What Am I Missing

He seems to me to be universally admired. At least, I’ve never read one word of criticism of the work of Thomas Adés, who has been extraordinarily successful as a composer from an early age. But, as much as I try, I just cannot hear what he is doing.

I was at Zankel Hall last night for the composers’ discussion and performance of three early works and a chamber piece based on his recent Tempest opera. It’s the kind of event that’s important for me, just to hear what it is people are doing and thinking about, and also another in the continuing attempts to appreciate work that resists my attentions – it paid off with Bruckner and Jackie McLean, so why not Adés? Well, so far, no payoff.

What I mean by not being able to hear what he is doing is that I cannot hear his intentions, so the point of the music, it’s execution and success or failure remain a mystery to me. Because I seem to be fighting the tide here, I’m partly assuming that I’m in the ‘wrong,’ but I trust my taste and experience, so I’m starting to conclude that he’s just not a good composer. Certainly he struck me as a bit over-praised as a pianist and conductor – capable, certainly, but not polished or greatly expressive at the keyboard, and strangely stiff and cueing late in leading music he himself wrote. And there remains the question of intentions. In other words, why is he doing what he’s doing?

His Eliot songs are an example. Why do we sing, and why do composers set poetry to music? Because we have found meaning in the words, and want to express that. The songs, though, convey no meaning whatsoever, other than that words have phonetic sounds that can be produced through a singers mouth and set to pitches. I’m not saying I don’t understand what the poems mean to the composer, I’m saying I don’t hear that they mean anything at all. And the vocal writing, like a lot of Adés instrumental parts, wears on the ear. He emphasizes upper registers and distortion of same to the point of irritation.

I don’t get, or hear, his language. Again, it’s not the case where he’s using a language I don’t understand, it’s that I don’t hear he’s using a coherent, organized language at all. Things seems to happen at random, but not with aleatory as an organizing principle, but arbitrarily in an almost irrational sense. There is nothing but effect and sensation. It leaves me cold. Perhaps I’m still missing something, and with repeated listening I am warming to Asyla, but eventually the diminishing returns will leave me to conclude that I’m the only one to actually hear what is not there.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.