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Mark-Anthony Turnage in interview with Colin Anderson at recording sessions for his new CD on Chandos

Your music is often dark and intense. How conscious are you of this when composing?

I think it just happens, I don't consciously try and write dark music. I'm surprised at how bleak some of it is. It's not particularly obvious in me – there's this big argument about whether a composer's day-to-day personality comes through in music; I don't think it does. I wouldn't mind writing a few happy pieces but for some reason I can't … actually the trombone piece is upbeat. Maybe that's because of Christian Lindberg. Actually, I felt the first version of the percussion concerto was too dark, too angst-ridden. I've lightened it, not so much texture-wise but harmonically, it was very dissonant; I wanted a frothy piece. All the trumpet writing was very high and extreme, almost perverse. So I lowered all that and made the harmony less harsh. I moved sections around. The shape makes more sense now, more compact.

Peter Erskine's part involves improvisation. How does that square with a definitive recording?

He's a great and wonderful player with such taste that the decisions he makes are always fabulous. Recording is a problem for someone who improvises. If we'd gone on tour and played it six times we would have had a different performance. Peter had to really think on his feet at the sessions.

The question of revision also applies to Fandango

The first version didn't really work. Tim Brown suggested I resurrect it. I've made all the horn parts higher because they were embedded in the string texture. There were six percussionists, a sampler and a bass guitar; it was ridiculous. I got rid of all that, tightened the structure and thinned the textures.

Take the horns away and you have a Bartókian soundworld of strings and percussion. There's some local colour – castanets, guitar-imitating strings – but how important is the Fandango itself?

I didn't want any brass or winds getting in the way of the horns. The Spanish element is just a colour, it gave me something to hang the structure on and I could have the fast section which is dance-like … that's sort of lighter I suppose!

I think Fandango is one of your finest pieces. To my ears it involves Birtwistle-like changes of perspective.

You're in the minority, none of the critics seem to think that! I'm very fond of it. I'm very affected by Birtwistle; when I was growing up he was very important. The cragginess of Birtwistle I love. I've got some soft-centred pieces but I like the idea of things being quite angular. I think Silent Cities is more Birtwistle. I often use melodic lines that overlap and are viewed from different ways – variation form gone a bit wild.

I heard Silent Cities before knowing what inspired it. It seems a remarkably busy and sonic piece given that it emerges from graveyards and silence.

I went to the Somme on an incredibly beautiful sunny day. I was aware of the calm and all the graves, but also the fierceness and the carnage that was there previously. There's a powerful atmosphere, you're aware of turmoil underneath, underneath the ground really. At harvest you can still find shrapnel and war-paraphernalia in the ground – it's still there as part of the landscape.

At the sessions I thought 'urban decay' in relation to Silent Cities. Is your music about being alive today, a message to those that govern us?

I'm still angry about certain things that I was much more vocal about when I was younger. Yeah, there is a sort of despair about what's going on, and being a father I don't think there's much hope for people.

Silent Cities is dedicated to Michael Tippett. What does he mean to you?

He's influenced everything I've done. He always seems to crop up in my pieces.

This darkness in your music, do you compose at night or are you 9-5?

No, I'm morning, not 9-5, early, 5 to 5, although it can be dark early in the morning!

Given the jazz aspects of your music, do you consider yourself a classical composer?

I think as myself as a composer. I did toy with the idea of just working with jazz people but that's restrictive because I want to do a lot of different things. I hope the jazz is fundamental to the nature of the piece, and some pieces aren't so jazzy. It's dangerous to think about that, then it's self-conscious. I feel very lucky that I can work with very different people, a broad range. I don't think I'll ever write a musical but you never know – it would be a challenge!

There seems to be a strong American influence to your music. Are you conscious of that?

No, not really. Perhaps 'less English'. This might be one of the reasons why I'm played in Germany a fair amount, because they're not very keen on English music. I think it does sound English but obviously other people don't. When I work with American orchestras it's very comfortable, it's the jazz thing which just comes out. But Louis Andriessen also influences me, which nobody picks up on much, it's a hidden influence, I talk about it…

This is your big chance. What's the Andriessen influence?

Structurally, although his music sounds much more minimalist than mine, but it's also extremes, the way he pushes things, which I find fascinating. He's much more singled-minded than the things I do. I think I will get there, that's what I'm aiming for – to have pieces based on three or four chords rather than sprawling.

You have close relationships with people like Peter Erskine and John Scofield, and the CBSO and BBC. How important is it that you write for specific people and groups?

I see myself as a professional composer but just to write something for orchestra then not know if somebody is going to perform it … my incentive is to write for people. The BBC Symphony Orchestra have done so many of my pieces; they just know how to do it. They're a fabulous orchestra, a very clean sound. The energy they kept up doing Another Set To with Christian was extraordinary; I'm really grateful, I don't know how to thank them. The only thing I can do is to keep writing pieces for them!

© Colin Anderson, and reproduced with permission of the author. A shorter version of this interview appeared in the liner notes for the recent Chandos release of Turnage's music (CHAN 10018).
Colin Anderson is Music Editor and regular contributor to

The Turnage works referred to in this interview are published by Schott 

Turnage Photo © Keith Saunders

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