A Conversation Between Thomas Adès and Gloria Cheng about their Upcoming Duo-Recital on the Piano Spheres series

chengades240Gloria Cheng: You’re a stupendous piano virtuoso. How much do you practice?

Thomas Adès: Well thank you – I’ve always played the piano as an everyday part of life – in a way I’ve had to make my own repertoire as I don’t play Rachmaninov concertos or Chopin Etudes, but the piano is my home, as some people are at home in a swimming pool. So I suppose to extend the swimming analogy, I am perhaps a fish, rather than a champion swimmer.

GC: In your wonderful book of interviews with The Guardian’s Tom Service, Thomas Adès: Full of Noises, you say, “In even the best performance, I hear only the gaping mistakes and lacks. A lot of the time I am only aware of the gulf between what I want and what I hear. To write music and to have it played are two different things, and some composers never recover from the shock.” How are you doing with our endeavor?

TA: I made this version of the Paraphrase in order to hear more of the music as I imagined it – the orchestration in Powder Her Face is elusive and specialized, it was written for a very small theatre and in a larger opera house I sometimes find the colours get bleached out. So I have been drawn back to it to make the music clearer in different arrangements. The version for solo piano is extremely difficult – in places very awkward – and when I came to play it again for the second time I realized it would lend itself much more comfortably to two pianos. I was even able to reinstate some lost lines from the opera. It was in the studio of the Labèque sisters in Paris and I realized that if someone else was sitting at the second piano, it would be much easier! Thank goodness Sue Bienkowski had the idea of a two piano piece for you and me – this one was itching to be born.

GC: Sue Bienkowski has commissioned and supported many things, and I’m thrilled that she intended the Concert Paraphrase for two pianos to be for us. Was it arduous to decide which scenes from the opera to include?

TA: My model was Liszt’s idea of “reminiscences” of operas – as if I was trying to remember parts of the opera after getting home, without a score. There’s a lot to be said for this idea, as a way to find a new path. I think trying to remember things and getting them wrong is a very important way to progress, and endangered in the age of Google!

GC: Powder Her Face has so much metrically unhinged music, yet you cast it in rather simple time signatures, which differs from some of the music you went on to write – the Piano Quintet (2000) springs to mind first, which many in our Piano Spheres audience heard here in Zipper Hall performed by the Calder Quartet and me, and also Asyla (1997).

TA: Well, in fact there are a couple of brief places in Powder Her Face where I used irrational meters, but they aren’t in the present piece. But it’s often like that, you glimpse something as if through the train window and a few years later you want to go and explore that place.

GC: As a solo or 2-piano piece can the same music bear greater interpretive freedom and rubato than as a larger ensemble piece?

TA: This was the idea of making the solo piece for piano – to focus on the reality of the music rather than on the colour. I used to get ungratefully frustrated if I was complimented on the orchestration of Powder Her Face – obviously it was absurdly flattering to be compared to R. Strauss or Puccini, but I wanted to say, it’s the harmony, not the orchestration, and if you can’t appreciate that, you don’t really understand the orchestration either.

GC: It’s enlightening, in a funny reverse way, to hear the raw music on the piano, which you composed at the piano, I presume, then orchestrated, and here we are back at the piano(s). And the piece has the best expression marking in the history of music: “animal”!

 TA: Some expression marks just have to be in English.

GC: There are a number of versions now: the solo and now duo Concert Paraphrases, and Dances from Powder Her Face. Will there be forthcoming Concert Paraphrases and arrangements on The Tempest and your next opera?

TA: We’ll see. Powder Her Face had a difficult orchestration and I often missed some of the music in performance especially in larger houses. That’s why I made the piano versions including this one, and I am adding two new sections to the “Dances” for a new suite, for the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle. With The Tempest I had a few details to figure out after the premiere, for example voice leadings that were a bit unclear to me in the first iteration, so in the course of looking at all that I made a chamber piece called Court Studies, but I doubt there’ll be any more suites from that opera. And with the new one, The Exterminating Angel, there is a piano piece that one of the characters plays in the opera, but apart from that it’s too early to say.

GC: Isn’t it delightful to play the Ligeti Sonatina? He was 27 in 1950 when he wrote it. Now that you’re in your 40’s and have met many aspiring young composers, what would you say to the young Ligeti if he were to present this piece to you?

TA: That’s such a good question! I’d love to imagine that I’d have seen it was not routine Soviet socialist-realist music like Kabalevsky – which to a careless ear it could sound like, and every careless ear was writing. I’d like to think I’d have seen the glint in the music’s eye, and been able to tell that this composer was about to split the atom. All the signs are there, in hindsight, and all the essential characteristics of mature Ligeti are present, a certain ruthlessness. It’s also amazing how close the piece is in essence to his last works, as if after all the uncharted ground he went on to cover in between, he ended up by coming back to his childhood home. But that would be very hard to foresee.

GC: For me, having played little Nancarrow but a good deal of your music, the mental gymnastics required to navigate the metrical complexity in the Studies for Player Piano felt very familiar, yet fundamentally different in musical intent.

 TA: Nancarrow’s music is holy to me – there’s nothing to touch it before or since. The technical ambition alone sets it apart, but allied to that level of charm it is unique. But you said to me the other day something very good – that the difference is that Nancarrow has a fascination with machines, whereas “distortions” in my music have a sort of biological nature…

GC: Yes, Nancarrow’s temporal relations always seem to evoke mechanisms, maybe because his medium was the player piano, whereas yours can often feel more “slippery.” The Studies seem to allow little to no room for interpretation. You’ve always performed it to video with a click track, but our first “wild” rehearsal went unexpectedly well!

TA: I performed it with Nic Hodges, and with Rolf Hind. The click track was really there to coordinate with a film, a brilliant animated video, that Tal Rosner made and we released as a recording. But I always wondered how it would be to play the piece without the click track. And I think we’ve found that without it you listen more to the harmony, the amazing vertical writing of the piece. And I think it does allow room for interpretation, in the sense of Bach, that the whole music is this constant testing of magnetic forces, attraction and repulsion, like life. You hear the questions and answers in every phrase. And I think that once you hear this, you play it too.

GC: We close our program with Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen – you first played the piece at the age of 14, playing the part written for Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod (the part that I’m now playing). Such a massive piece – in duration, difficulty, and emotional heft – must have created lots of neuronal pathways in your young brain.

TA: I fell in love with Messiaen at that age and never fell out again. He is on his own. There is a monumental simplicity which cannot be imitated and I feel was very hard won. This piece is one of his most brutally and tenderly simple, and yet after twenty years I find its power undiminished.