Music: Going back to his roots
Mark-Anthony Turnage likes funk? Can't be true... Nick Coleman unravels an unlikely raft of influences
Friday 27 March 1998
His music might have big drums in it, his soloists might bend long notes over dense layers of compacted harmony, and his brass might snap like alligators. But Turnage music never grooves. Rather, it shifts uneasily from chord to chord and only disengages from its brooding abruptly, as if determined to take the shortest possible route between constriction and convulsion. It has twitchy titles too: Blood on the Floor, Three Screaming Popes, On All Fours, Dispelling the Fears. It's probably the music you'd least like to hear after a skinful on a Friday night in Basildon, when the minicab office is tube-lit and smells of urine. Anxiety is on the surface of Turnage's music like a rash.
It's instructive to note, however, that the music the composer most likes to hear after a night down the pub in Highbury, where he now lives close to his beloved Arsenal, is the mobile, grooved music he first encountered later in life than most. He'd been composing "bad Wagner" for nearly a decade when, in his late teens, he escaped the restrictions imposed by his strict Pentecostal family background (no pop, no jive) and gave himself over to lager and the Essex soul scene. Once bitten, forever smitten. Fortunately, he attended the Royal College of Music only on Tuesdays.
Now he is composer-in-association with ENO (long-term project, Sean O'Casey's First World War play The Silver Tassie), has had a worldwide hit with his stark opera of Steven Berkoff's play Greek, and in April is the sole subject of a festival on the South Bank, "Fractured Lives".
So where's the connection? Is it possible to nose the funk in the bleak architectonics of his formal composition? Or do we have to take it on trust, because Turnage is interested in "urban alienation" and wrote for American jazzers John Scofield and Peter Erskine in his Francis Bacon- inspired Blood on the Floor suite, that some kind of cold fusion has taken place between the tradition of Miles and Marvin and that of European art music?
Turnage himself is not prepared to be glib on the subject. His music is not a fusion in the usual jazz-lingo sense of the expression, in which the formal elements of one style are superimposed on another to lend novelty (and specious credibility) to a weary stylistic formula. Turnage does not write "jazz-soul-classical" music. Rather, his work pools its non- classical influences at the deeper, psychological level at which music is formatively governed: in the composer's head and loins, in his apprehension of the world and in the things that turn him on.
We might recognise its signs on the music's surface - in the eruptions of saxophone, drums and electric guitars; in the compositional use of those harmonic modes associated with "black" music - but what we actually hear is music by someone with a sensibility that has enjoyed popular music in its own terms and then got on with the job of writing complicated, disturbing formal music you can't dance to. It's music that acknowledges popular culture not as an interesting exterior phenomenon but as an indivisible feature of everyday experience.
These are the 10 non-classical records Mark Turnage considers the most important to him. When he plays the CDs to demonstrate what he means about them, he sits stock still on the floor facing the speakers, craning forward slightly and cocking his head. He doesn't tap his feet or click fingers. When he does have an observation to make, he indicates with an open hand or one extended finger the exact point in space where the crucial event is taking place, as if the music were a thing in the room one might actually touch.
CHARLES MINGUS The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse) 1963
"What I love about Mingus is his generous spirit. He's raw, nagging and a bit over the top, but he always does something. He always sounds like himself, and his music is always profoundly black, despite the fact that he often used white musicians.
"This is the best Mingus album. I love the accelerandos in the last section, where everything speeds up then goes back to the original tempo. I love its density and its layers, its sexiness and the way it wears its heart on its sleeve. And he's still underrated. I heard a correspondent on Radio 3 recently complaining that Mingus was irritating. Great. That's what I like, Mingus never gives you an easy time, and 'easy listening' goes against everything I stand for."
MILES DAVIS: Jack Johnson (Columbia) 1970
"I like everything Miles did but I thought I'd pick Jack Johnson ahead of Miles Ahead because people don't know it so well. It's the soundtrack music to a film I've never seen, about the first black heavyweight boxing champion.
"There's nothing else quite like this in the Miles canon. It's abrasive, burning, searing. His first entry is incredibly angry. Interestingly, he wanted John McLaughlin to play like Hendrix, and he's helped by the fact the album's recorded very upfront, almost like an R&B record. You put it on, you're drawn in and you can't help but listen to it all the way through. Like Mingus, it's mesmerising. You forget about time.
Everything leads into everything else, even in the odd, short bi-tonal bits where you get the guitar and trumpet overlapping in different keys."
STEVIE WONDER: Innervisions (Motown) 1973
Stevie Wonder is a real composer. Harmonically, he is completely individual. The way people make chords progress - whether they're jazz or Stravinsky - is a real clue to personality, and I think Stevie Wonder's harmonic language is very distinctive. He's also the only person I like playing mouth organ. The first time I heard mouth organ was Larry Adler doing the Vaughan Williams concerto, so you can see why I only like Stevie and a few blues players. There used to be a Milky Bar advert when I was a kid and it had a mouth organ soundtrack, and it used to make me feel depressed, which was not really the desired response."
SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE Fresh (Epic) 1973
"Not Sly's best known record by a long way but my favourite. I love Sly Stone. There's something very fucked-up about him - he has a weird effect on me. He certainly knew what he was doing. He used to walk around with Walter Piston's book on harmony in his pocket. But on the records it's just feel. Listen to 'In Time' - the counterpoint in the guitar and the stab chords in the organ, and the drums... it's very intricate. An orchestra couldn't play this music in a million years. It's about playing late, which is anathema to a classical musician. That brass section plays perfectly together, and I bet they only did one take - everyone being late together.
"It's sad the classical and non-classical worlds are so split. Classical musicians accepted the Beatles, Frank Zappa and, for a while in the Eighties, Talking Heads. So I find it insulting that this music isn't even disapproved off - it's just not taken seriously. Sly Stone is for me a far more important figure than Frank Zappa. Sly's is the music that will be remembered from his time."
ISLEY BROTHERS: Greatest Hits (Epic compilation) 1973-86
"I used to hate the Isleys because of Ernie's Hendrixy guitar. Soul boys do not approve of guitarists; at serious soul clubs in the Seventies you'd actually get people booing if there was a guitar solo on a record. Absurd, eh? Still, Ronald Isley's voice is unbelievable, another of my very favourites ones. I've used that slide he does at the beginning of 'Summer Breeze' in my own music. He does it frequently and I'm always knocked out by it."
PARLIAMENT Tear the Roof Off (Casablanca compilation) 1974-80
"I quote 'Flashlight' in Greek, hidden away in an interlude. George Clinton's P-funk stuff is a long way away from the art-house rock that classical people often like. All those sliding, nasty basslines, with whacky little tunes on top in elaborate arrangements... it's very, very layered. You could argue that this music is burdened with layers, but they get away with it because of their playing. It never sounds cluttered or stiff. Let's have a quick blast of 'Aquaboogie'..."
MARVIN GAYE Here, My Dear (Motown) 1978
"This is the album Marvin Gaye made about his marriage after it broke up. The royalties went to pay the alimony. It's a very bitter record, and it was criticised at the time for that, which I don't understand. It's the honesty of that bitterness that makes it great. He's so confused, the poor guy, and contradicts himself in virtually every other line. And he didn't clean up the contradictions afterwards.
"He multitracked the vocal parts late at night on his own after the rhythm section had gone home, and you can hear the melancholy and the discomfort in his singing. It's full of stuff you shouldn't admit to - very bare, very self-exposing over simple rhythm arrangements. Incredibly beautiful music. Parts of it break your heart."
EARTH WIND & FIRE I Am (Columbia) 1979
"Because I deal to some extent in darker, rather miserable things, this might seem like the antithesis to what I do, but I absolutely love it. I put it on this morning just to check it was the record I wanted to talk about, and it literally brought tears to my eyes. It's a perfectly put- together record. I even like 'Boogie Wonderland'. And the playing... it's so tight, has such snap; and the intricacy of everything, the strings, horns; and every time a new section starts it's always slightly different and always perfectly worked out.
"Harmonically, the shifts in 'After the Love Has Gone' are extraordinary. In fact, every music student party I went to played this - I think EW&F were approved of because they had this wonderful brass section and it was obvious they were great musicians. Interestingly, I Am just doesn't date. Quite a few things you hear from that period sound cheesy now but not this. It's very vertical, loud and layered, with hard edges. I like that a lot."
JACO PASTORIUS The Birthday Concert (WEA) 1981
"Jaco was the greatest bassist of all time - a difficult character but an extraordinary player. The sound he makes is completely his own. The way Jaco uses harmonics, the way he plays fast passages, are not only technically brilliant but musically right: perfect but with feel.
"Everyone's got a Jaco story - the strange things he did, the way he got killed, the myth behind him... He was a bit like Mingus, who also shot his mouth off and was a real outsider who couldn't cope with living in society, and that's very attractive."
JOHN SCOFIELD Still Warm (Gramavision) 1986
"Scofield is my favourite guitarist, and he's become a good friend. His tunes are similar to mine although from a completely different background - it's in the way he spaces chords and thinks about melodic lines. I also love the bluesy, behind-the-beat thing in his playing.
"We did some encores when we toured Blood on the Floor, including an arrangement of John's 'Protocol', and every time I went up for an encore, John would say, 'Come on, please play the piano.' I almost said yes on one occasion, because it would be fantastic to say I'd played on stage with John Scofield, but... naaah, y'know, I'm not a professional player and that's a bit dishonest. If I was a really good player, something like a great sax player, I'm not even sure that I'd compose, to be honest."
The Turnage festival, 'Fractured Lives', is at the South Bank Centre, London, April 3-18 (box office: 0171- 960 4242)
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