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
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital