Mark-Anthony Turnage: Anthems for doomed youth

Mark-Anthony Turnage's The Torn Fields revisits the poetry of the Great War
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The Independent Culture

How does it feel to be one of the most popular classical composers alive? Ask Mark-Anthony Turnage, and he says: "I tend to say I am a musician rather than a composer. People look blank if you say a composer. I don't get my music played on Classic FM and I am not a pop star, so it is relatively easy to remain anonymous."

Turnage was born in 1960 and studied at the Royal College of Music. He mainly writes for orchestra or chamber ensemble - fusing jazz and classical styles - and adds gritty opera to his repertoire now and again. His latest work, The Torn Fields, a song-cycle inspired by five poems about the First World War, has its premiere in London on 6 October.

His previous works have included Blood on the Floor, an orchestral piece exploring modern drug culture, and an opera adaptation of Steven Berkoff's play, Greek. This controversial updating of the Oedipus legend, set in the East End in the 1980s, contained X-rated language and earned Turnage a reputation as the "rude boy of opera". His second opera, The Silver Tassie, an adaptation of Sean O'Casey's play set in Ireland during the First World War, was first performed by English National Opera in 2000.

Despite Turnage's operatic successes, he says that he does not want to write another one. "I'm not interested in that world at all. It doesn't turn me on," he says. "I feel less and less at home in an opera house. There are financial rewards, but it is a stifling and snotty atmosphere. I know it sounds like I'm being pathetic, but it takes me two years of hell to write one."

Turnage feels much more comfortable with instrumental music. He knew that he wanted to be a composer from the age of nine, and counts Bach and Beethoven among his heroes. His inspiration to write The Torn Fields was the Canadian baritone and opera star Gerald Finley, who also performed in The Silver Tassie. "I find it hard to write vocal music, which is another reason to avoid more opera. But Gerald Finley is, in my view, the greatest baritone around.Writing for him made it easier."

The Torn Fields was commissioned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. The central poem is Wilfred Owen's "Disabled", which "encapsulates the story of The Silver Tassie and was the template for the original play". Turnage has also included "A Son", a short poem by Rudyard Kipling, who was deeply traumatised by the death of his only son in action.

Members of Turnage's family fought in the First World War, and his father-in-law helped him choose the poems. It took Turnage about four months to write the piece, which will be performed by 20 players.

He describes the work as "melancholic, not surprisingly, because of the subject matter. But it gets jazzy at points". Indeed, Turnage dreams next of collaborating with jazz musicians such as the US pianist Brad Mehldau.

'The Torn Fields', played by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Gerald Finley, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550) 6 October

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