Among the crop of composers who have lately made Britain one of the world's new-music nodes, Mark-Anthony Turnage is probably the one with the greatest fondness for grimness. "Twice Through the Heart," a setting of a murderer's soliloquy scored for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble, attempts to bestow musical elegance to a clangorous, violent life. "Greek," the opera that made Turnage's reputation in 1988, retells the brutal family drama of the Oedipus myth in the tough, blue-collar terms of the Thatcher years. "Three Screaming Popes" is a rattling rant for orchestra.
At the Ojai Music Festival this weekend, Simon Rattle conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its New Music Group in the U.S. premieres of two Turnage pieces, both elegies. "Kai," which is on Friday's opening orchestral program, is a jazz-tinged cello concerto memorializing a German cellist. "Blood on the Floor," slated for the following night, is a thorny chamber piece inspired in part by the suicide of the composer's drug-addicted brother.
"I'm interested in art that's quite extreme and bleak," Turnage says matter-of-factly. The title and the opening movement of "Blood on the Floor" come from a gory abstract painting by that English connoisseur of existential horror, Francis Bacon.
At the same time, though, Turnage cautions, it's easy to overplay--and sensationalize--the dourness of his music. "The fact that two of the movements are in memory of my brother gets treated like a selling point, which I find very irritating. People grab on to that, and they don't listen [to the music]."
He has a point. The cover of the Argo CD of "Blood on the Floor" boasts a mug shot of the composer, eyes glazed, hair short and spiked, looking as if he's been picked up on suspicion of some appalling crime. On the back cover, a syringe is posed against an artful smear of drying blood. When Turnage saw it, as well as a poster describing his piece as being about "despair and urban decay," he was dismayed. "I thought, 'Right, that's really going to bring people in.' "
The music is not so forbidding. A 70-minute suite of brief movements for electric guitar, drum kit, saxophone and chamber ensemble, "Blood on the Floor" has a gritty, polyphonic energy, broken by sections of lyrical simplicity. The second movement, "Junior Addict," features a gently wandering saxophone solo against a backdrop of nocturnal chords.
Like Thomas Ades, Turnage, who was born in 1960, benefited early in his life from a receptive British music scene, but his international career has advanced at a more deliberate pace. "Blood on the Floor" is being released in the U.S. only now--three years after it came out in Europe--and very few of his other works are available here on recording. That's a twist, because it was an influx of recorded music from America that shaped his taste some 25 years ago.
"When I discovered black American music--soul, funk, black jazz, Miles Davis--it was being listened to by a minority in England, but with great love," Turnage says. "There's something that's very emotionally honest about [black music] that I find really powerful. I come from a totally different background: I'm a white male, but in England I was a white working-class male, which means a lot more than it does in America. So I tend to like outsiders."
Jazz, particularly the hard-driving electric jazz of the 1970s and '80s, permeates Turnage's music. The list of composers who have tried to merge jazz with the symphonic tradition is a long one--American Gunther Schuller, with whom Turnage studied at Tanglewood, even tried to turn the effort into a recognized artistic discipline, called Third Stream. Turnage's jazz, though, is not the piquant, smartly syncopated kind that so many classical composers dip into for effect, but an ambitious, frequently cerebral style of intricate group improvisation.
Integrating that style into a classical score is a formidable task. Jazz musicians are accustomed to being given skeletal parts and embroidering on what they see. Classical musicians expect the music to be detailed and exact. As a result, initially in "Blood on the Floor," Turnage committed the classic conservatory-trained composer's mistake of notating far more than a jazz player wanted to know. Former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine, who played the piece at its premiere performance, on CD and who will appear at Ojai, found it ludicrously overwritten and made him prune it.
Jazz guitarist John Scofield, for whom Turnage wrote the guitar part, was more accommodating, but Turnage says that if he had to do it again, he would give the player more leeway. "I was a little nervous," he admits. "I was scared of writing for this big six-string guitar. I understand the four strings of the cello or the violin, but six seemed more mysterious."