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

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?