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Mark-Anthony Turnage

born: 10 June 1960
country: United Kingdom

When Mark-Anthony Turnage emerged among the front rank of British composers in the 1980s, he did so by swimming against a strong tide of specialisation and stylistic concentration in contemporary composition. A graduate of the Royal College of Music (where he is now Professor of Composition), his eclectic style and diverse range of influences—from Stravinsky, Britten and Henze (all notably eclectic figures themselves), from other musical genres such as jazz, rock and, more recently, R&B, and from a wide range of literary interests—set him apart as a figure in tune with both the serious and popular culture of his time, and singularly unafraid to plough his own furrow.

If this was the impression made by early successes such as Night Dances (1981) and Lament for a Hanging Man (1983), it was redoubled by the overnight international success of Turnage’s first opera, Greek, at the 1988 Munich Biennale. Based on Steven Berkoff’s play of the same name, Greek revealed a remarkable technical and dramatic assurance, cocking a snook at opera’s grand pretensions to recreate ancient Greek tragedy while simultaneously affirming them. A similar coup was effected in his most recent opera, Anna Nicole, whose wide spectrum of styles allowed for sympathetic and satirical modes to be combined in a single glance.

While Turnage’s operas have been among his most high-profile successes, the backbone of his career has really been his extensive catalogue of music for orchestra (often in combination with voices), born of a mixture of a deep understanding of the orchestra with a child-like fascination for its power and sonic possibilities. One of his longest-standing champions has been Sir Simon Rattle, who invited Turnage to become composer-in-residence at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1989 and who has continued to programme and commission works since becoming music director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002.

As with his operas, Turnage’s orchestral output admits a wide range of musical, literary, and artistic influences, ranging from Beyoncé to Francis Bacon. In doing so, it resists a strong tendency to abstraction and worldly withdrawal in Western music. A melting pot of the personal and political dimensions of existence, Turnage’s music has always been about full immersion in the everyday nature of things, life in all its brightness, brashness, and, as often as not, loneliness.

from notes by Guy Dammann © 2012


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