Thomas Adès: Full of Noises is a book recently published by faber and faber consisting of transcribed interviews between Thomas Adès and Tom Service which covers ground from the composer’s views on his own music and his compositional methods to the music of others and the state of new music today.
The build-up to this publication included highlights of the text posted on the Guardian website in the form of an article. I have never been overly keen on Wagner’s music (excepting the overtures to Parsifal and Siegfried and four minutes of my favourite key of Eb major at the opening of Das Rheingold always makes me grin), but can appreciate his comments on Wagner recorded in the article are highly controversial, and his seemingly nonchalant assessment of the music of today being in “total freefall” made me very angry.
I then ordered the book, trying to resist the temptation to review the book before I had read it, but any attempt at documenting my considered, impartial opinion seemed impossible when reading a list of quotations on the back cover which included “Music should be inexplicable and indefensible” and “Ethics are a distraction an artist cannot afford.” Stewart Lee’s view on Jeremy Clarkson sprang to mind: “…he’s either an idiot, who actually believes all the badly researched, lying, offensive s**t that he says, or he’s a genius who’s worked out exactly the most accurate way to annoy me”. Anything one composes is coupled with a requirement of the listener, which in turn has ethical implications. For example, how attentively should the listener be listening? Is there an internal coherence to the music which the listener will pick up after spending time with the music or is it all surface impact which encourages the listener to fetishize moments or isolated sounds, then throw the piece away once he/she is bored of them? Art is ultimately an education on how to interact with other people and I would suggest, if anything, that ethics are the most important thing with which an artist should be concerned. I often wonder if there is a direct correlation between how composers listen to music, what they implicitly expect of listeners and how they listen to other human beings. In some cases, I hope not…
This is especially interesting considering Adès’ music from his twenties is all about surface, all about illusion and allusion and what the music “seems” to be rather than what it actually is. In the music from the last decade or so, he has stripped away this surface, leaving, in my opinion, quite banal chord progressions or systems for pushing notes around with little other interest.
Luckily, the content of the book generally has more depth than both its promotional prequel and its cover, although if you are not a fan of metaphors like me, you may incur a facial repetitive strain injury from cringing. Even the quote from the online article regarding new music being in total freefall is taken out of context (or perhaps Adès realised immediately it would be a metaphorical middle finger raised to all those who take composition seriously and covered his bases). He goes on to say: “Not even freefall – zero gravity…What I mean is that we’re aware that there is no floor and no ceiling…and yet we are standing, so what on? What under? I love the lack of stability.”
With regards to the paragraph before last, I found it interesting that Adès admits that “I didn’t get anywhere near what I wanted to do until quite recently” and talks of his early ensemble piece Living Toys as “like somebody putting on a coat that’s the wrong size”. In his discussion of both his own and other music, he places strong emphasis on harmonic movement and themes of “magnetism” and “stability” crop up throughout the interviews. He also plays down direct stylistic allusions: “…in order [for style] to be understood, it has also to be seen through completely – like anything actually.” Although he declares the “stripped-down Modernist aesthetic was just as much drag as was rococo” and that “‘Modern’ was just another style”, I do find it baffling that he clearly wishes us to judge his music by its internal workings, which are, of late, quite simple and formulaic.
In any case, for those interested in Adès’ life and work, this is worth reading and for a composer most comfortable dealing in metaphors and analogies in conversation, and with a spirit of exploration rather than directness, Tom Service made an apt interviewer. Even though my own evaluation of Adès as a composer has gone steadily downhill during my compositional life, I still found that these interviews helped me see his personality and his thoughts with more clarity, thereby enhancing my understanding of his music as an object of reflection for my own.