Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thomas Adès on His Asyla

I recently listened to a YouTube clip of the premiere of Thomas Adès piece for orchestra entitled Asyla, which, one learns from the introductory talk, is the plural of "asylum". I found the composer's remarks rather more interesting than the piece itself, so I will put a partial transcript of them below:

"[symphony orchestra] no longer a mainstream medium"
"orchestra something that has been basically static since before the first world war; as a medium it hasn't evolved and composers have"
"I'm very much aware that if I was a different creature as a composer, I would certainly have called this piece "symphony"
"I feel very uneasy with using the word "symphony" to describe a four-movement orchestral piece ... it just seems that it's rather a debased sort of word ... I can't take it seriously any more"
I won't take the time to transcribe it all. Most of the rest is simple description of the four movements that boil down to

  1. Quick, melodic, flight
  2. Slow movement, taking refuge somewhere
  3. Contemporary dance, equivalent to a minuet in a Haydnesque symphony
  4. Slow, sort-of passacaglia
Go and listen to the introduction and the piece itself:

Now the piece itself isn't bad at all. It received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2000. But the first commentator on the clip makes an interesting observation:
All the effort is put into the surface. What the music 'says' is merely the conventional clichée of alienation, chaos, disruption, nihilism etc. etc. that has become de rigeur in 'established modern music' for half a century by now. Music is not about interesting sounds but about something musically interesting to 'say'. The snippets of musical lines in the midst of 'nice, interesting sounds' betray a longing to write real music... which was still possible at the beginning of the last century. Ades is a convincing symbol of the conventionalized modern music scene.
But I want to talk more about Adès' remarks than the piece, at least in this post. He comes across as rather too pleased with himself and too ready to disparage both the orchestra itself as a medium, and the venerable composers who created the instrument and the genre of the symphony. The ironies are manifest. First of all, the interviewer, before Adès makes his appearance, carefully lists the mammoth percussion ensemble that has been added to the symphony for the piece by Adès. As he says, it includes six tympani, roto-toms, tuned cowbells, water gong, two pianos (one tuned a quarter-tone flat),  washboard and other even odder instruments. The irony comes with Adès' remark that the orchestra hasn't evolved since before the first world war. It certainly has. A lot of twentieth century symphonies don't call for more than a late 19th century worked with. But a lot, like this piece, certainly do. And still others call for a lot less, in a return to the Classical norm, as in Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. So Adès remark is mere preening: we composers have evolved, but the poor old orchestra hasn't. What he means by saying that is it no longer a mainstream medium, I have no idea, unless he thinks that rock bands and sequencers are the mainstream medium. But it is more preening, in any case. As is the remark about if he were a different creature he might have named the piece a symphony. But then he goes out of his way to demean the symphony as such, saying it is a "debased" word. Only to you, Tom, only to you!

What he writes is, of course, the very model of a post-modern symphony, all tarted up with exotic percussion to give it a fashionably alluring surface, but underneath, it fulfills exactly the format of a classical symphony, the only departure being the choice of a passacaglia for the last movement, something that Brahms also did, of course.


Rickard Dahl said...

Sounds like Thomas Ades' piece here is another example of the potemkin variety we hear so often in more "mainstream" classical nowadays. It lacks in substance.

Anyways, maybe what he is referring to is that the orchestra hasn't grown in size or changed much. I know there are plenty of pieces that require one or more "unusual" instruments but the core is the same and the extra musicians needed are probably from the outside (i.e. not regular orchestra staff).

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't want to go too far in evaluating the piece itself as I have only listened to it once, not very closely.

Are we thinking clearly enough about the nature of the orchestra, I wonder? The word is very old, of course. Like so much else, it goes back to the Greeks where it referred to that part of the amphitheater where the chorus was located. So it has a connection with the theater and the origins of the orchestra probably lie in the instruments gathered together to accompany the early operas of, for example, Monteverdi.

The orchestra is really then, an assemblage of different instruments for the performance of music and it is distinguishable from a chamber group by the numbers of instruments and by the fact that for many of them, there are several players on each part. The orchestra as utilized by Haydn and developed by Beethoven and others up to Mahler and beyond, is one of those ideal creations that stand the test of time, I think.

Compare the orchestra to the violin: it was perfected by the Cremona builders in the late 17th century and has hardly changed since. But every contemporary composer, almost, has written a violin concerto. The violin is a perfect creation that stands the test of time.

david said...

It seems that Mr. Ades indulged in a bit of "biting the hand that feeds". As evidenced by the following extract from the bio page at thomasades.com, the composer has considerable connections with some of the most high profile of Bryan's "ideal creations":

"As a conductor he appears regularly with, among others, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw, Melbourne and Sydney Symphonies, BBC Symphony, and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As an opera conductor he has conducted The Rake's Progress at the Royal Opera, London and the Zürich Opera, and last Autumn made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera New York conducting The Tempest. He will conduct this production of The Tempest at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2015 with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Future plans include Totentanz with the Boston and Chicago Symphonies and the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics."

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, very successful career as a conductor as well. That is wearing a different hat, of course. I suspect that when conducting a rehearsal of the Boston Symphony he isn't thinking of them as being an unevolved throwback but as a living cultural institution. It is because of this that I referred to his remarks as being a kind of posturing.