Proms composers on their extraordinary new music

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    ‘Apocalyptic nightmares fuel my music’

    Mark-Anthony Turnage
    Tell us about your Proms piece … I wrote Time Flies three years ago, in what seems a more innocent era. It was a reaction to getting older. Having grown up in the 1960s, I have, like many people, a nuclear anxiety, which in my case was bolstered by fear of the armageddon from my Pentecostal upbringing. Being told every day of your childhood you were going to burn for eternity unless you repented your sinful ways tends to breed fear and a deep dread. I still have apocalyptic nightmares. They fuel my music, which tends to be pretty pessimistic. Add the climate crisis into the mix and I don’t see much of a future for our children unless they all rise up and defeat the toxic masculinity and corruption that’s destroying our world. But I would never presume to tell a listener what to get out of my music. I would just be grateful they were listening at all. Sadly, I’m not convinced any of us will be around for much longer to hear it.

    Why do we need composers? If you’d asked me three years ago, I would have been unfailingly optimistic and said we are essential. After a crushing pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I’m not so sure. I write music because I have to. It’s an obsession, it starts as a private act. I suppose I need to hear it as I love working with musicians – and I need to earn a living. I also need to stave off depression and utter despair.

    ‘From death to shades of red, art just needs to be honest’
    Jennifer Walshe
    Tell us about your Proms piece … The Site of an Investigation was written in 2018. It seems like a couple of decades ago now, but 2018 had a lot in common with 2022: the climate emergency, precarity, Mars exploration, AI. For me, it was also a year marked by loss – my friend Stephen Swift passed away that year. The piece is dedicated to him.

    Why do we need composers? I believe art is a way of being present in the world, and will continue to be for as long as the Earth is circling the Sun. That’s not to say art has to be “about” anything: it just needs to be honest, whether that’s talking about death or immersing us in a shade of red so specific it seems to open up a portal to another dimension. Ultimately, we enter into a union, whether with the work, the artist, or something else – whether we are welcomed or confused, we know we’re not alone.

    ‘I undo dense, solid knots – and release a living thing’
    Thomas Adès
    Tell us about your Proms piece … I composed these four Märchentänze (“dances from fairytale&rdquoin 2020, originally for violin and piano, then a year later made this orchestral version. The first movement is a fantasy on the folk song Two Magicians, immortalised by Steeleye Span, about the immemorial generative dance of the sexes. A hushed movement follows, the chant-like tune presented as a round. The third movement, A Skylark for Jane, is an outpouring of birdsong, each individual orchestra member freely echoing the soloist to create an “exaltation” of skylarks. The final dance begins with an energetic elfin theme, and grows into a writhing dance. Many themes grapple, twining around each other like otters, towards a decisive conclusion.

    Why do we need composers? It’s a compulsion. I have no choice. There is an image in my head which to me is completely real. There are obstacles in my way, dense solid knots, like ganglia; they block my path, infinitely heavy, and I have to disentangle them to move forward. They consist of everything, every sound, all at once, compacted into an instant. They are dangerous, suffocating masses. While they are in the way, I can’t breathe. By undoing these knots, I release a living thing. I have to perform this translation in the best, most specific way possible in order to set the piece free. That’s the work.In doing this I aim for truth, to find and lead out the essence of what is there. I’m most interested in timelessness, not in the temporary and ephemeral. Obviously I can’t write for a particular type of person: that’s futile. Opinions have no bearing: the knots don’t care.

    This process of liberation is as vital to me as breathing, and must be just as free, as unlegislated. I don’t want to fall into today’s commonest problem of stalling at the merely anecdotal. I have to transcend, transfer, transform, transport.

    ‘A velvet-lined theatre can be an arena for revolution’
    Missy Mazzoli
    Tell us about your Proms piece … My new violin concerto, Procession, was inspired by medieval healing rites developed during pandemics: spells, incantations, processions and ecstatic dances. As we emerge from the latest pandemic into a bewildering new era, the concert experience can itself play the role of these restorative rituals.

    Why do we need composers? With each work, I endeavour to provide a new language for thoughts and feelings we suppress in everyday life, a recognition of the vulnerable and terrifying parts of ourselves. I also want to provide space in which we can process the overwhelming nature of the world. In this sense, a quiet gallery, the circumference of our headphones or a velvet-lined theatre can become arenas for revolutionary communion and connection.


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