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Mark-Anthony Turnage:
Blood on the Floor

Mark-Anthony Turnage rarely plays the piano in public but before Saturday night's performance of his funky masterpiece "Blood on the Floor" at Miller Theater, he played a brief and moving elegy for New York City.  He had written the piece since he arrived on Wednesday as an "impression" of the city in the aftermath of the September 11 carnage.

The piece, and the fact that he was moved to write it, say a lot about Turnage as a composer and a person.  He is a modernist, to be sure, but his music bears little resemblance to the precise, mathamatical exercises of a Boulez or Carter.  Turnage's modernism is viseral, emotional, individual and highly personal.  Imagine that Henze had grown up listening to Miles Davis' Bitches' Brew and Sly and Family Stone instead of Bach. 

"Blood on the Floor" began life as a single movement piece inspired by Francis Bacon's haunting painting of the same name, which depicts blood splattered on a red floor.  The Ensemble Modern, for whom it was written, suggested that Turnage expand the piece.  By the time, he was finished "Blood on the Floor" had become a nine-movement suite requiring the performing services of a small orchestra and three jazz soloists (although, in fact, the jazz parts are mostly written, not improvised--the guitar and horn parts, more so than the drums where Peter Erskine displays an uncanny ability to know exactly what Turnage meant). 

Turnage is an impressionist with the soul of a poet so each movement is inspired by his emotional reaction to real people, works of art or places--the title suite, for example, was triggered by the seductive and deadly street drug culture of Hamburg.  Other movements are characterizations of friends; one particularly poignant movement is called "Elegy for Andy" and was inspired by the composer's brother Andrew, who died from a drug overdose. Ironically, Turnage says he didn't know when he began to write a work about the destructiveness of drugs that his own brother was a potential victim.  The final movement was inspired by a painting called "Disspelling the Doubts" by Australian painter Heather Betts (who is married to composer Brett Dean).  The painting is mainly black, with one bold area of white that signifies hope--a fitting note on which to end.

"Blood on the Floor" is not an easy piece to like or enjoy; greatness never comes without effort.  Although it genuinely cooks in places and has many tender moments, the effect of sitting through it is something like being locked in an overheated men's room alone for 72 minutes with a junkie friend who may have a knife and whose mood is wildly alternating between blind rage and tears; you may not enjoy the experience but you will feel a hell of a lot better about being alive when you get outside.    JB 

(Duane is working on a review of the performance for next week.)
The Composer of the Moment:  Mark-Anthony Turnage 
The composer of the moment sounds remarkably unruffled  for someone who is...well, the composer of the moment.  Since his opera The Silver Tassie opened to rave reviews in London a few weeks back, critics and fans have been saying that Mark-Anthony Turnage is the most important thing to happen to English opera since Benjamin Britten, and that Tassie is surely destined for the standard repertoire--up there with Peter Grimes and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.
   The modest young composer from Essex, who turns 40 on June 10, is taking it all with a large pinch of salt.
   "Well, my first opera Greek was very successful and there was lots of talk of different productions everywhere and nearly all of them fell through," Turnage says. "I am quite relieved that the reception has been so positive, though. It's like having a successful first novel; people are waiting for the second one."
   Turnage grew up in suburban Essex and was called Wolfgang by his school pals because it seemed obvious to everyone that he would become a composer. His father worked as a clerk with Mobil Oil. His mother loved Beethoven and played the cornet.  He wrote his first music at seven or eight, improvising on piano practice pieces.  While still in his mid-teens he was taken on by Oliver Knussen at the Royal College of Music and later he studied with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood and with Hans Werner Henze, under whose aegis Greek was written.
   "Henze was more of a guiding force than a proper teacher," Turnage says.  "My real teachers were Oliver Knussen and John Lambert at the Royal College of Music, who was one of Oliver's teachers."
   Turnage has real affection for jazz-funk idioms - he grew up listening to Miles Davis and groups like Weather Report and his best-known piece--before Tassie--is called Blood on the Floor, which places improvising jazzmen within a straight-ahead chamber ensemble.  Simon Rattle led a spirited performance of Blood in London in March.
   But, it is The Silver Tassie that has made him the composer of the moment.  Based on Sean O'Casey's fiercely anti-war play of the same name, Turnage first stumbled across the work around 1994, teamed up with librettist Amanda Holden shortly after that, but actually began writing the music in 1997.  The opera went through about 18 months of workshops and rehearsals--a large factor in its arriving at the premier in such a polished and mature form, Turnage believes. The opera  begins and ends in Dublin during and just after the First World War: in act I, of the domestic circumstances of the football hero and reluctant soldier, Harry Heegan; in Act IV, of the dancehall in which the tragic consequences of a long period in the trenches are played out to their painful conclusion, with Harry now in a wheelchair and his friend, Teddy, blinded.
   "I became quite interested in World War I and I wanted to learn as much about it as I could.  My father-in-law is a bit of an expert and I visited the battlefield at Somme several times," Turnage says. "It was very moving and I wrote a piece called Silent Cities, which is now, really, two of the interludes from The Silver Tassie, slightly more elaborate and longer."
    The title comes from the Robert Burns's song, The Silver Tassie (the tassie--probably from the French tasse--being a victory football cup), which is among several direct quotations from popular sources, as well as  allusions to other idioms, from Miles Davis to dance tunes.
  Tassie is more conventional and "opera-like" than Turnage's shorter 1988 Greek which is inevitably described as "anti-Thatcher," an observation that he finds too facile.
    "It came out in the early days of the Thatcher government but it was about more than just the political thing," he says.  "It was about the races and greed and lots of other things...the police were particularly out of control in that period.  My background is working class and when I was younger my family were quite poor. That can't help but stay with you. When I was 15 or 16 I had a lot of antipathy toward opera because the people who go are so well off.  I had to overcome that but I guess it was natural for me to pick as the subject of my first opera something that was a kick against that."
   Thank goodness he overcame his antipathy or The Silver Tassie might never have happened at all, much less be a candidate to join the ranks of Verdi and Puccini.  But the composer of the moment is taking nothing for granted.
   "I've learned that it's best not to get too worked up about this things, so I've taken a more philosophical attitude, if it happens, it happens," he says.  "If it doesn't, it doesn't."

                                --Jerry Bowles

Note:   Mark-Anthony Turnage had lots else to say and we'll have an extended interview with him in a future issue.