In Paris, this first week of October is dedicated to British composer Thomas Adès. On Monday 4 October, at the Fondation Vuitton, he was heard both as a pianist, in a duo with the violinist Pekka Kuusisto, in a Janáček-Stravinsky-Ravel programme, completed by his sonata for violin and piano, Märchentänze, in a world premiere; on Friday 8 October, at the Maison de la Radio, he will conduct Janáček's Mládí and Sinfonietta, as well as two of his works in a French premiere: his Piano Concerto and The Exterminating Angel Symphony.
You celebrated your fiftieth birthday a few months ago. Do you feel there has been an evolution in your work and can you divide your career into various moments ?
Yes, I do think so. I can feel that more clearly than anyone else because the world has not heard much of the music I have written over the last years and months for obvious reasons. Starting tonight, I’ve got six world premieres in over a month. It’s extraordinary, but all the cancelled concerts are arriving now. As for my way of composing, it does not work in a straight line, in the sense that sometimes I go back to see if I left something valuable which I could use now. You can always pick up the threads and create something completely different.
At the beginning, who were your models ? Did you try to imitate any composer ? Has your pantheon changed with time ?
Stravinsky is a very obvious name, and Sibelius is also one of my favourite composers. I reckon my enthusiasms are surprisingly constant, as many of them have stayed absolutely where they were. Some people are very lucky, they immediately find their own way, but that’s actually pretty rare. So much progress can be made by imitating something and getting it wrong. It is a process of discovering that this other thing is not who you are. I did not try to imitate the « gods », because it is useless and you are going to be like Prometheus if you steal their fire, you will be lashed to a rock. A more positive way of thinking is ton consider, for instance, that Beethoven had the same a problem, he also wondered what to do with this idea: how did he deal with it? I should not imitate someone else’s music, but see how somebody much better than me could solve a problem, and perhaps I can solve this problem in a similar way.
You also have a strong admiration for Janáček. Does it influence the way you write piano music ?
Janáček’s piano sound is unique, not simply because of the way he thought of the piano; it partly comes from the fact that his music in general is so alive, like little animals which are speech patterns. He made the piano do what it had never done before, he almost accidentally gave it those extraordinary colours. The same is true of his orchestration, it never ever sounds like anything that was written before. What strikes me in Janáček’s music is its sincerity. When some people speak, you instantly know by their voice that it is coming from the heart. Take the Sinfonietta we are doing in Paris, and which sounds so simple: there was just nothing like it before, there has been nothing like it since.
What can you tell us about your Piano Concerto which will have its Parisian premiere next Friday?
It is my first piece which is actually called Piano Concerto, but in some way it’s my third. When I was about about 25, I wrote a piece for piano and ten musicians, called Concerto Conciso, then I did In Seven Days, a piece for piano and orchestra, which is a piano concerto all but in name. But this time, the piano concerto is the subject matter itself, the classic form gives its structure to the piece.
You sometimes use uncommon instruments in your works : Ondes Martenot and very small violins for The Exterminating Angel, for instance, or even very high notes for the sopranos. Is it some kind of a signature for you?
I try to use what I need. I like to use analog instruments, in other words not to invent them on a computer, because I fear that would be unleashing another world which I basically don’t understand the rules of. The Ondes Martenot is the nearest I came to the electronic, but it’s a voice really. It’s what I hear, what I feel in my body when I write, something which is very extreme. When I use a very low bass clarinet, for instance, it is because I feel almost emotionally that I need that sound.
Between 1994 and 2016, you composed Powder Her Face, The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel. Why so few operas?
You could say I’ve written as many as three! A lot of people only wrote one, Alban Berg only managed to write two. For me, an opera is once a decade. Writing an opera involves all your creative physical energy. Really, it’s like a black hole, it pulls everything into it, it just sucks everything in. For the spectator, the experience of an opera should be the discovery of a whole universe. So I must say, I feel like three is plenty.
Do you deliberately limit the number of operas you write, or is it a question of finding the right libretto, the right conditions ?
Writing an opera is a bit like pregnancy. It is exhausting. Another metaphor would be one of those plants that flowers once every ten years, it has a pace, it can’t be rushed.
So you do not exclude another flowering in the next decade ?
I’ve just written three ballets. The thing I’ve neglected is chamber music. I’ve just written my first piece of chamber music in ten years, largely because of the operas and larger works. I am very happy to turn back to chamber music.
Concerning your two grand operas, did they start with a commission from an opera house or did you already have your own idea?
In both cases, the opera was already there as an idea. In the case of The Tempest I had been looking for a subject that might work at some level, Shakespeare’s play came to my mind and I thought « Actually I think I could do it », I realized the subject matter would allow me to do things which I had not already done. Same thing with The Exterminating Angel, I saw in Bunuel’s film something which might chime with my music, with my muse, if you like, and the Salzburg festival popped the question on just the right time. I am not working any new opera at the moment. However, The Exterminating Angel will have a new production, in Paris, actually; we are talking about casting, it’s in about three years time, I think. I am very excited and I want to give that some time of my own.
Will you be working with some of the same singers ? Christine Rice was your first Miranda and she came back in The Exterminating Angel, and Audrey Luna is now quite associated with your work.
I will be working with Audrey again, and also the wonderful Frédéric Antoun, he sang Caliban in Quebec. And he is coming back to sing in The Tempest at La Scala in November 2022. We shall also have Toby Spence at La Scala, who is somewhat unique in having sung three different parts in The Tempest over some twenty years : in 2004, he was part of the premiere in London as Ferdinand, then he was Antonio at the Met, and he will be doing King Alonso in La Scala.
Do you write with specific voices in mind?
It happens sometimes that I write for some singers and I have their voices in my head. I very much want to write a song cycle. Of course it is not enough to like a poem, the words also have to offer all the right ingredients to be set to music. For several years, I have been looking at some great poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, and I keep thinking: Yes, now I can do it.
So you could use other languages than English?
I already did it, actually. In 2013, I wrote a long piece in German for two solo voices and orchestra called Totentanz. I’ve written a song in Hungarian, Gyöker on a poem by Miklós Radnóti. Apollinaire obviously I would set in French. I find it easier to use foreign langages, or if not easier, at least quite enjoyable in a different way. I would not say that for all langages, I would not be comfortable with some, but in German and French, certainly, I would love to do that.
In June, Powder Her Face was performed in Paris. A chamber opera might be less time-consuming ?
I am so sorry I could not attend those performances in Paris, because it was incredible to me that this show was going ahead, when everything else was not going ahead. Now I would love to write an operetta! You will laugh because when I decided on the EA, I absolutely thought it would turn to be a light operetta, because of the subject. But my operetta remains to be written.
What are you currently working on ?
As I said before, I just come to the end of a big cycle of new pieces, many of them are still to be premiered. I am Very excited to play a brand new piece in Paris on Monday. I just heard it for the first time a few days ago. And I will also conduct Tower, a fanfare which was written for the opening of LUMA in Arles. And I am now writing a piece for violin and orchestra, for Anne-Sophie Mutter.