The riskiest pieces have been the most rewarding

Interview with Mark-Anthony Turnage

Uwe Dierksen, William Forman and Susanne Tegebauer talked with Mark-Anthony Turnage.

The piece is called About Time and I suppose it is about "time" too. When did you finish it?
It was premiered a year ago, and we had a workshop in the middle of 1999 when we went through the whole piece. You know, Simon Rattle did it originally. I was quite worried about the whole thing because it is quite a tricky project to undertake.

Were you worried about putting together the instruments because of the tuning?
Yes, the tuning was a problem. I tried to chicken out of it actually because if the tuning had been for slightly earlier period instruments it would have been a semitone out and I would have done everything with a semitone transposition - I thought it would otherwise just sound like a bad out-of-tune school orchestra! So that was my initial concern and then Simon Rattle said that was, in a way, cheating because then I would end up writing a piece similar to my earlier work and there wouldn't be anything unique about it. So he in a way persuaded me to really go with the idea of the absolutely different tuning.

The two orchestras play at a pitch variance of a quarter-tone.
Yes, and so I found it quite funny when we did it at first. What I did is this: I had this solo cello, the cello from the contemporary music group, who is like a mediator between the two groups. So he's bending the notes all the time. That only gradually evolved, that wasn't my original idea. He started off as something that would just be part of the original group but I eventually moved him to the middle, actually in the rehearsal on the day of the performance - and that was a new idea. So it seemed a very nice idea to have the cello in the centre as a middle ground. With the stringed instruments the tuning is easier to do because they can bend the notes.

What was the order of composing? Was it your idea to write a piece for two different ensembles at two different pitches?
It wasn't my idea but it was a challenge. The original idea was a sort of millennium-concert. In the first half there was a short Haydn mass and a short piece by Oliver Knussen just for the contemporary ensemble. In the second half, there was a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. My piece was designed to link the two halves. I think it was very unique to have these two ensembles in one concert so rather than just have everything separate we had to use this strong idea of bringing them together.

So Simon Rattle insisted or suggested that you should use the two different pitches and you didn't want to?
Well, I was scared - I had never done this before. Also, if you think about it in a practical way - how many performances can a piece have with these two kinds of ensembles? It's a shame really but it is the economics of music. I have plenty of pieces with big forces for lots of percussion, lots of brass, lots of everything and here is yet another piece which may have only one performance - of course now the Ensemble Modern is doing it so it has proved to be wrong - but that was a worry.

The two orchestras are seated to the left and to the right of each other on the stage?
Yes, but when we originally did it we did it in Ely Cathedral in England. That was tricky because it was cold, it was the middle of December, and so of course the tuning goes out anyway! But it was also physically quite challenging because of the way the cathedral is laid out. I don't know how this is going to work in a concert hall but I want there to be a clear differentiation between the groups. They are really separated so I want you to see and hear the difference. It is a visual idea as well.

Now as you know, we are performing this piece. Have you anything in mind you want to change?
(laughing) It's a quite difficult question. The one thing I know I will feel when I hear this piece is that it should be longer! I think that there could be a little more overlapping of the two ensembles. They do play at the same time, but in the original sketch for the workshop there was very little together. I started combining the two groups after the workshop. But I think I might do a couple of things to change the overlaps and add a bit more. This is possible because it is a one-movement piece, but I think there should be another two or three movements. It is such a unique idea that it seems a shame for it to last only twelve minutes.

Do you play a lot with the idea of different sound colours of the instruments or the different performing traditions that are involved?
In a sense the thing that really fascinated me about the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was the string sound. I went to a rehearsal of them doing a Mozart piano concerto and although I had heard quite a lot of baroque bands and early music groups, I hadn't actually heard many "live". I loved the incredible sensation of the string sound - not only the string sound, they also have some wonderful wind players - but it is this sound that you could almost eat, that is very sensuous.

Are there any other differences between the two ensembles concerning the music you have written for them?
The original idea that I had for the string players of the early music group is that the music should be very calm and serene, and the music for the contemporary ensemble is very agitated.

Is that your comment on new music?
(laughing) No, that is just the way it was musically, how the ideas came out. But in a sense that agitated music invention is that the early music becomes more agitated. The other thing also about the dynamics is that although the early music band is bigger, the modern instruments are louder. That really does mean that the contemporary music ensemble dominates. We have to really watch that.

I can't help thinking that there is some connection with Blood on the Floor, that connects the ensemble to so-called foreign soloists. They're coming from different places, from a different kind of music. I wonder if there are issues outside of the music that are reflected in the music? Syntheses or contrasts, coming together, moving apart... Or if you composed just music as music...
Yes, in a sense because the interesting thing for me was that I found very few of the early music group played music outside of baroque music - you know up to Beethoven or whatever. There should be a pride and willingness to get it right that is very important to me.

I wonder if there are also issues of people and their own diversity. We did Blood on the Floor and we had Peter Erskine who can do anything and certainly does everything in his music and we have some players in the ensemble who are more involved in jazz, in different things, even in old music. One has, on the one side, groups or areas of the composition which are contrasted with each other, and then individuals who mix-up the whole scene.
That is what I am most interested in. With the piece I was incredibly worried. I thought it was a big, huge risk to write it. But in some ways it got one of the biggest responses I have ever had, which was nice. All the pieces like Blood on the Floor and Greek, which were both for the Ensemble Modern, have been the riskiest pieces but in some ways the riskiest pieces have been the most rewarding.

But this also seems to have been very rewarding and I imagine it's possible that people who have difficulty with new music and think of themselves as "old" music listeners will find that the two are not so far apart.
Hopefully! You never know. Coming back to this idea of what Simon Rattle did originally say to me I think composers should sometimes be pushed in a certain area, if they are people you trust.

People talk about influences. How does working with musicians influence your work?
My closest friends are players actually - not composers, which is a sort of not surprising, most composers are suspicious of each other!

Are there directions or compositions of particular people that turn you on or turn you off?
In Germany there is Heiner Goebbels, he did a lot of things that I have been trying to do for years. Also Louis Andriessen - I think I have been heavily influenced by him. In some ways my music is a long way away from what he does, so people don't notice it.

What about dead composers?
There is Stravinsky - I think he has become a more and more important figure to younger composers as well. I can't stand music that is formulated and predictable. The whole point for me of trying to work on something is to throw in a spanner, mess things up and to make it, in the process, more surprising. You can have a strict scheme, which I do with my pieces, but if something needs to go in a completely different direction or needs to be extended or cut I will be quite ruthless with it and create surprises.