Thomas Adès interview: ‘I do like things to be shocking and transcendent’


The conductor–composer–pianist Thomas Adès talks to Peter Quantrill about storming the heavens and plumbing hell in music by Beethoven, Janáček, Barry – and Adès himself

Thomas Adès (photo: Marco Borggreve)
Thomas Adès (photo: Marco Borggreve)

There has been much breathless talk lately of ‘super-forecasters’ who can (or can’t) advise governments on what the future will look like and how they can change it for their own ends. It’s nothing new: columnists and pollsters for a century and more have made a good living from oracular pronouncements, no matter their eventual value. Certain artists, too, have been endowed (though only ever by posterity) with Nostradamus-like qualities. In his Sixth Symphony onwards, Mahler was credited by Adorno with second sight of both global conflict and the collapse of the old European order, as a prophet speaking in a fractured language.

At the turn of the century Thomas Adès composed America: A Prophecy for the New York Philharmonic, which gave its premiere late in 1999. The piece is a 15-minute apocalypse, casting a baleful eye back over the savage work of the conquistadores in their new world. ‘They will come from the east,’ according to his chosen Mayan text. ‘They will burn all the sky … Your cities will fall … It is foretold …’ Post-9/11, US orchestras gave the piece a wide berth.

At the 2013 BBC Proms, the composer conducted the first performance of Totentanz, this time setting a medieval-German vision of Death. No respecter of age or station, the Reaper sweeps across the land in a half-hour sequence of pitiless dialogues, snatching up one unfortunate after another: the pope, the peasant, the child.

(photo: Marco Borggreve)

It turns out that a sense of the uncanny and a perspective on time, at once frozen and flowing like a river in the spring thaw, loom large both in how Adès explains what makes him write music and in his appreciation of composers dear to him. One such is Gerald Barry. I meet Adès early in the new year, backstage at Covent Garden. He is amid rehearsals, as conductor, for Barry’s new Lewis Carroll opera, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, the latest of several pieces which the Irish composer has entrusted to his care. The trust has been handsomely repaid by Adès and the Britten Sinfonia in a three-year concert series and attendant live recordings, now issued on Signum, of Barry and Beethoven – and Barry’s Beethoven (2008), setting the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter with a trademark spluttering vehemence and rasping harmonies.

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Gerald Barry is the only composer today who knows how to write war music, music that’s frightening and full of rage

At their final meeting point, all these intersections seem obvious. ‘There are no seat belts,’ says Adès of the Beethoven symphonies, but he could just as well be referring to Carroll’s upside-down world, or Barry’s faithfully madcap translation for the stage, or his own fabulously intricate writing. Barry is notoriously exacting with his performers, though no less than Beethoven. When it comes to metronome marks, Adès confirms, ‘Gerald is very specific about them and will frequently be found prowling around rehearsals with a metronome in hand: one of those things that quickens every conductor’s pulse! But it’s not about an abstract number on the page. Gerald feels, and it’s true with his music, that it will have a particular physical effect at this tempo and no other, and it does affect how the bow hits the string. Brass and woodwind articulation would not be the same at six beats a minute slower.’

The newly recorded Piano Concerto shares a blazing quality with much of Barry’s other music. According to Adès, ‘It’s vital in his music that the energy is manic some of the time, some would say.’ Would he say so? ‘Well, it depends how manic one is! Some people might think it’s all very relaxed.’ Adès laughs. ‘It’s not for me to say how manic it is. But it is part of the music that it has a sort of holy fire. It’s not a sedate experience, Gerald Barry’s music. It’s very fierce. He’s the only composer today who knows how to write war music, music that’s frightening and full of rage. We have The Conquest of Ireland in the Signum series, and that’s war music.’

You can’t pick and choose between Beethoven’s metronome markings, Sir Roger Norrington remarked in a recent broadcast conversation with Tom Service, and it soon became clear he had Adès in mind: ‘If you have too much fantasy, like your friend, you’re going to screw up the music, because you’re not going to let the composer speak.’ But then Norrington went on to observe that the first movement of the Eighth Symphony is unplayable at Beethoven’s indication – yet Hermann Scherchen showed otherwise back in 1965, and at the 2016 Proms (a dry run for their recording) Adès and the Britten Sinfonia came closer than most, including Norrington himself.

Talking more about the Eighth, it becomes clear that Adès does have an individual, probably unique vision of the symphony, one that draws its energy from the world Beethoven knew, maybe also one that gets inside his head in a way peculiarly accessible to a fellow composer. Adès brings up the question of tempo for himself. ‘The Eighth is the only symphony for which the metronome marks are on the cusp of unplayable, in the outer movements.’


Humour – what it means to be funny in music – is another intersection between Beethoven and Barry (and Adès), and the Eighth is a case in point. ‘It will sound like a funny thing to say, but music is in itself not funny. Even in Haydn, for example, the audience laughs out of shock or amazement or disconcertedness, they’re laughing at the composer saying, “This is so.” Humour in Haydn is philosophical, as it is in Beethoven, and quite frightening: it upends everything you think about beginnings and endings.’

Such as the end of the Eighth’s second movement, the supposed parody of Maelzel’s metronome? ‘Or is that the Lisbon earthquake?’ replies Adès. ‘I really think that movement is about Candide. It’s Beethoven’s reaction to Voltaire and the wonderfully beastly things he does to this man, making him be in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time – and yet Candide says that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The movement is a satire on his attitude that everything in life is meant to be – which is usually something only said by people who are terribly successful.’ More laughter. ‘It’s very funny, and it’s also not funny at all, the humour is quite black. I think it’s Beethoven’s way of saying that we’re all equal in front of what he would have called the Almighty, or fate or whatever it is that makes fools of us all – it’s very Shakespearean. Is it funny? That’s up to the listener. I don’t think he’s telling jokes. There are heaven-storming things in the Seventh – points when it climbs into the stratosphere. In the Eighth, Beethoven seems to me to say, “I could simply start from the top and work my way down, because I invented the mountain in the first place.”’ Spoken like a composer.

Like other things Adès says to me – and like some of his music too – it doesn’t sound entirely serious, and in person it’s underscored by gusts of laughter, self-deprecating, jovial or ironic (I can’t always tell which). I think he means it, however, as he does when opening a window on to the Seventh. ‘I feel an enormous nostalgia in that piece, as he looks back on the world of the late 18th century, and feels how far the world has come in the last 30 years. I hear a great looking backwards in a lot of Beethoven.’

Perhaps the most liminal movement of all the symphonies is the finale of the Ninth. Adès points to another ‘heaven-storming’ moment, the suspended chord on ‘vor Gott’, answered by the fart in the contrabassoon – generally another cue for nervous giggling. ‘This is what heaven will be like, Beethoven is saying, it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be improvised, the stage won’t be set up, it’s not formal. That was important to him. God and heaven and the ultimate imperial power are not to do with pomp and ceremony, it’s an open-air thing, for everyone. That’s what that piece is about. It’s deeply shocking and it’s ridiculous. Here we are standing before God, and the crudest peasant appears. It’s glorious but it isn’t exactly a joke, it’s much bigger than that.’

Chronologically equidistant between Beethoven and Barry, there is the figure of Janáček, whose piano music Adès has known since childhood. Twenty years ago he recorded several miniatures such as Christ the Lord Is Risen for EMI, still as little known as they are exquisite; now, also for Signum, he has realised a long-held ambition to set down the major piano cycles. ‘I am fascinated by the weird way it is notated, how it stands at one remove from the 19th century. Janáček declutched from the simple thing of being in 2/4, and he did one or two things to the key signature so that all the parts move in suspension.’

Such as the ghostly harmonies of The Madonna of Frýdek in the first volume of On an Overgrown Path? ‘Who knows whether or not the Madonna really appeared,’ replies Adès, ‘but she does in that piece. It’s incredibly eerie.’ When Adès was awarded the Leos Janáček prize in 2018, he received it in Brno and visited the composer’s home. ‘There’s a particular kind of mist – this was midwinter – where spires loom out at you, and you really believe in witches. In Janáček’s music there’s a real sense of being a composer on the threshold of something else, looking forward and backward, of leaving the Austro-Hungarian Empire. You don’t have that perspective on time with any other composer, and it’s all within the piano writing. In the finale of In the Mists there are moments when you think you’re in a 19th-century parlour of the kind he lived in, and then the music drifts off and you realise that none of it is real: behind the parlour wall is a mist, and a precipice.’ More laughter.

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In virtuosos I admire, it’s not about how fast they play, it’s about the feat being achieved on stage – a kind of divine or demonic feat

In his own music, Adès has often ventured near the edges – of pitch, of rhythmic complexity, of life and death – and taken a long gaze into the void. ‘I liken it to walking along the side of a motorway. If you took one step in the wrong direction you’d be in pieces.’ His post as Artistic Partner of the Boston SO has yielded a new DG recording of Totentanz which once again places Adès in the role of uncanny seer (2020 will always be remembered as the year of COVID-19). Death does not stalk his own output, however – there are refuges, places of calm and madness (in Asyla, The Tempest and Tevot), and the Creation myth told through piano and orchestra.

Adès conducts Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein, for whom he wrote his 2018 Piano Concerto and who performs it on the new DG disc also including Totentanz (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Coupled with Totentanz on the CD, the sequel to In Seven Days (2008) is a characteristic case of Adès having his Piano Concerto and eating it. He wrote the solo part for Kirill Gerstein, whose schedule between its premiere in Boston last year and the end of next year still, concert hall closures notwithstanding, lists more than 50 performances. The concerto pulls out all the 19th-century virtuoso stops, and glories in the conventions of the genre while sending them up. Up where? Adès returns time and again in our conversation to a goal of transcendence. ‘In the virtuoso performers I admire, it’s got nothing to do with how fast they play. I think it’s to do with acknowledging the feat that’s being achieved on the stage, even just getting from one end of a movement to the other. That goes for the composer too. It’s a kind of divine or demonic feat, and it has to be. It isn’t enough to sit there and bang a gong. It has to be a transcendent experience in some way – it’s the divine madness of the whole project, that they’re doing it at all, when you could just not. Some people can’t stand the hubris of it: how dare one do this?’


It’s an English affliction from which he has distanced himself as a part-time LA resident for the last few years. In May last year the audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall gave him a standing ovation at the premiere of Inferno, designed as the first act of an evening-length ballet, The Dante Project. When we talked in January, Purgatorio and Paradiso were ‘all done bar the shouting’. The virus may have seen to the scheduled premiere at the Royal Ballet – I write this the day after the London theatres went dark – but Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will play the complete score at home and on tour next year.

Adès’s ballet Inferno – the irst of three parts that make up The Dante Project – as performed in Los Angeles in 2019 (photo: Craig T Mathew)

Inferno moves from a hundred per cent Liszt orchestrated by me to a hundred per cent me,’ says Adès, ‘and it moves very freely between them. I abducted Liszt for the weekend, as it were – I thought he would be my Virgil, and we had a good time together.’ Having broken a lance for rarely performed symphonic poems such as Liszt’s Hunnenschlacht, Adès talks about how the ideas in his own music are ‘live cultures’. He devised the scenario of The Dante Project with Wayne McGregor, but otherwise choreographer and composer largely left each other to their own devices. ‘Wayne showed me that to establish a physical language for a movement of music takes some time. I always say that a piece should be as short as possible, but ballet is an exception; it responds well to breadth. The music needs to respect the motion of the dancers otherwise they’ll crash into a wall.’

Inferno hews most closely to the narrative of Dante’s terza rima, illustrating the places in hell reserved for deviants, suicides, critics and ‘fortune-tellers’; those pollsters again. Adès had in mind the sequence of sweet-themed dances in the second act of The Nutcracker. ‘I thought that the most exciting thing for a ballet would be the eerie sense of doing it quite traditionally, but in hell; to remind people of the world of Tchaikovsky but then take them somewhere else. Purgatorio uses Jewish prayers taken from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem – I can’t be accused of cultural appropriation because they literally have my name on them! Paradiso is something else, more to do with my obsession with spirals. I’m not getting into the list of happy people.’

Adès responds to the eeriness of Dante, to the poetry’s effects of light and its uncanny timeliness: ‘I’ve never felt so close to damnation and paradise and redemption,’ he says, and he doesn’t laugh this time. ‘I do like things to be shocking and transcendent.’ He’s talking about Haydn and Beethoven and Liszt, but there is always the composer in him. ‘One of the most extraordinary things about the orchestral repertoire – these structures with no words, with three or four movements – is the surreal sense that your entire world has changed in a complete way. That’s so fascinating and mysterious, when all that’s happened is that some people have sat on a stage and played certain sounds on certain pitches in a certain order, and yet one has been turned inside out. I find that the most radical and fascinating thing.’

This interview originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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