Inspired by Francis Bacon, Miles Davis and all that jazz...
Kenneth Walton - 30-Jan-06 02:25 GMT
From: The Scotsman
MARK-Anthony Turnage is the last person you'd associate with soppy, romantic gestures. He is, after all, the ultimate rude boy of classical music whose late-1980s opera Greek, complete with post-punk rock influences and enough offensive language to cause severe apoplexy among the prim Kensington set, was nothing less than a direct assault on the "stifling, snotty atmosphere" of traditional opera-house culture.
His hatred of Thatcherism manifested itself in probably the most aggressive of musical voices to emerge at the time; a language singed with brassy abrasion and, as an extension of that, his 1996 jazz collaboration Blood on the Floor laid bare, in uncompromising musical terms, the destructive realities of a drug culture that had led to the death of his own brother, Andrew.
Yet today Turnage is, apparently, a man who secretly writes birthday love songs for his wife-to-be. Hidden Love Song is premiered tonight at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall and is the first new work arising from his residency with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO). The "hidden" aspect comes from the fact that he had to conceal its composition from fiancée Gabriella Swallow, a cellist and composer who, he says, "would have known exactly what I was up to had she seen it. I had to pretend I was writing something else".
That was a year and a half ago - the couple got married this September - and until today Swallow has only seen the score, never actually heard it. She'll finally discover tonight what it's all about. The thematic material is based on a cryptogram of her name - a common device in Turnage's music - and makes allusions, in the rhythmic patterns of the music, to WH Auden's poem Lay your sleeping head, my love.
But this latest work is about more than just one of Turnage's passionate love affairs. His other great obsession - the instrument that gave his early music its trademark aggression - is the saxophone. It was the main focus of last year's premiere by soloist Joe Lovano and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) of Turnage's A Man Descending, the saxophone concerto he wrote as an "opposite twin" to Vaughan Williams's A Lark Ascending.
In Hidden Love Songs, the saxophone is once again the principal protagonist. Martin Robertson is the soloist in tonight's premiere. "Characteristic violent eruptions" do occur, the promotional blurb promises. So nobody should be fooled by the "love song" thing. In any case, I can't imagine Turnage doing gushy sentiment.
Away from London, and closer to home, it is Turnage's jazz-loving side Scottish audiences will witness first-hand over the next two weeks, in a Turnage residency with the SCO and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO).
This Saturday, in the Old Fruitmarket venue in Glasgow's refurbished City Halls complex, Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC SSO in a performance of Blood on the Floor while a week later in the same venue, and also Edinburgh's Usher Hall, Stefan Asbury directs the SCO in the UK premieres of Scorched.
The common element in both these works is Turnage's collaboration with guitarist John Scofield, one of the greatest names in the contemporary jazz scene. His influence on Turnage has been pivotal, borne out in the title of Scorched, which derives from the words SCofield ORCHestratED.
The roots of that work - a mesmerising suite for jazz trio and orchestra - go back to Turnage's infatuation in the 1980s with the music of Miles Davis, whose guitarist at the time was Scofield. And Blood on the Floor represents a part of a reverential journey that ultimately led to the creation of Scorched.
Turnage, in response to a commission from the prestigious Ensemble Modern, originally wrote the earlier work as "a sour ten-minute opener", its title inspired by a Francis Bacon painting. Bacon had already been the inspiration behind his grizzly 1989 orchestral work, Three Screaming Popes. "I felt drawn to the sensibility of his paintings, their bleakness and colour," he says. But no sooner had Blood on the Floor received its successful premiere in 1993, than Turnage was under pressure from the Frankfurt-based Ensemble to expand it into a full-length concert work. Enter saxophonist Robertson, jazz drummer Peter Erskine and Scofield, whose input transformed the work into a nine-movement suite fusing hard-core jazz with Turnage's gutsy orchestral style.
It also forged an artistic collaboration that, to this day, fills the composer with awe. "Scofield could work with anyone he wants," says Turnage. "After these gigs, he's off to work with the great Vince Mendoza, for goodness sake!"
But the respect was mutual. As a thank-you for working on the extended Blood on the Floor, Turnage hit upon the idea of arranging one of Scofield's compositions for orchestra, to be performed as a tailor-made encore at the 1996 premiere. Inadvertently, he had planted the seed for a collaboration that would meet the requirements of a subsequent commission from Frankfurt Radio, designed to pull together the resources of its house symphony orchestra and big band. Scorched was the funky and dramatic result.
As with Blood on the Floor, it features jazz combo and orchestra, thus the notable presence alongside Scofield in these Scottish performances of Partitucci, Erskine and Robertson, who takes the saxophone lead in the earlier work. The outcome of such a collaboration is not, as you might expect, some anaemic exercise in fusing diverse musical genres. If anything, Scorched super-sensitises each of the individual styles - Turnage's orchestral re-workings of Scofield are unmistakably his, visceral, pungent and explosive; pure jazz surfaces when the trio emerges alone, underpinned by Scofield's typically angular and sardonic influence. Yet the overall impact is one of cohesion.
Such ambivalence sits comfortably with Turnage. "I'm often pigeon-holed as someone who straddles the division between jazz and classical styles," he says. "Personally, I don't see the division. Look at my CD collection and you'll find Scofield next to Shostakovich."
And as for the love songs, Turnage may have mellowed in his personal life, but musically he's still a loose canon.
The BBC SSO performs Blood on the Floor at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 4 February, 9pm. The SCO performs Scorched at the same venue, 10 February, 8pm; and the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 9 February, 7:30pm. Scofield, Partitucci and Erskine will be appearing in an exclusive jazz programme of their own at Perth Concert Hall on 7 February.