Blood on the Floor
Dave Carpenter (bass)
Richard Edwards (trombone)
Peter Erskine (drums)
Jonathan Holland (trumpet)
Bruce Nockles (trumpet)
John Parricelli (guitar)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 17 January, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
I had better be careful what I write in this review since I would not wish to be accused of having a mind “burdened by musical prejudices and hostile partisan loyalties” which might be “closed within seconds of hearing the opening bars” of a work by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Thus decrees Andrew Stewart at the start of his introduction entitled ’Insight’ in the programme book.
One’s immediate reaction to remarks of this kind – apart from a degree of astonishment – is to wonder why Turnage’s music apparently requires such protection from “those who prefer clear genre divisions and to remain wedded to 19th-century notions of absolute music” (Stewart again). Is the music itself not sufficient in itself to make its point? After all, there are plenty of 20th-century and contemporary composers who have crossed “clear genre divisions” and whose music has been appreciated for that very reason.
With three world premieres, two premieres of revised versions, a first London performance, numerous talks and films, and associated events at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the BBC has certainly done Turnage proud with ’Momentum’. Coupled with a new publishing deal with Boosey and Hawkes, Turnage is indeed riding high and so would appear to have little need of defence.
Blood on the Floor formed the opening concert of ’Momentum’ and the commitment of the performers was immediately apparent. Orchestra and soloists were extremely well prepared. The piece is in nine movements, assembled between 1993 and 1996 in a variety of situations and circumstances. The opening movement, which gives the work its title, came first and is described by the composer as “a sour 10-minute opener” for a jazz-based concert promoted by the Ensemble Modern. Sour indeed, with Turnage’s hallmarks of strident scoring, wailing, pithy melodic ideas (with shrill soprano saxophones to the fore) and rampant rhythmic writing with constant Stravinsky-like changes of metre.
With the second movement, ’Junior Addict’, we come to perhaps the raison d’être of the work as a whole. Personal tragedy, namely the death of his brother from drug addiction, prompted Turnage to write what is, in effect, memorial music. This and the sixth movement, ’Elegy for Andy’, are clearly the most deeply felt and thus the most immediately communicative.
The bitter-sweet melodies, poignantly scored, are very affecting and I could not help but muse over the fact that it seemed to be these more inward-looking, touching moments which housed the most effective music in the piece as a whole – not the raucous ’in your face’ music which Turnage appears to have gained a reputation for.
Other sections that really made an impact were the truly jazz-influenced ones, with elements of improvisation from those instruments that, in effect, form a concertante group – guitar, bass, drums and saxophone. Turnage is most fortunate in his players, and Peter Erskine’s drumming and especially John Parricelli’s improvised guitar soloist were of the highest order of invention.
The moments which did not work for me were those where the ’fusion’ of jazz and what might be termed ’contemporary classical’ styles was intended, but I concede that further hearings might elicit a different response. One real practical problem was that of balance, as the strings at times were inaudible. Whether this is a fault inherent in the scoring or a difficulty encountered on this particular occasion, it was not possible to tell.
My reaction to Blood on the Floor is that it too long and that a shorter work lies somewhere in its midst – maybe those pensive movements described earlier, interspersed with the improvisatory passages would work well, but then maybe I have a mind “burdened by musical prejudice” and cannot fully appreciate Turnage’s intentions in this piece!