Thomas Adès: Asyla by Edward Venn (review)
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Thomas Adès: Asyla. By Edward Venn. pp. 178. Landmarks in Music since 1950. (Routledge, Abingdon and New York, 2017. £95. ISBN 978-4094-6884-4.)

The field of scholarship on Thomas Adès is quickly growing, and Edward Venn's Thomas Adès: Asyla—the first monograph on the composer—is a welcome addition. It is also fitting that his four-movement quasi-symphony Asyla should be the subject, as this is Adès's most popular work. Since its extremely positive critical reception, Asyla has become part of a small canon of frequently programmed contemporary works within Britain, and it catapulted its composer to a modernist superstardom rarely seen for someone so young. The book begins with two short chapters: the first places Adès in the context of the 1990s British musical scene both artistically and in terms of discourse on national identity, and the second discusses musical devices in his early works that reached full development in Asyla. In chapters 3–7, 'the core of the book' (p. xvi), Asyla is subjected to a detailed technical and hermeneutic analysis. Venn reads each movement from start to finish, describing the music's progress in terms of guiding metaphors linked to the many meanings of the term 'asyla', the plural of 'asylum'. The analysis of the first movement stages tension between an arcadian pastoral idyll and grim urban dance; the second movement is described in terms of a sanctuary or haven; the third is read as a promise of hedonistic escapism linked to electronic dance music (EDM), and the fourth is read in terms of the choral topic and its associations with communal singing and loss. In the seventh chapter, Venn turns to popular criticism, journalism, and theoretical tools in order interpret the work more generally. The eighth and final chapter focuses on the ways in which stylistic tensions left hanging in Asyla are developed and extended in later pieces.

Venn's methodology, as in most scholarship on Adès to date, is largely theoretical. But Venn's writing is extremely lucid. He clearly communicates the ways in which Adès plays with and expands very basic compositional processes in order to create a musical sound that draws the ear in its immediacy, but also rewards further contemplation and study. In this respect, Venn's prose is much like Adès's music: he manages to convey these processes in all their intricacy, inviting intense consideration while maintaining an overall compelling flow. Among the concepts discussed are the expanding intervallic series, for example, in which Adès 'embrace [s] ... all the possible intervals smaller than an octave in as short a span as possible' (p. 18), and the Berg-esque tonal palette that arises from these intervallic sequences, in which 'a large number of the resulting harmonies are commonplace ... [but] the logic that governs the progression from one to the next is not that of traditional tonality' (p. 16).

A more central theme is Adès's propensity for setting up musical patterns and then disrupting them for expressive purposes. Venn occasionally overstates the aural effect of these disruptions in order to highlight their metaphorical properties: how easily do we really hear the Duchess's final G♯ at bar 400 of Powder her Face, which grammatically disrupts the ascending expanding intervallic series of her sung line at bar 396, as 'an acoustic phenomena [sic]′ (p. 35)? How does it convey a 'dramatic function', that serves to draw attention to the fact that despite the Duchess's 'mounting excitement and hopes of a future of unimagined wealth... something is wrong' (p. 19)? This early blurring between music-as-heard and music-as-read leads to ambiguities later: in what sense does the cadential F♯ which deviates from the octatonic set of the melody at bar 18 in the first movement of Asyla, present as 'a kink in the tail, establishing a musical tension' (p. 44)? By begging these questions, Venn invites a consideration of the dialectical relationship between score analysis and the immediate impact of the music. This allows him to foreground certain points as 'musical problems' (p. xvi) that draw the listener in, demanding...


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