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In the bloodstream

Who ever said listening should be easy? Not Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose latest piece injects themes of drug abuse and urban angst into a high-octane cocktail of jazz and classical styles
If anyone was to write an opera about the wayward Arsenal star, Paul Merson, by rights it should be Mark-Anthony Turnage. His home in Highbury is a stone's throw from the Gunners' ground, where he's a season ticket holder, and the betting shop where Merson used to while away the afternoons before the lure of 10 pints of lager top and coke chasers drew him westwards is just across the road. The opera Turnage did write, an adaptation of Steven Berkoff's Greek, was produced to huge acclaim in 1988 and has continued to be staged ever since. It was followed in 1989 by the orchestral work Three Screaming Popes, inspired by Francis Bacon's famous sequence of paintings, and marking the start of four productive years spent as "composer in association" with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

The Bacon associations continue in his latest orchestral work, Blood on the Floor (named after a late painting), which receives its world premiere at the South Bank Centre tonight and tomorrow, performed by Germany's Ensemble Modern (last seen here dispatching the music of Frank Zappa with steely professionalism), who also commissioned it. Intriguingly, the Ensemble are to be bolstered by the presence of two stars from American jazz, guitarist John Scofield and drummer Peter Erskine, as well as saxophonist Martin Robertson, a frequent collaborator with Turnage, and the whole 85-minute performance is to be recorded live by Argo for an album.

Described in the advance publicity as "an evening-long exploration of aspects of urban alienation and drug addiction", the material would seem grist to the mill of an Arsenal fan but for the very real experience which underlies Turnage's take on his subject. His brother, Andy, died from drugs in March last year and time spent in Frankfurt with the Ensemble inured him to the sight of addicts shooting up in the broad daylight of the red-light district, just across the road from the hotel where he was billeted. A further inspiration for the piece, the jazz poet Langston Hughes's "Junior Addict", supplies another tragic sub-text.

Growing up near Basildon in Essex left Turnage, now 35, with an unusually normal background for a contemporary composer, and also acted as a jumping- off point for his immersion in jazz. "I got into jazz through soul and funk at Essex discos when I was 19," he says. "At that time a lot of the real jazz musicians were into fusion, like Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard, and though I was aware of some people like Miles Davis, the lesser known ones I got into through disco. I'd be going to the Royal College on a Tuesday, doing harmony and counterpoint and composition lessons, and by Thursday I'd be going down the Goldmine at Canvey Island and listening to Robbie Vincent. I think it's because I started writing my first pieces at a time when I was heavily into jazz and funk that it rubbed off. But whenever I mention people I admire like Sly Stone or George Clinton, people go 'Oh, right', because they're just not known or respected in the classical world. I have this funny view of musical history in that I don't think classical music of the Fifties or the Sixties is very interesting. It's much more interesting in the jazz of the time, like Miles Davis, and that is the music that I think will be remembered."

The jazz influence wasn't entirely a conscious one. When the composer Oliver Knussen, who was Turnage's teacher, led a workshop on one of his pupil's pieces at Aldeburgh in 1983, he asked a woodwind player to repeat a line from the score and commented on how close it sounded to late Fifties jazz of the Gil Evans school. "I was quite taken back," Turnage recalls. "It's buried in there because you've absorbed so much, but with this latest piece it's really become part of what I do, hopefully authentically."

His interest in jazz amounts to a passion and he rails against its use in "straight" music as a form of light entertainment. "It's like brass groups," he says. "They'll commission all these serious pieces and then they'll do light-hearted things like 'The Girl from Ipanema' or Cole Porter arrangements and it's dire. I find it patronising and I want to walk out. It's like easy listening and that Mike Flowers mentality. People who find it funny aren't that interested in music. I remember hearing a Mike Flowers version of Prince's 'Raspberry Beret' and I thought, 'I love this song, why is he taking the piss out of it?' For me, it's too serious. I remember years ago people writing to Radio 3 saying they were playing too much Charles Mingus and complaining that it was too much to take, and I thought that's why it's so fantastic, because it annoys you and it isn't just in the background. I want music to overwhelm you."

Scofield and Erskine are genuinely his heroes and he is naturally nervous about getting everything right on the night when they join the Ensemble for the performances, which continue with a European tour. "I shouldn't really say this," he says, "but I've written two encores, arrangements of 'Protocol' by Scofield and 'Anthem' by Erskine, and I tried them out with the Ensemble without the soloists and it was a disaster." He's been busy transcribing chords into a form that Scofield might recognise and re-writing the drum part with Erskine to ensure that there's some room for improvisation left to play with. The experience has been, he says, an inspiring one. "The richness of Scofield is almost enough in itself, without 36 pieces of the Ensemble. What I'd really like to do next is work further with jazz musicians, maybe going into the studio and making an album. I'd like not to work with straight musicians for a while because I've been working with them so long."

Meanwhile, he has another opera to work on, for ENO, with whom he is now composer in residence, and a chamber opera for Aldeburgh. The subjects of both are already sorted, however, so Paul Merson may have to wait a while longer yet.

n Ensemble Modern perform Mark-Anthony Turnage's 'Blood on the Floor' at QEH, London SE1, tonight and tomorrow. Booking: 0171-960 4242