Classical? Jazz? No, Turnage

The man behind the scruffy donkey jacket, the unshaven face and skewed spectacles is pulling no punches – but it never was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s style to be mild. Within minutes of settling into the civilised peace of London’s Dover Street Arts Club, Turnage is on the rampage. Classical critics who characterise his jazz-infused music as smoochy are “superficial”. Contemporary music festivals that focus exclusively on the avant-garde “must be pretty boring. They think my stuff shouldn’t exist”. Writing The Silver Tassie, his grand opera about the first world war, was a “chore” that he “hated”. And he would “never” give one of his pieces a title such as symphony or concerto. “I’d be considered a conservative. It doesn’t sit well with me.”

Is this the 47-year-old whom colleagues describe as “much mellowed” since his marriage to cellist Gabriella Swallow, his third wife? Shooting from the hip was more a trait of the 1980s Turnage, who burst on to the international scene with Greek, his opera about an uncaring urban society. But after a dip in creative energy during the composition of Tassie and a slough of despond following the break-up of his second marriage, Turnage has rediscovered his edge. He is collaborating with Richard Thomas, of Jerry Springer – The Opera fame, on a tragi-comedy for Covent Garden about the cult of celebrity, for which he says the audience will need advance “warnings” – presumably a reference to bad language and blasphemy, both part of the Turnage lexicon despite (or perhaps because of) his upbringing in a strictly religious Essex family.

“Mark sometimes makes dramatic statements about things that then don’t come to pass,” says his agent Cathy Nelson, referring to Turnage’s vow after Tassie not to write another opera. “He’s very emotional, which can be both wonderful and exhausting. The important thing is that he has enormous energy and is very clear-thinking, on so many levels.”

Those “levels” refer less to his orchestral residencies on both sides of the Atlantic or his composition classes at London’s Royal College of Music, and more to the way his idiom enthuses performers and audiences of widely varying musical backgrounds. The days when Turnage’s output could be labelled as “post-Britten” or “jazz-influenced” are gone: today the music just sounds like Turnage – intensely lyrical, sometimes melancholic and never less than direct in its appeal.

That applies as much to Evening Songs, which on Wednesday kicks off the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Turnage series at the Southbank Centre, as it does to Chicago Remains, a product of his residency with the Chicago Symphony, which will receive its first UK performance at this year’s Proms. Turnage says his Chicago soundscape was inspired by the city’s high-rise architecture and the poetry of Carl Sandburg, as well as memories of 1970s Bruckner recordings by Bernard Haitink, who conducted the premiere last October. “It’s a blended piece with big blocks of sound, much more lyrical [than other recent works].”

Does that signify a departure from Turnage’s jazz-infused style? “It’s always there but in this piece it’s less obvious. I’m certainly less aware of it. It’s just in my blood.”

Turnage proceeds to attack classical critics who accuse him of “selling out” to jazz in works such as Blood on the Floor, a portrayal of the agonies of drug addiction. “It’s so patronising to hear classical musicians talking of jazz as some form of light music. When opera singers try to sing jazz they’re the laughing stock of the jazz world. They haven’t a clue about the style.”

Turnage says such ventures have a knock-on effect on his reputation. “They think what I do is crossover, but I’m not a dabbler. I’ve almost crossed over completely to that world [of jazz], because I love working in it.”

And, if his collaborations with John Scofield and Peter Erskine are any guide, jazz musicians love working with him. “It’s a real downer to come back and work with cynical classical musicians. I work with John Scofield because he inspires me. The result may be a hybrid but there has always been an influence of popular music in classical.”

Stopping himself in his tracks, Turnage admits he is “sounding more militant now, even if it doesn’t come through in the music I write”. His moment of reflection doesn’t last long, however, as he sets off again on a rant about composers languishing “at the bottom of the pile. People will happily pay for a conductor to fly first-class, but a composer? No way.”

Well, then, let’s talk about composing. Could it be that Turnage’s output today has less natural energy but fewer rough edges? It’s a trade-off he acknowledges to be part of the maturing process, with precedents in the late music of Elgar, Walton and Maxwell Davies. But Turnage’s hair isn’t grey yet. He refers to the “clumsiness” of important early works such as Three Screaming Popes and Greek, acknowledging “I didn’t know how to do the stuff [technically] but that gave it an energy, and I don’t want to sacrifice that. The aggressiveness of certain pieces was overplayed – if you listen to them now, the lyrical music outdoes the harsh. But people had the illusion it was ‘tough’, and I was happy to go along with the bad-boy image.”

Turnage lets slip that he attended last month’s Led Zeppelin reunion concert and found it a revelation. “It has shown me a way back to the freedom and energy I think I lost for a while – an unbuttoned quality you don’t usually get in classical music. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s thanks to Led Zeppelin that I’m feeling very positive about writing my first string quartet. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition and friction between two such different types of music, because you can’t get further from Led Zeppelin than that.”

The other influence on the quartet is his wife. Some 20 years younger than Turnage, Gabriella Swallow trained at the Royal College at the same time as members of the Belcea Quartet, for whom the piece is being written. In her he recognises “a true partner. That’s why you’ll see a more optimistic, upfront side. She said she thought in the last couple of pieces I’d got my mojo back.” With those words Turnage turns all soft and reflective. “I suppose she’s right: it’s taken me a while to ascend from the gloom.”

Vladimir Jurowski conducts ‘Evening Songs’ at the Southbank Centre, London, on Wednesday

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