Thomas Adès: Full of Noises
Conversations with Tom Service
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 188 pp. $25
Thomas Adès generally refuses to talk to journalists, but he makes an exception for Tom Service. The critic has been interviewing the composer for well over a decade, and the two have now collaborated on this book-length conversation, compiled from a year's worth of sessions. Service's relationship with Adès may constitute a journalistic coup, but Full of Noises has moments when one doesn't envy him one bit. For the most part, Adès treats Service respectfully, glad to talk to an interviewer who is able to follow his often abstruse lines of reasoning. But the composer can be sarcastic, short-tempered and occasionally downright hostile. ("I'm looking at you with disbelief because I can't believe you would say something so absolutely fundamentally stupid to me.") Even under fire, though, Service maintains his cool, and there's no doubting the intelligence he brings to the project. The composer is given to describing music in nearly oracular terms, but Service keeps up with even his most elliptical metaphors.
The result is two hundred pages of brilliant talk, much of it given over to music of the past. Adès doesn't mince words; his observations are penetrating and more than occasionally iconoclastic. He loves Beethoven and Janáček and reveres Stravinsky for his control of his musical materials. But his aversions are equally strong. Brahms's Fourth Symphony is "a terrible waste of space"; Mahler's Eighth is "an embarrassing piece — it's as though one's seeing him naked in public." Even though he was at one time artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, he has little use for Britten's operas: Peter Grimes is"Wozzeck,but on rationing."
Verdi, in Adès's estimation, "uses almost no brain. It's pure animal cunning." But he saves his most withering rhetoric for the "fungal" works of Wagner: "It seems to me that a country that can take something as funny as Kundry seriously ... was bound to get into serious trouble."
Even at his most caustic moments, though, Adès is no brat. He uses invective as a way to examine the compositional process — the elements of music that are important to him and those that are not. By denigrating Verdi and Wagner, he isn't relegating them to the dustbin; he is simply articulating his own aesthetic as a composer — the ways he wants his music to behave. "The moment a note is written down ... it starts to slide down the page or up the page or move around," he says. "The extent to which you bully it and push it toward stability — that's what creates the energy of a piece." Full of Noises brings us in close to Adès's approach to his craft — the painstaking labor that goes into "bullying" his notes into place. It is a book that shows us a musical mind at work.
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