The Engaged Postmodernist

The early compositional career of Mark-Anthony Turnage, born in 1960, fell at the end of the 1980s, when the view of a supposed deficit of avant-garde ideas in art had become very widespread. The radical attitude of Pierre Boulez – a Serialist, the pope of the Darmstadt avant-garde, a great musical and intellectual authority – did not enjoy too much popularity among young, rebellious composers. They unabashedly began to restore to music its traditional elements, such as clear melodic contour. To the search for new, strict rules for the organization of music material, they opposed strongly emotional music which affected the audience. Abstract arrangements of sound parameters, they replaced with repetition and freedom of improvisation. They readily displayed music in the broad context of humanistic ideas, literary inspirations and references to the visual arts.

On the other hand, such musical styles and genres as jazz, pop, rock and opera gained in attractiveness. What became particularly attractive was the combination of classical with popular music. Composers stopped concealing their fascinations with the stars of pop culture, pointing to their œuvre as an essential source of influences. There appeared an entire series of musical parodies and pastiches, allusions to the past and neostylistic languages. Aside from Romantic nostalgia, Postmodernism also had more joyful, irreverent faces.

The œuvre of Mark-Anthony Turnage fits ideally into the program of Postmodernism. We will find in it echoes of most of the tendencies mentioned, the most important of which is the drawing of inspiration from jazz and popular music, as well as an attempt to combine ‘high art’ with ‘low art’. ‘What Miles Davis did in 1958, for example, is of greater importance than anything the Darmstadt people did,’ states Turnage, steering clear of the achievements of the postwar avant-garde. He writes a series of concerti for orchestra and ‘jazz’ instruments: saxophone, trombone, percussion and double bass. He collaborates with such jazzmen as John Scofield, Dave Holland, Peter Erskine and Brad Mehldau. More often than strings, he uses the wind and percussion sections; he also introduces improvised fragments into his works. In almost every one of Turnage’s works – whether chamber, orchestra or stage – there appear echoes of jazz.

For this reason, he is often spoken of as a composer of the so-called Third Stream. Mainly by virtue of the courses he took in his time under the direction of Gunther Schuller – the creator of an idea of combining jazz with classical music which he has been popularizing since the end of the 1950s. Schuller had something with which to impress the young Turnage: he was not only an experienced pedagogue, but also a seasoned jazzman – he has recorded with, among others, Turnage’s idol Miles Davis. Though properly speaking, his teachers were Oliver Knussen and the latter’s student John Lambert, Turnage has many times emphasized the contribution of both professors to the process of his musical education. He also owes much to yet another famous pedagogue: Hans Werner Henze. It was under his watchful eye that Turnage was able to make his debut – and not just any which way, for it was with an opera!

In 1988, at the first edition of the Munich Biennale’s International Festival of New Music Theater, Turnage’s work Greek was presented. Based on Steve Berkoff’s controversial play, the opera tells the story of the mythical Oedipus – however, filtered through the realities of life in contemporary London. For the title character is the leather jacket-wearing punk Eddie from London’s East End, who runs away from a pathological home and from the strict, watchful eye of his Neo-Nazi father. In a local bar Eddie, dissatisfied with the service, kills the owner of the place, and then marries the waitress – the owner’s widow – and takes over the business, thereby becoming part of the typical bourgeois nouveau riche class.

The influence of Hans Werner Henze on the young Mark-Anthony Turnage is visible in the engaged character of the opera Greek. The composer presented ancient Thebes as London in the Margaret Thatcher era, with its plague of unemployment, police brutality, racism, hopelessness and even horrible food and poisoned air. To emphasize the local color, the libretto written by Turnage and Jonathan Moore makes use of London Cockney slang, widespread among inhabitants coming from the lower strata of society. The composer linked the dialect with a quasi-bel canto aesthetic language in the singing, which was not to all of the critics’ liking. Though musically moderate, his first opera Greek was, however, so politically radical that it went down in history as ‘anti-Thatcher’. Certainly it was Henze who awakened in the young Englishman an instinct for social criticism – one that reveals itself, moreover, on a much broader scale and in others of Turnage’s works. Reminiscing about his work on the opera, the composer draws attention to yet another aspect: „It came out in the early days of the Thatcher government but it was about more than just the political thing. It was about the races and greed and lots of other things… the police were particularly out of control in that period. My background is working class and when I was younger my family were quite poor. When I was 15 or 16 I had a lot of antipathy toward opera because the people who go are so well off. I had to overcome that but I guess it was natural for me to pick as the subject of my first opera something that was a kick against that.”

Turnage’s next opera The Silver Tassie, presented for the first time at the English National Opera in 2000, was received with great enthusiasm. Though it, too, dealt with a difficult subject, it was now a decisive step in the direction of the operatic mainstream, and Turnage was baptized as Britten’s heir. The Silver Tassie was written to an anti-war text by Sean O’Casey, and presents the tragic fate of veterans from World War I. Its protagonists are football players Harry and Teddy, who return from the trenches wounded: Harry in a wheelchair; Teddy, blind. Their entire previous life collapses; Harry’s girlfriend Jessie leaves him, and their pals from the football team also gradually turn away. Turnage: „I became quite interested in World War I and I wanted to learn as much about it as I could. My father-in-law is a bit of an expert and I visited the battlefield at Somme several times. It was very moving and I wrote a piece called Silent Cities, which is now, really, two of the interludes from The Silver Tassie, slightly more elaborate and longer.”

The composer has returned several times to the subject of war, and composed works dedicated to its victims. The title of the opera The Silver Tassie alludes to a song by Robert Burns, in which the ‘tassie’ is a football cup. This is, furthermore, not the only allusion to a popular hit in the opera. We hear in it the widest variety of works, from fragments of Miles Davis to dance pieces. Despite the tragic import of the libretto, the music of Turnage’s opera is of somewhat frivolous character. This is a phenomenon often encountered in the British composer’s œuvre: in it, we will find several swing-style hommages, tombeaux, laments, or even a requiem.

Despite the fact that Turnage feels repulsed by the snobbish opera world, he returns to it with surprising frequency. It has just been announced that another work of his will première in 2011 at the Royal Opera House. Its subject matter will be the life of Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith – abounding in countless scandals and prematurely ending with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Turnage is clearly inspired by the dark side of life, especially narcotic delirium and its fatal consequences. This should be no surprise to anyone; after all, the composer’s brother drugged himself to death. Turnage dedicated to him the work Blood on the Floor , the title of which was drawn from a painting by Francis Bacon. Bacon’s Expressionist painting is an important point of reference for Turnage’s imagination. Inspiring for him is both the subject matter of the paintings – often presenting lone figures, alienated, seized by madness, socially maladapted – and their technique, consisting of contour deformation and pastiche. Another well-known work of Turnage’s inspired by Francis Bacon is the composition Three Screaming Popes (NB dedicated to Hans Werner Henze), composed in 1989 and scored for large orchestra.
„I’d had the title for some years. In 1985 I went to see a stunning exhibition of Francis Bacon’s paintings at the Tate Gallery. I was overwhelmed, in the best way. I was particularly taken with the three Pope paintings, which although they were not a set, were hung side by side at the Tate. These paintings are based on Pope Innocent X by Velasquez, and my initial idea was to write a piece which distorted a set of Spanish dances as Bacon had distorted and restated the Velasquez. In the process of writing the piece, the dances (like a first layer of paint, or an outline) became so submerged in the other textures of the piece that only a faint trace is visible – just a hint of a tango here and there. What I hope comes across is the coloristic intensity and emotional immediacy of the paintings.”

The gloomy side of life – shocking images, atrophy and disintegration, as well as the narcotics inevitable in this type of visions – is also the world of Charles Baudelaire’s poems. In 2004, Turnage composed a diptych for soprano and ensemble to words drawn from his Flowers of Evil. For this type of subject matter, the Two Baudelaire Songs remain even excessively pleasant to the ear, not to say bourgeois.

At the beginning of the new century, Mark-Anthony Turnage became Composer in Association at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 2002, Sir Simon Rattle commissioned from him the work Ceres. Both the title – which is the name of one of the first asteroid discovered – and the sound aura of the music could lead to associations with Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Other works from the new century are: Bass Inventions, world premièred by bassist Dave Holland in 2001; Scorched, written together with John Scofield for jazz trio and orchestra, performed for the first time in 2002; as well as the swing-blues concerto for trumpet From the Wreckage for Håkan Hardenberger. Despite his extensive artistic interests and somewhat ambiguous inclination toward the opera, Mark-Anthony Turnage feels decidedly best in the area of jazz.

Tłumaczenie: Cara Emily Thornton

źródło: książka programowa festiwalu „Sacrum Profanum” 2009


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  1. Pingback: EN | Monika Pasiecznik


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