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Thomas Adès: Full of Noises

Conversations with Tom Service

Thomas Adès and Tom Service

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Thomas Ades: Full of Noises

a studio covered in scraps - stability/instability - magnetism - subjects and titles - forms and feelings - Chopin and the bottomless pool - opera and drama - absurdity - Wagner's fungus, janáek's truth, Mahler's banality

What are you writing just now?

I'm writing something that will probably be absorbed into my new opera. I often find that smaller pieces emerge before an opera. If an idea emerges that might not go into the smaller pieces, I immediately write it on a scrap of paper and stick it to the wall. When you're writing an opera, there's so much material you might need. So anything that seems pregnant, you don't want to throw away. A scrap can stay there for years before I use it. By the end of the opera, the wall in my studio is covered with yellowing scraps.
The thing that's sitting on my desk at the moment is a piano miniature. It may become part of a larger book of miniatures, but I won't probably produce that for some time. It might be like a scrapbook, of actual thoughts that occur to one. They are a form of study - but they're sketches rather than studies exactly.

Sketches or studies in what?

I'm finding more and more that the most interesting issue is stability. That's what animates everything in music- stability and instability. I've been asking myself: is there such a thing as absolute stability in music, or in anything? I came to the conclusion that the answer is no: where there is life, there is no stability. However, a lot of musical material - maybe all - tends to desire stability or resolution of some kind, unless it's held in a kind of equilibrium, which is still a volatile situation.
That's the way I understand everything in history, in musical history. The music we listen to is the residue of an endless search for stability. I think you can make a sort of illusion of stability in a piece; you can fix it in a certain way. In a musical work, you permanently fix something that in life would be appreciable only for a moment. The piece can stand in that relation to one's everyday experience of stability, as an ideally achieved form.

There's a contradiction there: if everything in life is unstable, that attempt at stability in a musical work is a sort of anti-life - a death.

Well, it could equally be a sort of captured, eternal volatility. You could argue that a given interval is stable, like a perfect fifth or something. But it's not, to me. The piece can be trying to resolve a tension between two ideas, to resolve them ideally into one thing. But in my case, I can hear a single note and feel all the directions it wants to move in. It might be something in the room that makes it want to move, something in the nature of the way it is played, or a quality inside me at that moment; but essentially, the note is alive and therefore unstable. If I put a note under the microscope I feel I can see millions, trillions of things. InPolaris, my recent orchestral piece, a 'voyage for orchestra', I was looking and looking at a particular C sharp, and as I put it under the microscope I saw or heard a writhing that turned into the piece.

You talk about 'magnetism' in your programme note for Polaris: is that a term for the pull between what's stable and what's unstable in your music?

That's really what one is dealing with all the time, magnetism: understanding the magnetic pull of the notes put in a given disposition, their shifting relative weights. I have a problem - well, it's not a problem for me, but it can make life confusing talking to anyone else - which is that I don't believe at all in the official distinction between tonal and atonal music. I think the only way to understand these things is that they are the result of magnetic forces within the notes, which create a magnetic tension, an attraction or repulsion. The two notes in an interval, or any number of chords, have a magnetic relationship of attraction or repulsion which creates movement in one direction or another. A composer, whether of a symphony or a pop song, is arranging these magnetic objects in a certain disposition. That means that sometimes, in order to understand the weight of one note and the next note to it, you might have to transfer meaning from one to another. In Polaris, I had to transfer meaning from the C sharp to the A in order to do that. And it was difficult in some ways, because to really discover what the n otes want to do, you might have to go against what they at first appear to want to do, and then they start to resist and you have to use other magnets to see what they are really feeling.

Is that a pre-compositional idea in Polaris, that decision to look at that C sharp, to work out what that move from C sharp to A meant?

There's no such thing as 'pre-composition': as soon as you start you're really composing. I wouldn't distinguish between a 'pre-compositional' and a 'during-composition' stage. What if you have to go back to the 'pre-compositional stage', which would almost certainly happen? You're dealing with something that is chronically volatile. It's like lava, except my material doesn't actually exist in physical reality. They are evanescent sounds. These notes are not objects that are in front of you - although in another sense it helps to treat them like that; maybe they are, in fact, a sort of invisible object. But that very invisibility is frustrating, because one's brain can't necessarily define them clearly at first.

That idea of 'where the notes want to go', their magnetic weights relative to one another - I can hear a lot of your music in those terms when you put it like that.

Any music. It's the way I hear.

That's different from other living composers.


Is Polaris doing something very different from what your music has always done?

I think working with magnets is what I was always doing. I perhaps felt in the past that it wouldn't be interesting enough on its own to make a piece out of, that it would bemore interesting to have a descriptive subject for the piece. When I was younger, it was helpful, in some ways, to have a subject; it was a short cut to the point where things are sitting in a permanent equilibrium, a resolution, even if it's an uncomfortable one.

Is it when you sense a permanent equilibrium that you feel a piece is finished?

It can be. A piece can have more than one ending. My first opera, Powder Her Face, has three or four endings; different surfaces, different keys in it that end at different points. And that comes from the nature of the subject; there are different layers. And my orchestral piece Asyla has a couple of endings, some in a row and then some on top of each other - I can't remember how many. When they are all in place I can sense the equilibrium. It is quite exciting to find all those resolutions happening at once.

How do you choose the subject of a piece, and once chosen, does it risk limiting the piece? How and why do you choose a descriptive title, like Asyla, or an abstract, generic title, as in your Piano Quintet?

Well, all pieces have subjects, whether stated in the title or not. That was another problem for me: I don't see the distinction between abstract music and programme music. I literally have no idea what that means, because to me all music is metaphorical, always. That textbook distinction is meaningless to me. Also, to me abstract titles are difficult to use without sounding pretentious or in bad taste. I find 'symphony' impossible to use now: it sounds so affected. Ithink, though, one would still be able to use the word 'symphony' in the sense that Purcell does, meaning instrumental music at the beginning of a masque or something; that makes perfect sense to me.

So you feel the subject, the title, used to be a way in to the music for you, which now you need less?

I can now access more immediately the metaphorical implications of a note or two notes, without the need for an image or a picture, whereas in the past, the metaphorical freight was expressed in a title or an idea. It doesn't bother me much either way; it's a natural, musical process.

There is a distinction you're talking about, though: when you are 'just' combining notes, with no further subject, is the freight of metaphors different, less heavy?

It's completely indistinguishable, whether one names the subject behind a musical idea or chooses not to. I might not be able to name it. I might try very hard and not come up with a name. In my piano piece Traced Overhead I had about a hundred and fifty titles for it before I came to that one. I almost called it 'Sonata da Sopra'. I can't explain why that wasn't logical enough. It's not ultimately up to me, whether I reject one avenue and choose another one. It is very like walking blind: you run into an obstacle and you go the other way. Or perhaps you try to do something with the obstacle. Whatever it is that leads you to reject one path - even if it's something larger, a whole section that you do or don't write, or a detail that you choose over another - all of those choices are made at a level that's almost completelyinstinctive and emotional. But I find that there is almost always an analytical reason behind those decisions, which suddenly becomes clear at the last minute, when I've finished the composition, and I see: oh, this melody was the inversion of that one, or there was some other technical connection, all along.

So is all this a conscious or subconscious thing?

As I said, it's the same thing either way: when I say analytical, it's because you sense this form internally and have to find a way to realise it. And that is an analytical process - whether conscious or not makes no difference. Usually it's not explicitly conscious at the start. It may be like seeing the face in the fire, which isn't actually there, but once you've written it down, it becomes real. Just as if an artist draws a face they see in the fire, then once it is drawn that face becomes a real face. Writing music is like trying to draw the face in the fire.

That's fine in principle, but there are moments in your music where there are conscious uses of forms: chaconnes, say. Surely these are decisions that aren't so instinctive: I mean, if you're writing a chaconne, you must have made a decision to write a chaconne?

No! That's not true. This is a very common mistake. That's not how one makes a decision. That is what is wrong with academic analysis. The impulse comes first, the method second. The desire to travel faster preceded the invention of the car. It was desire that generated the design. A chaconne is simply one kind of harmonic motion. In mymusic it's very often spiral rather than circular - in other words, it's transposed down with each appearance, or whatever it is. But it's really an organic form, a kind of growth, and the label 'chaconne' comes after. The same goes for 'sonata form' or 'fugue'. It's not to say 'I'm going to do that because composer X did it' - I wouldn't think like that, really. I mean, some do, of course, but I think the duty should be first to the desire of the material, second to the formal plan, otherwise it remains like a photograph, faded. But there may already be something in the nature of the material that tends towards a particular form - in which case it's not really referential in that sense. I mean, again, everything is metaphorical in music.

Maybe a chaconne, or any formal structure, is something that helps you feel less blind when you're composing, and you perhaps see the obstacles more clearly, before you run into them?

Well, in some ways, perhaps. But you could say that any serial piece is a chaconne of a kind, in the sense that you're going through rotations of the twelve notes of the row in order. You could describe the whole serial process as a chaconne if you felt like it, but it's really just to do with the way that notes recur. And if they happen to recur in a certain recognisable way - suddenly the piece is a chaconne. What I'm saying is: the distance between something that's a repetitive structure in that explicit sense, and the way a continually unfolding structure - like the first movement of Asyla, say - actually works, is quite small. I might have set out to write that as a chaconne, but the material didn't allow it.
I began that piece, Asyla, by writing the melody, in fact,where the horns enter. And then in the course of completing that melody, I found that I had to start to compose the harmonisation at the same time in order to understand how the melody was moving. And then the accompaniment, the harmonisation, began to take on a life of its own, and at that point I couldn't make it into a chaconne. It had already run somewhere else, and I had to let it do what it wanted. There is quite a long development of the melody, and you could almost see it as a chaconne, yet it's not. It doesn't sound like one - but it's much more closely related to one than you might think, and it does have a spiral form. And then I had to compose an introduction to the first movement later, and then the middle section is based on Couperin. And then it's simply a recapitulation. So it's never very far from classical form, really.

You make it sound as if all that just happened without any intervention from you, as if there were scarcely any decisions to be made about what to do with the material. But you must surely have been shaping it, grappling with it, all the time. I mean: take that melody in the first movement of Asyla, for example: where does it lie in relation to the question of stability and instability?

I'm afraid in that case it can be a sort of Chinese box effect. That is: I answer one instability with another, and it can resemble a hall of mirrors. There are models for this. Take Chopin - one knows that there must be a point of possible resolution somewhere in his music, partly because it's the nineteenth century; but mostly, there is nothing stable. As soon he puts a note on the page it starts to slide around. And there is no real resolution. It's like a pool you can't seethe bottom of. You're aware of the movement of the water, and there may be currents of different temperatures that affect one another, and indeed there must be a bottom to it, but you can't necessarily see it. In fact, if Chopin gives you a resolution, it's a concession on his part, a concession to us. The music doesn't really demand it.
Or you could have a Beethovenian model, which is in the other direction most of the time, yet it's actually quite similar. What I mean is it's more volcanic: in Beethoven, the bottom can simply move under your feet. That's what catalyses his music. That's a different world, but as models of ways to think about the question of stability, they're quite good twin ideas.

Are you aware of the bottom of the pool when writing your own music?

As much as any swimmer is. But sometimes one is in the deep ocean. That's one of the interesting things about doing something on an operatic scale. The distance is too great from one shore to the other; but you have to approach it in the same way as you articulate the drama of a piano piece, with tonality, the magnetic forces of notes.
You will find as an opera goes on that because of the demands the drama makes on the music, there will emerge relations between tonalities, or centres of magnetic polarity, whatever you want to call them, and that will affect the resolution, indeed the ending. There will be some quite clear symmetry or geometry in the relations, but it will be unlikely to begin and end in the same key, because something in the course of the opera will have caused the ground beneath us to shift. There will always be someunfolding process in any piece, but in an opera it could go anywhere, because instead of having two or three or four layers of desire, as you might have in a piano piece, there might be, say, fifteen, and that creates much more slippage. You might have so many, in fact, that you're not sure who, if you like, is going to win. I know what happens to the characters on stage in the story, but I don't know how that functions in the music until it's composed.
In my second opera, The Tempest, the resolution comes about through renunciation. The characters depart and leave the island. The music resolved in a key that was somewhat unexpected but it arrived with so much force that it was clearly the right thing. But I hadn't foreseen it. The music finds D flat and stays there right to the end. This is a new key in the piece, although the third act opens with a premonition of it. That's because you have a situation at the end of the piece which has not happened in the drama before. You have two characters who have never been on stage at the same time - alone, with everyone else gone. There is peace, natural peace: harmony between Caliban, representing the island, because he is at last its king, and Ariel, who has been set free and is now simply the air, and the sea. So you could say that the stability is something that is always present in the opera, but which is revealed only at the end.

In The Tempest, with all those materials moving in different directions - if the notes have their own will, do the individual characters have will too?

Well, the characters don't exist without the material: when I say characters I'm talking about fifteen separate tendencies in the material, which are more or less related.

But I mean, you have events that have to happen in the story, so ...

Well, I have to create those events using my notes.

Is that different from writing instrumental music, where you can follow the will of the notes without inhibition, as opposed to an opera, where you know you have events coming up in the drama that will demand a certain type of music?

No - it's similar. You're more powerfully aware in opera of swimming from one sort of pole to another, but the poles become very important to one another. As Morton Feldman says about Beethoven: it's not so much how he gets into things that's interesting, it's how he gets out of them. That's very good. And an opera is really about getting out of things, that's what it is. You get these people in this situation and then: oh God, how are we going to get out of this? The notes have to do that too. How are we going to get off stage? How are we going to get home?

What is the principal difference between writing an opera and writing something else?

Well obviously it takes more time, it's longer. Aside from that there's the question of the scale of the gestures. There is a mysterious thing that happens when you set actions to music: a third shape that emerges when something nonvisual like a musical score is acted out by people moving on a stage. You know, to make this completely absurd thing watchable in any way, it's not that straightforward. There's no absolute way to do it. You just have to do it instinctivelyor not at all. Most of the time I sit there and watch operas and think: this is all absurd. Really we shouldn't all be here!

Are you trying to get past that?

No, that is the point, the more absurd, the more indefensible, the more it makes sense! Operas that are worthily about something, some idea or ideal, and that try to make a point, especially a political point, are just absurd in a bad way, in an off-putting way. Operas should instead be absurd in a way that is truer than reality. But that's just the most absurd form of something that is absurd from the start: music. Music should have no excuse, other than itself. Music is its own excuse.

So concerts are absurd too?

Oh, completely. What are we doing here? What are all those musicians doing? More so in opera, because you have this further absurdity of the supposed psychology of the characters on stage. I really want to do something where their psychology is not the important point. Because you can't just believe that these characters have a psychology of their own unless it is genuinely, unequivocally encoded in the music. Psychological problems in themselves are not really a strong enough force for musical structure. This is the root of my problem with Wagner.
But it's the opposite of a composer like Janáek, whom I love. In Jenfa, for example, the wicked stepmother throws the baby in the lake. And when this is discovered there is a huge reaction from the chorus. That's absurd because there is no baby and there is no lake. But they have to have thatreaction because there is a seismic harmonic event which creates the baby in the lake, and their reaction follows. The lighting and the direction have to follow the harmony too - to do what the music tells it, not the drama. Otherwise it's boring.

Can you expand on that? What about the power of Wagner's music to cause seismic events in something like Tristan und Isolde?

Well, I find that much less interesting than Janáek's operas about fate, in a way - because I think music in an opera should be a sort of fate that the characters are going to be subjected to.

But isn't that exactly what Tristan is about?

No! Because they're taking drugs, aren't they? It's artificial. They're not really that keen on each other. I can hear that in the music, it's inorganic.

But the music in Tristan - that's surely the fate that drives them, that they can't escape from?

Really ...

... I mean the whole thing is about an unstable situation from bar one which ends up in an image of stability which the whole thing is striving for and reaches only at the end of the piece - it's a place that they're all trapped in until the very end.

I don't know, I find it a bit too long.

I'm not defending it, necessarily, in those terms, but surely in Wagner the fate of the characters is in the music. Why doesn't Wagner do that for you?

It's too psychological. I'm thinking of The Ring more than Tristan, there's an awful lot of psychology in it which I find tedious. And naive, in a sort of superficial, German way. I mean, so much of Parsifal is dramatically absurd, which would be fine if the music was aware of the absurdity, but it is as if the whole piece is drugged and we all have to pretend that it's not entirely ridiculous. And it seems to me that a country that can take something as funny as Kundry seriously, this woman who sleeps for aeons and is only woken up by this horrible chord, a country that can seriously believe in anything like Parsifal without laughing, was bound to get into serious trouble.

You're obviously not convinced by the music?

I don't find Wagner's an organic, necessary art. Wagner's music is fungal. I think Wagner is a fungus. It's a sort of unnatural growth. It's parasitic in a sense - on its models, on its material. His material doesn't grow symphonically - it doesn't grow through a musical logic - it grows parasitically. It has a laboratory atmosphere.

What does it grow through, then?

It grows through an unhealthy perversion of early German mediaeval fairy tales and myth, which are wonderful things, you know, in their original forms. But in my view they need to be treated lightly, on the wing, rather than in thisgrotesquely inflated, bombastic, off-putting way. Admittedly if you take a few slices of fungus or of Wagner, perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, it's magnificent, you can't fault it. In fact you could say: quite clearly this is the best music of its time, perhaps he's even the best, most masterly composer ever. But when you put it together, one slice after another, it seems to me to have a sort of undead quality, a vampiric quality, because he animates these dramas by slices of marvellous music, but they don't build into something real. Wagner is a Golem.

People talk about them as symphonic operas, though, and celebrate them in exactly those terms, because of their fusion of 'symphonic' thinking with music theatre, creating his music dramas.

I think that's just because they don't have proper numbers, but that's just a kind of incompetence. He's quite weak on articulating an actual section of music. The reason is that Wagner is not interested in releasing the inherent, organic power - what I would mean by genuinely 'symphonic' power - of his (often magnificent) cells. It's just a pose. Good symphonies are often in some ways an unfolding sequence of miniatures. They have to go through miniature forms as they go along, and what bothers me with Wagner's music is that there's a pretence of some kind of symphonic thought where there actually isn't any, where none is possible because he can't trust himself. Instead, you just have these people - or elves or gods or whatever they are - marching about the stage and whacking each other with sticks. Berlioz, in Les Troyens, is much more successful to me. In that opera, you are clear that there are numbers, thatthere are actors in a drama, and that something is happening: obviously we're not actually in 1000 BC Troy, but we are taking part in a symphonic event in which specific things are happening and they are woven into a music which is in itself dramatically alive. The drama becomes more real because the artifice is more transparent.

The Wagnerian project was an attempt to get closer to psychological or emotional 'truth', by dissolving artifice, by dissolving the numbers - arias, choruses, duets - of earlier operatic traditions. The image you used for Chopin is like what happens in Wagner's music, surely, because you're swimming around in a pool where you don't know if there's a bottom.

Not at all: Chopin's pieces are exquisitely balanced - he will always begin it and finish it. The water is completely clear. For sure, you feel that you're in some endless vortex of some kind, but they are very definitely symphonic because there's a logic from the first note to the last, you just may not be able to parse exactly what the logic is. But in Wagner the logic is philosophical or psychological. It's not a musical logic. The water is murky. It's filthy. That's why it's like fungus. You see, to me, notes are like angels, they are innocent at the point of origin. But the moment Wagner writes a note it is forced to stand for something extra-musical. The metaphor is not a musical one.

But you say all music is metaphorical.

Yes, but not political. In Wagner every note is political and that to me is repulsive. Ethics are a distraction an artist cannot afford.

Every note in Wagner political? Is that unique to him?

He can't seem to help it. Wagner's notes seem to come into the world with badges on: 'I mean this, I mean that. I represent this issue, I broach that subject.' They are born wearing little uniforms. Or perhaps I should say, insignia. That's one of the reasons directors and writers can't leave his operas alone. It's catnip for them: wall-to-wall issues.

Yet you play the 'Prelude and Liebestod' from Tristan in Liszt's piano arrangement?

But I told you, Wagner does write wonderful slices, and of course Liszt is a much more interesting composer, although he was very disturbed by Wagner, in lots of ways, as was everybody. But Liszt disturbed Wagner even more. All the techniques of harmonic movement, the great inventions in Wagner, were actually invented by Liszt. Liszt's Faust Symphony made Tristan possible - I'm talking in strictly harmonic terms. Without it Tristan would not have been possible.

Are you disturbed by the human side of Wagner?

I don't know anything about that. I really don't. I'm sure I would be, but I'm not interested. There are such magnificent heights of invention in his music, but I like very much something Proust wrote about the effort involved in getting there (and Proust was a fan): he wrote that at such heights, one had to expect a certain amount of engine noise.
When I talk about Wagner's 'fungal' quality, by the way, I'm talking about something quite technical: his music isn't a tree, it's a fungus.

Whereas janáek, by contrast, is a fully organic tree?

Yes, Janáek's music is organic - a flower that blooms, because the sap of the feeling in the music is there from the very beginning and that's what drives it, rather than some creepy philosophical agenda. Janáek's response to what is happening in the drama is so direct in the music: I think there's nothing but response and music in it. There's nothing external. You don't have to wait in Janáek for things to happen, as you do in Wagner, while he does something seductive for half an hour.

So when you are watching an opera, you want to feel that there are organic things in the music that are driving everything along? But what if the story is one of violent disruption?

This can be misunderstood: when I say 'organic', I don't exclude violent dislocations. The dislocations are just as much part of the organic process. It's like pruning a tree. You often have to cut to preserve the life of the plant. That's like what Janáek does: in his operas, a process peremptorily stops dead yet the energy is still transferred to what happens next in some mysterious way. That could be what gives the music its power, those cuts and hard juxtapositions. That's organic too. There's no contradiction. Every idea is presented with its maximum force. That seems to me more completely evolved, more arrived, than in any nineteenth-century opera, except Les Troyens.
I'm analytically interested in the piano music of Janáek, because you see a move there from the early works, which are quite close to Schumann's pieces, basically binary in form, rather predictable in a way. Like Schumann, they're sweet, but not quite professional in a way -

Hold on - Schumann's aren't professional?

They're not really on the level of Chopin or somebody. They just seem like someone a little bit academic in his thinking, as opposed to a professional composer - but that's a digression - back to Janáek ... In his next pieces, like Along an Overgrown Path, Janáek will refract things, very simply, by a knight's move in the harmony. What that creates is a sort of dislocation, a shuttering in the structural image, that is very like putting a pencil in the water: instead of seeing a straight line, you see a line moving across in waves and ripples. And with that you step into the moment, you step into his moment. It becomes very real, it becomes the present tense of your actual experience. It's a magical effect.
The more I think about the title of that piece, Along an Overgrown Path, I realise that it's a Proustian thing. Janáek wants to recapture the distant past, which is no longer there, the moment has vanished. But, once, the path was not overgrown. The music is the memories, which are still alive. It's the same with In the Mists: that is a very exciting structure. All of Janáek's pieces are, really. In a way you could look at them and say they are all just ABA ABCA ABACA, very simple binary or tertiary structures.
But you realise with Janáek that when he says something twice it's immediately different the second time, because of where it is in the structure. You feel that time has passed. There may even have been a modulation that makes the tonic feel like a memory. And I think that's why, in Janáek's operas, his characters move through time in the music. There's nothing in his music that's pretending to create an external form: what the music is doing is taking the moment you're listening to and making that the exact samemoment it would have been when he was listening to it. So you perceive the reality of time: that it's vertical rather than horizontal and you can look down into the past.
I said before that one often tends to create an illusion of stability in a piece that leads to the end. But in Janáek, this can work the other way round. He'll take one moment, and show you the inner instability in that moment, and then hold that as a sort of frozen moment of emotion, of pain or apprehension, and freeze it in time. And the ramifications of several of those moments placed next to one another are then only revealed on the last page. In that piece, In the Mists, nothing changes, but you're aware that every time the silence comes back, and he tries another doorway, it transforms from being a phenomenon that opens a new possibility to something that closes the structure. Yet the material doesn't change. There's no rhetoric in a way. So thereby Janáek rediscovers a kind of classical purity. Haydn can do that, and Beethoven can do that, but it's a thing that was almost lost in the middle of the nineteenth century. There was that attempt to create an illusion of revelation and redemption through music that possibly diverted something quite fundamental about what we're doing when we write a note.

You mean the move in the Austro-German works of the nineteenth century towards making music enact a form of redemption, and thereby create a sort of transcendent metaphysics: that whole project, in your terms, comes at the expense of something essential in the musical material, meaning that it no longer has an existence as an object in itself?

Well, no: some marvellous music, some of the greatest, like Beethoven's Ninth, for goodness' sake, is a form ofcomposed redemptive action. But later, perhaps when the redemption becomes more enacted than actually composed, that's the moment when one wants to step back. It's simply less interesting to me. That's why, say, a Mahler symphony can be so embarrassing. Because he's so keen to make whatever his point is that you sometimes wonder whether he's stopped being interested in what he's actually putting on paper. Put it like this: there's an embarrassment between the job the music's being asked to do and its qualifications for doing that job. The material is so relentlessly banal that it must be deliberate. There is almost no really good, original material in Mahler. There's a huge amount of cheap, automatic trash - I'm talking very specifically about the material, the melodies, the images.

You're talking about the street music, the popular tunes?

The problem is bad faith, because Mahler is quite clearly a composer of the utmost sophistication. One only has to look at the songs. It is almost as though he holds his own talent so cheap that there is a kind of self-loathing, as if by expressing himself in the grandest symphonic context using melodies that are the musical equivalent of street food, hot dogs, pretzels, he will avoid saying something too weighty, almost. He gets round it by being doggedly sarcastic, by which I mean brilliant orchestration, intense staging, dazzling effects of perspective, but really there's an evasiveness there.
It's hard to use material like that convincingly in concert music: trashy material. Someone like Poulenc I think succeeds, but there isn't such a distance there between the artist and the source as one feels in Mahler. But for me themost successful example is the barrel-organ music in the final scene of Lulu: it is at once something literally external, heard outside the window in the street in King's Cross, and outside the serial environment that we are living in, but at the same time woven entirely into the web so that it belongs to the supremely intricate universe Berg has created. There is a total unity between the highest and lowest material.

You resist the idea of a resurrection in music, or of hymns for the whole world, those sorts of ideas in Mahler's symphonies?

The subject-matter is a decoy to distract from the banality of the material. The Eighth Symphony particularly is terribly weak. God knows what it's supposed to be about - Jesus, Faust, some nonsense. That's an embarrassing piece. It's as though one's seeing him naked in public. And he looks like a phoney. But then, on the other hand, when he embraces and celebrates the futility of his life and his music, it's much more successful, for me. The Sixth Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, and especially the Ninth Symphony. Because his material suits futility.
The Ninth Symphony is really the beginning of something, for me. As well as being the end, for him. The rest of Mahler seems like a preparation for it. He finally stops evading.

Isn't the embarrassment rather more like seeing the vanity of his compositional ambition naked, not him, in the Eighth symphony?

What's the difference? It's exposing to see the compositional vanity not working. But - in another way - good for him.Grand failures are preferable to sneaky successes, aren't they? It may be just a national characteristic of mine. In England we tend not to accept things at face value. We have a very highly developed nose for phoniness. We won't just accept something as sublime or whatever just because it tells us it is. But it's also very British of me to blame myself for being embarrassed at someone else's ludicrousness.
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