Q&A with Thomas Adès

JF It’s often said that there is no lingua franca 
in contemporary music—that there is a vast stylistic pluralism verging on anarchy. That’s never seemed quite right to me—there do appear to be quite a lot of trends and similarities. Are there living composers that you would connect yourself with or trends in contemporary music that you see yourself as being part of?

TA It sounds attractive to be part of anything, but I fear my music is too unpredictable—I might happily join an artistic movement only to find that my music keeps breaking the rules of membership. In any case such trends are hard to read from the inside; I’m more inclined to trust Time to make tendencies clear. But at the same time I believe that qui n’a pas l’esprit de son age en a tous les défauts.

JF Do you see yourself as part of a canon of English/British composers? You’ve often been described in that way, by journalists and critics keen to crown an heir to Britten. Or is the canon that you would place yourself in more international—and if so, how so?

TA Again, one can’t see these things from the inside. Still I mistrust this idea. I’ve had passages of my work described as belonging to an English tradition, whereas I know the direct source
 to be French or worse. But that may be a less impossible bastardy than it sounds.

JF I get a sense of great confidence in your music, in terms of its lyricism, grandeur, and your willingness to write large scale operas. The grandeur seemed particularly apparent 
in Totentanz which recently premiered at the Proms. Your approach seems to me a great contrast to the nervous postmodernism of many contemporary composers. Where do you think this confidence comes from? Or to put it differently: if music is something that ‘comes to you’, can you talk about where your music and the scale of it is ‘coming from’?

TA I’m glad you have this impression. Beyond that, I can’t tell.

JF You’re known for conducting and playing your own works. Do you prefer that, or would you welcome a wider range of interpreters? Do you find new things in the pieces while rehearsing them?

TA I would welcome as many interpreters as possible. Yes, on the whole the pieces are still volatile living organisms to me when I perform them.

JF I know you have Jewish ancestry on one side of your family—was your decision to write a piece with a Hebrew title (Tevot) a conscious decision to explore this part of your background?

TA My name, Adès, is a Syrian Jewish name of some antiquity, as I understand. It is spelled 
in Hebrew with “ayin”, rather than “aleph”.
 In terms of my composition, all I know is
 that all these things mean something. I have found that in investigating this element of my roots, of which I was ignorant, I uncovered the[…]

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