Thomas Adès: ‘I thought I was Tchaikovsky, tortured and in pain, and I listened to his music thinking he was teased for being gay’
February 16, 2011
Composing, says Thomas Adès in a friend’s New York loft, is “essentially a weird, physical compulsion you do on your own. You just have to do it. It’s almost pathological. If I didn’t I would become impossible, unmanageable, a gibbering wreck wandering the streets muttering wildly. It’s like getting rid of a nervous twitch. I can’t live in this world unless I’m creating music.”
Adès, 39, one of the world’s leading composers — and, increasingly, a renowned pianist and conductor — is passionate but also private: he rarely gives interviews, having felt misrepresented in an early one which depicted him as arrogant. Imposing but still boyish, he scrunches up and guffaws when we get personal, or edge near controversial topics; strange when you consider this charismatic star made his name at 24 with a first opera, Powder Her Face, that featured the scandalous Duchess of Argyll and fellatio. He prefers his “family” or “children” — his pieces — “speak for themselves”, but today will open up about the state of classical music teaching, the exacting nature of his work, why only self-possessed mavericks succeed, his relationship with his partner and collaborator Tal Rosner, and his plans for a new opera, his third, based on a classic Luis Buñuel film.
We meet the day after the New York premiere of Adès’s piano concerto, In Seven Days, which Adès performed himself, with a video by Rosner and accompanied by a “hell for leather” New York Philharmonic. On the same night it was announced that his second opera, an adaptation of The Tempest, would play at the Metropolitan Opera, his debut there. After we meet he staged (with a video by Rosner) his piece Polaris for the opening of Frank Gehry’s much-hailed New World Centre in Miami. “The whole thing was dazzling,” he later e-mails. “The hall has more technology, video and capabilities than probably all the classical concert halls in the world put together.”
Adès’s schedule is intimidatingly packed. On March 12 the Emerson String Quartet will stage the world premiere of The Four Quarters at the Carnegie Hall in New York, about the day unfolding in four corners of the world (coming to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on April 7). With the London Sinfonietta, there will also be a national tour; concerts at the Southbank Centre (at the Festival Hall on Friday and QEH on March 10) will feature In Seven Days, Steve Reich’s rarely performed Tehillim, plus a world premiere of a Gerald Barry work. “I love Steve Reich,” Adès says. “He’s a great artist, he’s created his own world, apart in a wonderful way. I’d like to move more into abstraction — to write something without a title but everyone understands it, which might be impossible.” Adès and the Sinfonietta will also be touring In Seven Days and Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians to Birmingham (March 11), having played in Glasgow last Sunday.
“Being a composer comes first,” Adès says. “I’m not confident with being a public figure, why anyone would care what I said about anything. I have to look after my family — my pieces — and I do it in isolation. If I was going around being all public, my pieces would go ‘Daaaad’. I would embarrass them and myself. I don’t matter, they do.” Of course, he says, he has “opinions, political views and flawed thoughts, but I’m not someone who can express it in words. I’m not a great writer or painter. I may not be great anything, but I say what I want to say in music.”
Classical music, he says, takes a while to find “its place” in history, and he doesn’t want to feel “trapped” by his past. “Powder My Face had this headline-grabby element to it, but it was only one part of its design. Maybe I’m self-deluded but I didn’t think the fellatio would end up being the whole point. It was around the time of Monica Lewinsky and her dress.” Was there a temptation to carry on raising the sensationalist bar? “I didn’t want to start playing that game,” Adès says.
Critics don’t bother him: “Nobody has the power to affect an artist’s motivation. You can’t let those things get in the way. The dog barks, the caravan passes on. I care about making my pieces intelligible.” But to be famous so young must have been a pressure. “When I was 19, starting out, I learnt if one person didn’t get my idea to brush it aside. I wanted my music to be heard.” He guffaws. “I’m not famous. We all know what ‘famous’ is. Now people are famous without possessing a distinctive talent. That’s fine by me. Haha.” He pauses. “You see, I can’t trust myself to say the right thing. I’m worried I’ll say something completely barking.”
Adès grew up in Hampstead, North London, with a linguist and an art historian as parents, the eldest of three boys, all close. How was he as a boy? “Fat,” Adès guffaws. “I would read tortured books and tortured philosophy and feel tortured but not be that tortured. I would probably have been called pretentious because I walked around with copies of Ulysses. I didn’t understand every word, but I had spurts of trying to. I sometimes had the sense of having a good brain and sometimes wanted to stare at the sky. When physical activity was mentioned, I became a bit dicky. I loathed rugby and wondered why anyone would put themselves through the cold and mud.”
His father was a classical musician: “He played clarinet and sings a lot, he’s a wonderful bass.” The piano was Adès’s first instrument: “My right hand got rather good at it and I was playing Liszt by 10, but my left hand couldn’t be bothered. I used to make little programmes for my parents, then somebody realised that if I was going to go anywhere with it, I’d have to use both hands, so I started having lessons.”
Adès was thrown out of class for not paying attention and had a “funny relationship with truancy”, but got As for everything. “If I had a child who said they wanted to be a composer, I’d say, ‘It’s not going to work out’, but my parents were brilliant: they let me go for it.” He attended the junior Guildhall, and was “voracious” in creating compositions, inspired by “everything, particularly anything with some whacking in it, anything that could be hit, blown or scraped. I’ve always loved percussion” (evident in his second major piece, Asyla, which was partly inspired by club music).
Adès knew he was gay from a young age. “It was pretty tough, it can be very distressing if you think you are the only one. You create this scenario where it’s this huge tragic burden. It’s not like talking about a food you don’t like. It’s about sex. I thought I was Tchaikovsky, tortured and in pain, and listened to his music — all that misery and desperation — and thinking it was because he was teased for being gay. Now I think he was probably having a riotous time.”
The writer Philip Hensher once described Adès’s charismatic presence at Cambridge (where he achieved a double-starred first in music) as akin to “Mahler on the streets of Vienna”. That elicits another Adès guffaw. “I didn’t feel particularly brilliant so I worked extra hard. I talked to an interviewer freely about Mozart, and he thought I was comparing myself to Mozart, which would obviously be mad. That’s when I withdrew. If my personality was going to be an obstacle, there was no point putting myself out there.”
How does he compose? “Bum on the chair, ha ha ha. Pencil, paper, write notes down. A lot of the time it might be a scrap of an idea, three or four notes that I put on paper and can’t see what do with. I pin it to the wall and wait for something to happen. By the end, the wall looks like a beautiful nightmare. Some of it has gone in, some ends up in the bin, some goes into a new piece. It sounds chaotic, but I instinctively know where page 47 is. If I didn’t, the world would come to an end.”
He cannot name a most significant or meaningful piece: “It’s like asking to name my favourite child, they all are. But with each one, it’s been like Alice in Wonderland, opening doors, taking sips from bottles that say ‘Drink me’. Polaris was unusual because it bought together two typically warring elements: what I want from the material and where the material wants to go.” Tevot, written for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2007, was a piece critics said marked a new maturity. America — A Prophecy, which he composed at the turn of the millennium, is his “joker in the pack”. Written before 9/11, it was “very, very spooky and horrific” watching it assume such cultural significance.
His thirties were a period he laughingly calls his “teenage years”: after composing The Tempest, his second opera, in 2003, he “went out and saw the world”. Adès and Rosner met through friends six years ago and had a civil partnership in 2006. “That’s been great. It’s opened up all sorts of doors: legal protections and, for Tal, citizenship rights.” Has the relationship changed him? “I’m sure it has, but it’s hard to say how. I feel different every day.” He roars. “I’m a Pisces. I know some people are more stable. I’m up-and-downsey. When something works it’s wonderful; when it doesn’t it’s a great big black cloud.”
Has he had therapy? “No. I think that thing of a person not being aware of their problem but it being very apparent to everyone else applies to me. I don’t want to know.” He wonders if he is bipolar. “That’s how we talk about it now, if we were Elizabethan we’d say ‘the humours’ or ‘melancholia’. I just know it as being human. I’m fortunate not to be clinically anything. There are parts of my personality which correspond to autism. It all makes me the musician I am.”
Adès’s third opera is “finally beginning to form after having copyright issues”, he reveals; he has completed drafts of the libretto and “scraps” of music to his version of Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, about a party where guests are prevented from leaving by an unseen force. “By the end they’re throwing themselves at the door. It’s a sort of entropy, and for me stands for that sense of ‘I’ve been meaning to do that for ages’ but never getting around to it.” The film unpeels the perverse mystery that has kept them trapped. Adès jokes that “we’ve all been to parties like that”, but says the opera’s truth is more profound: “I recognise that door. Writing an opera is like that — you get to a point which you can’t get beyond. You have to get through it.” The opera will premiere at the Salzburg Festival in four years, he hopes, then come to Covent Garden.
Adès is also writing a song cycle for this year’s Proms deriving from a medieval German text about “how death comes to us and that’s not depressing. I think about mortality all the time.” As for turning 40 next month, “I keep thinking, ‘Oh god I’m so old’, then realise I have friends who are twice my age.” Since he was a young composer, he thinks he has become more patient “and patience is something I don’t naturally have”.
His career seems gilded, some have said cosseted. Adès roars. “I haven’t had terrible illness or privation, but these pieces don’t get written because I was lucky in my upbringing. They get written because I crack the whip with myself. It’s hard work, sitting down writing. It’s annoying when people say that about me, because it’s like saying it does itself and it doesn’t. I wish it did.”
Is classical music being taught properly to children? Adès demurs to answer, then says, abruptly: “I’d be very surprised if it was. Classical music is seen as luxury and elitist and that’s stupid: everyone loses. There should be more of it in schools. It would be nice to get rid of that fear of it being ‘difficult’. Children are not stupid. They don’t need to be spoon-fed something and told it’s simpler than it is. I sound like an old codger, but I wish everyone could be taught how to write music rather than have a microphone shoved into their hand and told to sing.
“I can’t stand The X Factor because it celebrates people not doing something well being told they are. It’s unfair to tell children they are all equally talented because it’s not true. I got great things from my teachers, but when you’re trying to forge your way you’re saying, ‘No, it should be like this.’ You’re resisting your teachers and risk them thinking you’re an a-hole or an idiot. I got shouted at at school: ‘Why are you being so idle, why can’t you concentrate?’ I was trying to work out what the truth was for me. The truly talented will do what they do, despite everyone and everything.”
For such a reticent man, that’s some rallying call and cri-de-coeur. His audiences, Adès says, are “like me. People don’t want to be given what they want. They want to find whole worlds they didn’t know they could want.” He laughs again, rather soberly this time.