One of Europe’s leading operatic and orchestral composers since garnering acclaim for the 1988 opera Greek and the 1989 orchestral piece Three Screaming Popes, Mark-Anthony Turnage has earned a reputation as the “hard man of classical music” for his penchant for grimness. His themes are often violent— prison life, urban alienation, drug addiction, and murder have been represented in the composer’s work. “I’m interested in art that’s quite extreme and bleak, “he told Los Angeles Times writer Justin Davidson in an interview about 1996’s jazz-tinged Blood on the Floor, inspired in part by the suicide of Turnage’s drug-addicted brother.
Always testing the notions of how classical music should sound, Turnage is not one to adhere to symphonic conventions. He likes electric guitars, trumpets, and the saxophone, instruments integral to the American jazz tradition. “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 recalled to Davidson. “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.”
Born in 1960 in Grays, Essex, England, Turnage received encouragement from his parents to study composition, though an early music teacher didn’t believe in him at all. Fortunately, a successful audition with the junior department at the Royal College of Music provided a boost to Turnage’s self-confidence. Upon gaining acceptance into the program, he studied with Oliver Knussen and John Lambert, who both recognized the young man’s talent. While at the Royal College of Music, Turnage won numerous composition prizes, then, in 1983, claimed a Mendelssohn scholarship to study with Gunther Schuller and Hans Werner Henze at Tanglewood in the United States.
Despite his achievements and his position as an influential member of the classical music establishment, Turnage has always felt like an outsider among peers. “I’ve come up from such a funny route and I don’t quite know how it happened, “he said in an interview with Malcolm Galloway and Kathryn Thomas of the Galliard Ensemble for the Classical Source online. “I grew up in an industrial area in Essex. My background was upper working class or very lower middle class. I never went to university, and if I hadn’t become a composer, I would be working at Ford’s in Dagenham.” But because of his background, Turnage was able to draw from a well of ideas unknown to many of his contemporaries, who primarily came from affluent backgrounds. “This difference has helped me—it is a bit of a story, “the composer added, “and I can’t deny that I’ve used it.”
After completing his formal training, Turnage worked for several years as a music copyist until the mid-1980s, when he began receiving more commissions for his work. His operatic debut, Greek, based on the 1980 Steven Berkoff drama bearing the same title, won great acclaim at its premiere at the first Munich Biennale in Germany in June of 1988. A brutal, jazzy contemporary opera similar in theme to Sophocles’Oedipus Rex (the story of a man who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother, resulting in a city-wide plague, Oedipus’ blinding at his own hand, and his wife’s suicide), Greek progresses from a violent indictment of English society—racism, violence, unemployment, and class struggles—to a sardonic conclusion.
Following its debut, Greek traveled to the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland and was performed by the English National Opera (ENO) in 1990. Also that year, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) commissioned and screened a film version for television, and in 1994, the Argo record label released Greek on CD. Since then, the opera has been performed on a regular basis throughout Europe and twice in Australia. In July of 1998, Greek debuted in the United States at the Aspen Music Festival, and in 2000, the London Sinfonietta’s 1998 production embarked on an international tour.
In October of 1989, Three Screaming Popes —a rattling orchestral piece inspired by a painting by Francis Bacon—premiered with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and conductor Simon Rattle,
Born in 1960 in Grays, Essex, England. Education: Attended the Royal College of Music, studying with Oliver Knussen and John Lambert; studied with Gunther Schuller and Hans Werner Henze at Tanglewood in the United States.
Greek, an opera, premiered at the first Munich Biennale, Germany, 1988; orchestral work Three Screaming Popes premiered with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, 1989; symphonic jazz piece Blood on the Floor debuted at London’s South Bank Center, 1996; Turnage’s first large-scale opera, The Silver Tassie, opened at the English National Opera, 2000.
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marking the beginning of Turnage’s four-year term as Composer in Association with the CBSO. The project, initiated and funded by the Radcliffe Trust, resulted in four works written by Turnage. Rattle and the CBSO took his music on tours across Europe. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) also played Turnage’s music during the composer’s time as an associate of the CBSO. This special relationship with the city was celebrated by a major retrospective in April of 1994, while EMI released a CD documenting the works of the CBSO and BCMG, conducted by Rattle, later that year.
In 1997, Turnage’s saxophone concerto Your Rockaby and the jazz pieces Night Dances and Dispelling the Fears, compiled and released on the Argo label that year, received a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. Also in 1997, the Decca label issued a recording of the acclaimed jazz piece Blood on the Floor. For this work, Turnage, in 1996, had collaborated with celebrated jazz musicians John Scofield, Peter Erskine, and Martin Robertson (who also gave a solo performance for Your Rockaby) on this full-length project commissioned by Ensemble Modern. A study of drug addiction, decay, and death, Blood on the Floor earned rave reviews upon its premiere performance at London’s South Bank Center in May of 1996. Despite the work’s dark, as well as personal subject matter, Turnage cautioned listeners against sensationalizing his music. “The fact that two of the movements are in memory of my brother gets treated like a selling point, “he told Davidson, “which I find very irritating. People grab on to that, and they don’t listen [to the music].”
In June and July of 1997, at the Aldeburgh Festival, the ENO presented for the first time two new pieces composed by Turnage: Twice Through the Heart and The Country of the Blind. Two years later, the BBC commissioned a new work from Turnage to celebrate the turn of the century. That piece, About Time, was first performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the BCMG with Rattle as conductor for a live broadcast from the Ely Cathedral.
The composer’s first large-scale opera, The Silver Tassie, written during Turnage’s residency as a Composer in Association with the ENO and as a consultant to the organization’s Contemporary Opera Studio, opened at the ENO on February 16, 2000, to international acclaim. The opera, depicting the effects of war on ordinary people, tells the story of a hometown football hero who suffers a paralyzing wound on the battlefield during World War I. The Silver Tassie made its German debut in April of 2000, and in the spring of 2001, was to be performed by Opera Ireland. In 2002, the opera is to premiere in the United States at the Dallas Opera, which co-commissioned the American production.
In June of 2000, Turnage served as Composer in Residence at the Ojai Festival, where Rattle conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a performance of Blood on the Floor. In October of that year, Turnage’s Another Set, a work for trombone and orchestra, was performed with Christian Lindberg at Barbican Hall to mark Leonard Slatkin’s first season with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Now an Associate Composer with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Turnage is commissioned to write a new large-scale work, expected to debut in 2003.
Regarded as one of his country’s most innovative composers, Turnage has a driving passion for music and will undoubtedly continue to breathe new life into classical music. Why does he compose?“It’s difficult to know really, “he said to Galloway and Thomas. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do since the age of nine, so I’ve really not known any different. It’s an urge, and if the urge went away I’d just give it up. It’s something I love doing…. If I had my way I’d do it all the time—it’s not that it comes easily to me, it’s just that the actual process of writing is exciting, and it makes me happy.”
Greek (opera), 1988.
Three Screaming Popes (orchestral piece), 1989.
Momentum (10-minute jazz piece), 1991.
(With John Scofield, Peter Erskine, and Martin Robertson) Blood on the Floor (full-length jazz work), 1996.
Your Rockaby (saxophone concerto), 1997.
Night Dances (jazz piece), 1997.
Dispelling the Fears (jazz piece), 1997.
The Country of the Blind, 1997.
Twice Through the Hear, 1997.
About Time (trombone and orchestral piece), 1999.
The Silver Tassie (full-scale opera), 2000.
Another Set, 2000.
American Record Guide, November/December 1998; May/June 1999; May/June 2000.
Boston Globe, August 14, 1997.
Economist, September 14, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1998; May 28, 2000.
New York Times, June 7, 2000.
Opera News, January 31, 1998; October 1998; June 2000.
Spectator, November 1, 1997; February 26, 2000.
USA Today, July 22, 1998.
Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2000.
Washington Post, January 15, 1999.
Dallas Opera, http://www.dallasopera.org (September 29,2000).
“Mark-Anthony Turnage, “Classical Source, August 1999, http://www.pamag.eom/Reviews/1999_08~August_1999/Mark_Anthony_Turnage.shtml (September 29, 2000).
“Mark-Anthony Turnage,” Van Walsum Management Limited, http://www.vanwalsum.co.uk/amdmat.htm (September 29,2000).
Turnage, Mark-Anthony, English composer; b.Grays, Essex, June 10, 1960. He was a student of Knussen in the junior dept. of the Royal Coll. of Music in London (1974-78), where he continued his training as a senior student of John Lambert (diploma, 1982); he then studied with Schuller and Henze at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood (summer, 1983). From 1989 to 1993 he served as composer-in-association with the City of Birmingham Sym. Orch., and from 1995 to 1998 of the English National Opera in London. In his music, Turnage has pursued an eclectic course in an accessible style which has found inspiration in various contemporary modes of expression, including rock and jazz.
Greek (1986-88; Munich, June 17, 1988); Killing Time,television opera (1991); The Country of the Blind,chamber opera (1996-97; Aldeburgh, June 13, 1997); The Silver Tassie (1999; London, Feb. 16, 2000). ORCH.: Let Us Sleep Nowfor Chamber Orch. (1979-82; Shape, June 14, 1983); Night Dances (1981-82; London, Feb. 1, 1982); Kind of Blue: In Memoriam, Thelonious Monk (1981-82; London, March 21, 1982); Ekaya: Elegy in Memory of Marvin Gaye (1984; Greenwich, March 29, 1985); Gross Intrusionfor Amplified String Quartet and String Orch. (Glasgow, Sept. 19, 1987); 3 Screaming Popes (Birmingham, Oct. 5, 1989); Momentum (1990-91; Birmingham, June 12, 1991); Drowned Out (1992-93; Nottingham, Oct. 20, 1993); Your Rockabyfor Soprano Saxophone and Orch. (1992-93; London, Feb. 23, 1994); Blood on the Floorfor 3 Jazz Soloists and Large Ensemble (1993-96; London, May 30, 1996); Dispelling the Fearsfor 2 Trumpets and Orch. (1994-95; Bedford, Oct. 29, 1995); Four-Horned Fandangofor 4 Horns and Orch. (1995-96; Birmingham, July 5, 1997); Tune for Torufor Jazz Ensemble (1996; also for Piano, Yokohama, April 10, 1996). CHAMBER: And Still a Softer Morningfor Flute, Vibraphone, Harp, and Cello (1978; rev. 1983; Montepulciano, July 31, 1984); After Darkfor Wind Quintet and String Quintet (1982-83; London, April 13, 1983); On All Foursfor Chamber Ensemble (1985; London, Feb. 4, 1986); Sarabandefor Soprano Saxophone and Piano (1985; London, Jan. 10, 1986); Releasefor 8 Players (1987; BBC Radio, Dec. 4, 1988); Kaifor Cello and Ensemble (1989-90; Birmingham, Dec. 18, 1990); 3 Farewellsfor Flute, Clarinet, Harp, and String Quartet (London, July 8,1990); Are You Sure?for String Quartet (1990; rev. 1991); Forty Bob Fanfarefor 10 Players (1992); Sleep on,3 lullabies for Cello and Piano (King’s Lynn, July 31, 1992); This Silencefor Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, and String Quartet (1992; Cologne, Sept. 13, 1993); Set tofor Brass Ensemble (1992-93; Aldeburgh, Aug. 24, 1993); A Deviant Fantasyfor 4 Clarinets (London, Oct. 31,1993); 2 Elegies Framing a Shoutfor Soprano Saxophone and Piano (1994; Bristol, Jan. 12, 1995); Barries Deviant Fantasyfor String Quartet and Referee’s Whistles (London, July 3, 1995). P i - ano: Entranced (Huddersfield, Nov. 25, 1982); Tune for Tom (Yokohama, April 10, 1996; also for Jazz Ensemble). VOCAL: Lament for a Hanging Manfor Soprano and Ensemble (1983; Durham, Feb. 4, 1984); 1 Hand in Brooklyn Heightsfor 16 Voices and Percussion (Bath, June 3, 1986); Beating About the Bushfor Mezzo-soprano and 6 Instruments (London, June 14, 1987); Greek Suitefor Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, and Chamber Ensemble (Frankfurt am Main, March 20, 1989); Some Daysfor Mezzo-soprano and Orch. (1989; London, July 21, 1991); Leavingfor Soprano, Tenor, Chorus, and Ensemble (1990; rev. version, Birmingham, May 9, 1992); Her Anxietyfor Soprano and Ensemble (1991; London, Sept. 15, 1992); Twice Through the Heartfor Mezzo-soprano and 16 Players (1994-96; Aldeburgh, June 13, 1997).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire