i’m not sure whether to interpret the Proms’ decision to place Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s new orchestral piece in a concert alongside Vaughan Williams and Elgar as an attempt to imply some kind of genteel, ‘establishment figure’ status. Yet – would that be wrong? Now in his early 60s, Turnage’s music has in recent years moved increasingly far away from the in-your-face provocations that made his name (and which were my own first contact with his music) way back in the early 1990s. It’s a fundamental shift in his langauge that i’ve remarked on numerous times during the last decade, yet to regard it as ‘mellowing’ shouldn’t, i think, be regarded as any kind of slight, particularly when it’s such an accurate description of the change. Indeed, the title of Turnage’s piece, Time Flies, even implies the conclusion, “… when you’re having fun” – a concept that, once upon a time, i never would have imagined being even remotely associated with Turnage’s music (except in some diabolically-maligned manifestation).
Conceptually, the three movements of Time Flies are aligned with the three cities that co-commissioned the piece: London, Hamburg and Tokyo. The alignment is only a conceptual one, though, as the movements are unnamed in the score, and the music does not, in any significant way, seek to tap into the musical culture of their respective countries. In many respects the piece is highly conventional, with a clear fast-slow-fast structure and drawing on the tried and tested tropes and mannerisms of Turnage’s musical language. However, while in the hands of some composers such reliance on well-worn ideas would result in a dull procession through predictability, in the case of Time Flies, it’s easy to be won over by its authentic blend of rambunctious sprightliness and heartfelt lyricism.
The opening movement (London) utilises Turnage’s Knussen-inspired approach to melody, lively and with an ultra-clear outline, tinged with just a whiff of folk music in its manner and metre. It initially sets out alone, before being given some mild accompaniment and gentle counterpoint. Turnage making the music push and pull between this and a slower, more relaxed, attitude. At first the orchestra surges away but the centre of the movement is filled with Turnage’s lyrical side, inhabiting a warm, balmy atmosphere with a solo saxophone as a brief focal point. No surprises for where things end up, though: flowing and cheerful again, dancing its way to an emphatic final chord.
The central (Hamburg) movement is Time Flies at its most compelling. Though acting as the slow movement, Turnage nonetheless makes heraldic brass the starting point, their robust quasi-fanfares eventually subsiding into a much more complex soundscape. There’s something hypnotic about the way ideas cycle round and jostle against each other, as if all of them were objects caught in, and reacting to, each other’s gravitational orbits. Turnage breaks the spell periodically with a mixture of forceful accents and rich chords, but it’s the music’s return to the mesmerising jostle that makes the deepest impression. The latter stages of the movement are borderline sentimental, delicate and gentle, wistful perhaps, even somewhat tired. Turnage makes the orchestra chug back out of lethargy, driving it on to a subsequent climax that sounds almost defiant in the midst of such an inclination to tenderness.
What can you say about the final (Tokyo) movement aside from the fact that it’s way, way too long? It’s fun, there’s no doubt about it, tapping into nothing remotely Japanese but instead a boisterous hybrid of Walton’s Facade and Stravinsky’s Ragtime. As in the first movement, Turnage makes moves to slow things down but here there’s no sense at all of wanting to commit to it, the orchestra hopping impatiently behind a sequence of slow chords as if desperate just to get on with mucking about. There are times when it vaguely resembles the Easy Listening repertoire from the second half of the 20th century; as an ardent fan of that music, that’s fine by me, and even though it later evolves into something akin to the arrangements one might hear on Strictly Come Dancing, the essence of this movement is bound up in its shape-shifting rhythmic and metric character. The music never stays the same for long, constantly changing the form and nature of its momentum, and while 11 minutes of this stuff seems like an overindulgence, Turnage at least never allows it to just settle into a single groove.
All of which makes it interesting to reflect afterwards (as i did, rather than beforehand) on Turnage’s surprisingly sober, even doom-laden programme note. It seems pretty clear that the composition and the note were written from very different mindsets; for everyone’s sake, let’s hope it’s the tone and spirit of the music, rather than the words, that ultimately prevails.
The UK première of Time Flies was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo.
HAVE YOUR SAY
I wrote Time Flies three years ago, in what seems a more innocent era. It was a reaction to getting older. Having grown up in the 1960s, I have, like many people, a nuclear anxiety, which in my case was bolstered by fear of the armageddon from my Pentecostal upbringing. Being told every day of your childhood you were going to burn for eternity unless you repented your sinful ways tends to breed fear and a deep dread. I still have apocalyptic nightmares. They fuel my music, which tends to be pretty pessimistic. Add the climate crisis into the mix and I don’t see much of a future for our children unless they all rise up and defeat the toxic masculinity and corruption that’s destroying our world. But I would never presume to tell a listener what to get out of my music. I would just be grateful they were listening at all. Sadly, I’m not convinced any of us will be around for much longer to hear it.