to revisit.

”I’m feeling like doing whole new director’s cut versions of some my pieces, particularly the ones even I don’t perform very much. I ought to look at them, and go back and rescue some of them. I think that would be really nice. I’d like to rescue the ones that are left behind, when I have time. Though, I don’t know when that’s going to be.”

This weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel give the world premiere of Adès’ latest work, Inferno (2019) for orchestra.

”I just finished this ballet score I’ve been working quite hard. It was finished just in time, like hours before the pack started playing.

You know, I got this side, that sometimes I get involved with existing pieces The first one was Darknesse Visible (1992) by Dowland, and in my mind that’s is not a piece by me at all, I think it as a piece of me performing the Dowland as I’d like it to be performed. I would say, that’s not really composing. I mean it is, but it is not, really, it’s a different activity. I call it something else.

So, with this ballet, I felt like, it would be interesting to do some sort of a costume thing, with Liszt’s music. Sometimes it is pure Liszt, orchestrated by me, that’s one extreme. Sometimes it is pure me, completely made up by me, that’s the other extreme. And there’s all the bits in between, where it is almost like you would be performing a piece by Liszt and start doing a sort of fantasia or improvised cadenza, and turn it into something else. These are not obvious changes. They’re quite eerie, and I like this effect.

I’m just thinking, if you look at Pulcinella, it’s really all Pergolesi, in a way. But then there are bits where Stravinsky has folded things up. I suppose, he would have thought, what would be helpful now, in 1920, you know, a productive, creative thing to take. Something that we don’t have now. Like, if there’s still something left in the pan that you can use. So that’s a bit what I was doing with Inferno.

Stravinsky was closer in time to Pergolesi back then that we are to Liszt now. It’s a long way in terms of musical history, but I just thought that it would be quite interesting thing to do now.

Liszt is the composer of hell and demonic. There were a lot of very good visitors, like Berlioz, who is a fabulous co-principal hell visitor, but Liszt, he lived there. I thought, I should pay a visit myself, but I couldn’t. So, doing this ballet score will be a way to do it, and it will be fun. I’m quite pleased with it, actually. I like it!

The Los Angeles premiere will be done in concert version, with the ballet version following in July. The European premiere will be at The Royal Opera House in 2020.

”At Covent Garden, it will be the whole Dante thing. We will certainly do Paradise as well, but that’s different. That won’t be Liszt, it will be just me.”

As our talk goes on, we land on the age-old distinction between abstract music and program music.

”That’s very old fashioned idea. It always reminds me of those old textbooks when I was little. What is abstract music? It does not mean anything. I think there’s little bit of this sort of religious snobbery in it, because abstract music used to be contemplative music. And program music would be somehow not holy, secular. So there was a mistrust of music that says it is about something.

I find that boring attitude, in both directions. A great piece of descriptive music can have as much musical content and truth in it. I’m looking at Mendelssohn and thinking of The Hebrides. It is so amazing! And it is completely descriptive, but also as an abstract piece it is just so perfect and complete. You can have both, it is not one or the other.

In any Beethoven sonata, for example, there are characters, I’m sure, in his mind, masculine and feminine, heroic and domestic, it’s absolutely there. Very often you have little opera scenes, even moments where you can tell it’s not just a scene between a man and a woman, but it is on a stage, and it’s very spesific. I don’t mean it’s a particular one, but it might be. There are several pieces, which, I think, are based on bits of Shakespeare, quite closely. In Piano Trio, Op. 70, No. 2, I think there’s a whole Tempest theme in it, I really believe it’s there. I’m convinced that it really is like Prospero and Miranda. I’m pretty sure because he was reading it around that time. For him, it would have been a constant dialogue, I don’t think he would have thought this is an abstract piece.

Then there’s that glorious moment, when a man runs on in the middle of the Finale of the Ninth Symphony, and suddenly it’s an opera. ’Freunde!’ Absolutely wild. I think it might be quite fun to have somebody to run on singing in Eroica too. I mean, why not? It might be a bit ridiculous, but obviously it is program music too. Of course it is! It’s not abstract, far from it. It is very literal.”

Speaking of Beethoven, later this month, Adès is completing his three-season cycle with the Britten Sinfonia, featuring the Beethoven symphonies alongside a selection of works by Gerald Barry.

”It was this wild idea, I wanted to do. I’ve done all these premieres of Gerald’s music, and I thought we’ve got to record them, though I never have time to record anything. And so we got thinking about how we could do this, and suddenly the idea was there. It was completely bananas! In the first year, nobody came at all, but who cares, it was fun. And it sort of built, so actually and they’re doing well now. I really enjoy doing the Beethoven. I won’t make a habit of it, but I’ve loved doing it and learned an awful lot. And doing Gerald’s older and newer work, it makes a lot of sense, I think, to do it. For me it makes sense. I think, now we’ve found a record company that will release it all as one thing, Barry and Beethoven together, and I’m really pleased about that.”

During the reign of hardcore modernism, one of the key taboos for a composer was thinking about the audience. How does Adès feel about his audiences?

”You mean, if they like it I must have got something wrong? I think it is hilarious! There’s a very funny American film about a composer who believes this, and does very angry avant-garde music. And there are two people in the audience, I think one of them is his brother, and one of them is his girlfriend, and then she starts laughing during the piece and then he starts shouting at her… it’s very funny.

It’s like with the rehearsals, there’s often a bit of a journey to go on to even understand what is in anyone else’s head at all. It’s like a teenager who goes ’you won’t understand’ and shuts the door, and thinks ’I’m much more interesting and special’. And actually all they need is someone to listen and talk clearly.

We are all weird and nuts and crazy and difficult and everything, so that’s fine. I’d put it this way: I don’t want to distort myself for anybody in either direction. So, the question of audience is ultimately, I think, a non-problem.”

© Jari Kallio

Photo © Brian Voce


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