Thomas Adès (London, United Kingdom, 1971) studied piano with Paul Berkowitz and composition with Robert Saxton at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He went on to read music at King’s College, Cambridge where he was taught by composers Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. His catalogue comprises almost ninety works spanning music for chamber orchestra and ensemble, orchestra, the stage (opera, ballet, orchestra and chorus …), voice and solo instruments. He has been Composer in Association for the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, Music Director of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, Artistic Partner to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
An internationally acclaimed composer, among his scores are 2004’s The Tempest, an opera commissioned by the Royal Opera House, London, where it had its premiere, followed by performances at Opéra National du Rhin (Strasbourg, France) and Copenhagen Opera House (Denmark); Tevot (2007), commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, and In Seven Days (piano concerto with moving image), premiered in 2008 in London and Los Angeles. In the months of April and May this year, his music will be performed as far and wide as Tongyeong (South Korea), Chicago, Boston, New York and Los Angeles (United States), Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth (Australia), Paris (France), Manchester (United Kingdom) and Bamberg (Germany), among other cities. The list of concert halls and festivals that have programmed retrospectives of his work range from the Stockholm Festival in Sweden to the Melbourne Festival in Australia, by way of the New Horizons Festival in St. Petersbourg, Russia.
The citation highlights “the communicative capacity of his music, which connects transversally with diverse audiences while opening up future horizons” through “an extensive catalogue of compositions that comprises all genres: symphonic, piano, chamber music, ballet and opera.” These qualities, it continues, “along with his intensive activities as a pianist and conductor, make him an essential reference in today’s musical scene. Adès, who has a deep knowledge of the Western musical tradition, shows great interest in its reinterpretation, incorporating elements from the most diverse musical sources.”
One of the keys to his connection with audiences, says Victor García de Gomar, committee secretary and Artistic Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, is “his ability to combine contemporary compositional techniques with the resources needed to restore feeling and expressiveness to the musical stage. He returns music to its natural space, the ear, creating a perfect harmony between ear and mind. It is this gift that makes his music so intensely modern, employing a language that connects with the affections, entwining the rational with the emotional. Creating music that needs to be expressed, not just performed.”
A definition in which the awardee sees himself reflected, as he remarked in an interview granted minutes after hearing of the award: “Feeling is a supreme part of being an artist. I believe the rational mind must be left behind in order to make something new. Of course the rational side has to be involved as you go along, but for me in reality feeling and reason are not two separate things. When I’m working, I just work mostly by instinct and a sort of survival to get from one point to the next. So sometimes I balance what you might call rational ideas or processes with instinctive things, that may be how it seems from the outside. I’m just very moved and touched that this has been felt by listeners. This kind of recognition is very rare and very encouraging and inspiring in our field.”
Spanish composer Francisco Coll was taken on as Adès’ only composition student. After four years studying with him, Coll is convinced that one of the distinguishing features of his teacher’s work is the balance he achieves between the intellectual, knowledge side and the emotional side that connects with the public. “Thomas is all about the idea that music should be complex to write – as his is, in its technique as well as its inspiration – and easy to listen to. Rhythmically, his work is extremely rich and complex, but the result seems to breathe simplicity.”
“Music is the ideal art form to push the frontiers of knowledge”
At the age of 12, Thomas Adès visited Bilbao with his mother, an art historian specializing in surrealism and fascinated by Dalí’s painting. The experience, he recalls, was a complete revelation: “Spain was the first foreign country I ever visited. I remember it really well because it was the late 1970s and we sailed from somewhere along the south coast of England, and I’ve never forgotten feeling like an Atlantic explorer, however ridiculous that sounds. For the child in me that was a moment of wonder, to arrive somewhere so dramatically different. Perhaps that is why it means so much to me, a symbol for the horizon, like Cortes discovering the Pacific. And that is something I always keep in mind while working, the idea of sailing towards an unknown horizon.”
This twin influence, of Spanish culture and Surrealism, is vividly present throughout Adès’ career. Drawing on the imagery of surrealism, Coll explains: “We all know what a fly and an elephant are, but Dalí created elephants with the legs of flies, that is to say, he took recognizable everyday elements and presented them in an original way. And that’s what Thomas does with music, at a more abstract level. He takes a chaconne, a waltz or a tango –familiar rhythms that the public connects with – but remakes them in a wholly original way.”
Adès himself explains it thus. “Surrealism feels very natural to me,” he agrees, “I see reality in my own way. And there is something there that is common to all of us; we can all see the elephant or the fly. What I do is to listen very hard to my own internal ear, but then comes a moment like this, when your receive recognition, and it’s a great honor and a wonderful feeling.”
Before he came of age, Adès had already completed his Opus No. 1, Five Eliot Landscapes, and spent time in Hungary studying the piano in chamber music with György Kurtág (Frontiers laureate in the 7th edition of the awards). He then went on to read music at King’s College, Cambridge.
A few years later, in 1995, he premiered the first of his operas, Powder Her Face, deploying a broad palette of stylistic influences synthesized in his music: from Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky up to and including the tangos of Astor Piazzolla. This piece has since been staged on some two hundred occasions in opera houses round the world.
In 1997 he received a commission from Simon Rattle that one year later became the symphonic work Asyla, premiered at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with Rattle himself at the helm. In this piece, Adès incorporated structures, patterns and rhythms taken from techno, one of the electronic dance styles in vogue in the nineties. ”When you want to turn one object into another” he reflects, regarding his musical influences, “music is completely plastic in that way; you can transform things at will. It’s very much the way my mind works, so all my music could be described as surrealistic; to me that’s normal, it’s the way I think. I try to see beyond the physical to think how it might be altered. You can do that with music because it is made of air. It might be the freest of all the art forms in that respect. So if you are talking about pushing the frontiers of knowledge, music is a good art form to choose.”
Along with Asyla, the committee mentions “milestones of contemporary music such as In Seven Days (2008), Polaris (2011), Tevot (2007) and other compositions that are already mainstays of the concert repertoire.” And among these milestones are his various operas, as committee chair Maestro Pedro Halffter points out.
“Writing an opera is like being pulled into a black hole”
Powder Her Face was followed by The Tempest, premiered at the Royal Opera House, London, in 2004. This production would bring Adès even higher levels of popular and critical acclaim, as well as the recognition of his peers, including a Grammy award in 2014. “Writing an opera,” he says, “is like being pulled into a black hole. It absorbs everything.” Hence his decision, for the moment, to concentrate on smaller works. “At the same time, I’m always thinking about the subject of my next opera, though in truth the idea usually chooses you, not the other way round.”
In his latest opera, The Exterminating Angel (2016), he weaves soundscapes from the oppressive atmosphere that Luis Buñuel conjures in his film The Exterminating Angel, using the ostinato technique (a succession of bars containing a note sequence that is repeated in each bar throughout a song) to represent the passage where the protagonists enter a room which they then cannot leave. This work has been performed, with great success, at the MET in New York, at Covent Garden in London and at the Salzburg Festival. It was also the motive of Maestro Adès’ visit to Spain in March this year, when he conducted the symphonic version of The Exterminating Angel in its Spanish premiere (the piece was commissioned by the Orquesta Nacional de España and another seven international institutions, including Carnegie Hall).
“When I conduct my music,” he reflects, “it’s a very good opportunity to help the composer I am to communicate. I enjoy that side of it, because I can mold the clay of my own works. I’ve also been very lucky to have great conductors playing my music. But I enjoy it very much because the process of writing can feel endlessly slow, but when I’m conducting the hard work is behind me and I get close to that feeling of freedom and forward motion”.
“Composing,” Adès continues, “is essentially a solitary activity when you spend endless hours and days and weeks at home working on this score. The score is really just a map of a soundscape or, if you like, a blueprint for a vehicle, which is going to be the piece and that only really comes to life in performance. So when I go out into the real world to conduct the piece, I am able to present it in a way that, I suppose, is the more idealized way, and I can show with my gestures, I hope as best I can, how I intend these sounds to be. And, of course, it’s nice for me as someone with an intensely solitary job, to spend time with people, with actual musicians. I love that moment when the sounds that till then only existed in my head, and I then transferred to a sort of code on paper, make contact with somebody holding a violin or hitting a drum. And if I’m conducting, I can say, actually, could you hit it here rather than there, or could you play the violin slightly more like this? I can get as close as I can, in the time available, to what I want.”
His fourth major stage work is the ballet Dante, premiered last year at the Royal Opera House, with a recorded version due out later this month, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In it, Adès gives his own reading of the Divine Comedy, by the classical poet, which is also an undisguised tribute. “The three ballets of Dante,” the awardee explains, “have completely different musical worlds. Liszt is my kind of guide to the inferno. Some of the music there is a sort of ventriloquism through Liszt’s music, although of course some of it is completely my own. Paradiso is my own rather pure geometry, a timeless geometry that I wanted to build … When you read Dante, it feels timeless. It doesn’t feel like reading 13th century poetry, it feels both modern and ancient. And he himself is writing about something that has no era; on one page you have Aristotle and on the same page you have someone alive at the time. So there is a feeling of falling out of calendar time. That is what I wanted to convey with the music. That you could fall into it from any era and it would feel current.”