ADES Life Story and other Music. Various/Ades (EMI)
ADES Life Story and other Music. Various/Ades (EMI)
|Thomas ADES (b.1971)Life Story
Thomas Ades. pianoa
The music world has certainly not overlooked this prodigous talent. At 17, he composed Five Elliot Landscapes, now dubbed his opus 1. At 18, his Chamber Symphony was played at a Cambridge Festival and later taken up by the BBC Philharmonic. At age 21, Ads played Still Sorrowing in London’s Purcell Room. On graduating from Cambridge, he joined the Hall Orchestra as Resident Composer. In 1993, Living Toys was written for the London Sinfonietta and has since toured the world. Ads’ first opera Powder her Face (EMI Debut CDS5 56649-2) has been a phenomenal success.
Here is a young composer who has won accolades and acclaim which took predecessors like Adams, Crumb and Corigliano a lifetime to accumulate. Don’t get me wrong, my respect for the latter contemporary composers are as great, if not greater. But this is a new kid on the block who will almost certainly achieve the same greatness in time, in my humble opinion.
EMI’s Debut series continues to feature entire albums of Thomas Ads’ works and performances. In addition to Powder Her Face, Living Toys (EMI Debut CDZ 5 72271-2) is a collection of orchestral music while Life Story is a collection of chamber music.
Catch (1991), I suspect from the liner notes, is a peformance piece as much as a chamber composition. Onstage, a violin, cello and piano lure a clarinet to join them. The clarinet, attracted, thrice walks in from offstage, twice escapes their cajolements, but at last, with expressive music at first soft then jubilant, is caught. In the final bar it takes a seat with them.
This first piece gives away Ads’s peculiar sound, and that element of randomness and a seemingly improvisatory nature in his work. Though it sounds fairly random, there is a definite sophistication in the construction of the work. The raucous nature of the game of “catch” is depicted by syncopated rhythms and the apparently arbitrary entrances. One memorable moment occurs a third of the way into the piece when the offstage clarinet sings a longing melody before being led into the game again. The final “expressive” passage is simply beautiful, recapitulating that same clarinet theme in a meditative manner.
Darkness Visible (1992) and Still Sorrowing (1991-1992) feature Ads himself on the piano, demonstrating his mastery of the instrument. The composer is certainly no average pianist, and the rigorous demands of his own compositions are met with superb technique and a good sense of musicality and drama.
Darkness Visible is a rapt recomposition of Dowland’s song “In darknesse let me dwell”, and was first performed by the composer in Liszt’s house in Budapest in 1992. Here Ads explores the sonorities of the piano using the extremes of its range, innovative application of tremolos, contrasting dynamics and tone clusters in a rich harmonic language.
Still Sorrowing is unique in its use of a tampered piano (haha) – that is, with a strip of Blu-Taktm applied to the central range of the piano strings. This results in a unique, dull sound that to my ear sounds like hitting tuned bamboo columns. Above and below this, he uses throbbing bass and sparkling treble of the high notes on the keyboard. This is quite an amazing sound that one must hear in order to fully appreciate.
Traced Overhead (1996) is the most recent work on this disc, and surprisingly, this extended piano piece is devoid of any of the fancy devices employed in the prior works. It is a far more mature pianistic work by more traditional standards, one which the liner notes say is “Chopinesque” in its Romantic deployment of arabesques, chorales and cantilenas. I don’t actually hear this myself, but the marked difference in the sound between the three pieces is remarkable, as if the composer refuses to be confined to one particular style.
One of the interesting oddities in this potpurri of chamber music is Under Hamelin Hill (1992), described as an exuberant invention for chamber organ. Personally, I’ve never heard this type of music for organ before and thus found this particlarly interesting. In three movements, the first, Preambulum, is a sort of a moto perpetuo for the right hand accompanied by strange rhythms on the left. In the the Fuga, the organist is joined by two others as if the first organist is the pied piper of folklore, drawing people by the “piping”. The final Arietta is a gloomy “descending sigh” with rumbling in the lower registers. Quite spooky, but not my cup of tea.
Finally, the song cycle, Five Elliot Landscapes (1990), Ads’ opus no.1. It is the youthful composer’s bizarre responses to colourful “minor poems” of T.S. Eliot. Each of the five settings is unique, and hides away ingenuities and witty references – the work of a prodigious child. The second song “Virginia” is a personal favourite, beginning with an anguished cry and moving in a strange way. It’s certainly not easy to sing with extended lines on the high registers and strange sounding vocal effects. The final movement “Cape Ann” bears the inscription “Hommge Messiaen”, and evokes birdsong (a reference to the French composer’s Catalogue of Birds).
Above/Right: “The Endless Enigma” (1938) by Salvador Dali.
The title track Life Story (1994) is based on Tennessee Williams’ poem from “Winter of Cities”. A stark and morbid text about a one-night stand gone wrong (or as Ads calls it “a tragic snapshot of desperation”), it is a cool, disturbing setting for soprano, two bass clarinets and double bass. Here, it is heard in Ads’ trenchant piano version. In a way, this is in the tradition of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of ’69, just more unnerving. Here’s a quote from the poem to give you an idea of what I mean.
This excellent collection of chamber works is a must-buy, and probably the only recorded performances of this music so far. The fact that the Debut series is at budget-price should be a further incentive. This is going to become a collector’s item in time – get it while it’s still on the shelves (esp. with EMI’s genocidal tendencies with its catalogue). This is beautiful music, above and beyond the fact that it is modern. Who says modern music can’t be beautiful anyway?
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500: 1999 ©Adrian Tan
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