Interview: Thomas Adès

Thomas Adès conducts a rehearsal with the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Boston Globe/John Tlumacki

In his new opera The Exterminating Angel, an adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film, the composer Thomas Adès indulges in a characteristically playful moment of self-reference when one of the characters, Blanca, begins to play the piano. The music she plays, full of rippling figurations reminiscent of the water-pieces of Ravel and Debussy, begins light but grows in intensity, at some point exploding into the levels of transcendental virtuosity with which Adès is frequently connected. Blanca’s fellow guests at a glamorous, post-opera supper party all discover themselves drawn to the spectacle, breaking into rapturous applause as the pianist slumps, exhausted, more than the keyboard. The composer is identified — a created-up name, “Paradisi” — prior to Raúl, an additional guest, cries for “something by Adès, I implore you”. But Blanca refuses. She is as well tired to play anything by Adès.

The joke, of course, plays two techniques. “Paradisi” is unmistakably Adès, but then so is all the music in the opera. Or is it? As in so considerably of the composer’s music the opera is shot via with fleeting references. Like a parade from a private dreamscape of musical history, we hear splashes of Bach, Mozart, Johann Strauss, Wagner, Berg, Stravinsky. Perhaps the forcefulness of Raul’s request is not surprising. Will the genuine Thomas Adès please stand up?

When I do meet the true Thomas Adès, 45, over a drink in a friendly Clerkenwell pub, he does stand up. Like several musicians who became popular early on — his initial opera, Powder Her Face, made headlines when he was just 24 — we are employed to considering of him still somehow contained by his youth. But his presence is that of a effective man, somewhat diffident in manner but palpably bristling with muscular creativity.

My query, of course, is familiar to him, but his answer is refreshingly unfamiliar.

“It’s a error to think of any composer too a lot in the singular,” he says soon after a longish pause. “There wouldn’t be any music if every person just had their personal music. So everyone’s music sounds far more or much less like a person else’s.

“It’s far better to consider of the method like biological cells which you absorb and which mutate into the music you write. The factor at the centre is very soft and malleable: one’s identity as an artist is partly passive — the cells I just come about to absorb — and partly active, since it is me who decides what to do with all of it.”

A performance of ‘The Exterminating Angel’ at the Salzburg festival in July 2016 © Boston Globe/John Tlumacki

So what guides these “decisions”? Adès, let’s not overlook, is not just a composer and performer at the height of his powers, he is also profitable in a worldly sense beyond the dreams of many of his contemporaries. His operas play all over the planet, at the Met, at Covent Garden and, most lately, at the Salzburg Festival, even though his orchestral pieces fill halls in Los Angeles (his property away from London), Paris and Berlin. Shortly right after our meeting, he will fly to Boston to commence his tenure this month as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new “artistic partner”, a roving short that includes writing new music, conducting and leading the contemporary music strand at the orchestra’s venerable summer season at Tanglewood.

At the exact same time, Adès lacks the airs his good results may well have endowed him with. No matter whether the context is conducting a full-scale symphony orchestra or accompanying soloists on much smaller sized stages, he offers the impression of often just generating music with buddies. A bond of unshakeable affection unites him with his colleagues.

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“I hate sitting and listening to my own music,” he confesses. “Music is mainly some thing I do, so I always feel the require to get up and be component of carrying out it.”

And that, it turns out, is what guides his hand as a composer. The musical, literary and artistic references that populate his often dark but consummately playful and cosmopolitan oeuvre all relate to what he loves, to what animates him creatively.

“Love,” he explains, and I commence to wonder no matter whether the drinks I bought him mightn’t be obtaining to him, “is what animates music. If there aren’t robust affections in music, then it just sounds flat.”

Following its premiere in Salzburg last summer season, The Exterminating Angel received lavish vital praise. Some reviewers, however, found themselves unable to comply with Adès’s bonds of affection with the motley crew of characters who, as in Buñuel’s film, are united in their mysterious inability to leave a space. Given that deep emotional engagement is opera’s stock in trade, does this mark some sort of failure on Adès’s portion to draw listeners into the surreal and darkly claustrophobic psychological globe of the drama?

“These characters are completely specific,” replies Adès, not pausing to feel this time. It is clear that if there’s a failure here, it lies with the heavy baggage listeners usually carry with them.

“All the characters have backgrounds, jobs, positions in society which are completely presented and to which they cling for their life. They are most likely much more real than ‘you’, the listener, in fact. And make no error, this opera is about ‘you’, whoever you believe that is.”

Cyndia Sieden as Ariel in Thomas Adès’s ‘The Tempest’ at the Royal Opera Property in 2007 © Nigel Norrington/ArenaPAL

As I push him further on the supposed function of music criticism not merely in holding composers and musicians to account, but in opening avenues to new sorts of musical and artistic expertise, he warms to his theme.

“In all honesty, I see criticism — or the sort of writing about music which picks up little bits of it and plasters it with some sort of concept, association and judgment — these items just largely aren’t there in the music and the criticism floods in as anything that prevents us from listening appropriately. It is like a sort of corrosive gossip. It narrows the music and eats away at it.”

So can great criticism exist? Can it open up access to the highly crafted tangle of affections and experiences, as Adès would have it, which animate the challenged world of modern music? He looks doubtful, possibly politely mindful not to disturb any illusions of my personal about this topic. But he can not deny that many of the institutions of classical music are shadows of their former selves, and do not carry the exact same cultural weight they when did.

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“Perhaps there’s no polite way to say it: if you have come to realize why the Boston Symphony or Concertgebouw orchestras, say, play what they play in their halls, then you’ll understand why that experience wants to be kept alive. But if you have never had that encounter, for whatever cause, then absolutely nothing anyone can write or say can make you understand the value of what goes on there. Culture is like that: its value is invisible to those outside.”

The Buñuel opera was Adès’s very first commission for the Salzburg Festival. Surrounded by high mountains and absorbed by the spectacle of its personal previous, the Austrian city is inspiring and surreal in equal measure. Its distinctive milieu, Adès says, was instrumental in the opera’s being written the way it was. Even though he began thinking about the opera years back, just before even he started work on The Tempest, his second opera that premiered in 2003, a well-timed contact from Alexander Pereira, Salzburg’s former artistic director, catalysed the project.

“I do not think the opera would have actually got written if the premiere had been commissioned for some massive capital city. Salzburg is the perfect size and atmosphere for a close, really intense ensemble piece such as this — there are no external forces taking you away from it.”

Appropriate now, with Boston looming and a quantity of other projects in motion ahead of the opera receives its Covent Garden premiere in March, once again with Adès conducting, external forces are still failing to hold sway: when we element, it is so that he can continue revising the vocal score. The opera, also, never ever actually ends, but returns in the final bars to the music of its starting, as if every little thing is about to occur again. But if he is trapped with the opera’s characters in the space, it is partly since he, like they, have no genuine wish to leave.

“I lost count of the quantity of occasions with this piece I have found myself identifying with the characters by pondering I’m free at last and then discovering I’m still in the room. I believe the characters who grasp they are trapped are these who are freest. After all if we are continuously being trapped it follows that we are continuously becoming set totally free.”

Photographs: Boston Globe/John Tlumacki Nigel Norrington/ArenaPAL

Section: Arts