Let there be light and sound: Adés does Genesis

By Jean Hannah Edelstein, April 25, 2008
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Leading young composer Thomas Adés has enlisted his Israel video-artist partner Tal Rosner to help produce a concerto based on the Book of Genesis. They tell Jean Hannah Edelstein why they wanted to work together

Thomas Adés is one of the world’s finest young classical-music composers. Tal Rosner is an acclaimed Israeli video artist. They are already partners — they were among the first couples in the UK to enter into a legal civil partnership — but the world premiere next week of Adés’s piano concerto In Seven Days will mark their first professional collaboration.

The concerto was commissioned to celebrate both the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and London’s lavishly renovated Royal Festival Hall. The London Sinfonietta will perform under the guidance of Adés’s baton at the Festival Hall on Monday, accompanied by Rosner’s video installation, which will be displayed across six screens.

Discussing the project over coffee near their home in Central London, on a rare break from their intense preparations, it is apparent that the pair are good at keeping their working relationship separate from their personal one. “I knew Tal’s work and mine,” 37-year-old Adés explains. “I think when this suggestion came my way for a video piece, I suddenly felt that the time [to work together] was right.”

Development of the visual side of the concerto started slightly before the composing. Rosner, who is 29 and was born in Jerusalem, began collecting possible images for his installation at the time that the piece was originally conceived, about a year ago, taking hundreds of photographs and video clips, whereas Adés began the composing process only about nine months ago. From the very beginning, however, they were in agreement that the piece would need to be based around a solid storyline for it to work.

“We both felt that we needed some kind of story…that it should be a story that was so well-known,” says Adés, who graduated from King’s College, Cambridge in 1992.

Ultimately, they opted for the Book of Genesis. Neither Adés (whose paternal grandfather was Jewish) nor Rosner is religious, but both agree that using the version of the Torah story in the original Hebrew made it possible for them to explore the creation in a unique and unfettered fashion. This renders In Seven Days, in many respects, quite a Jewish work.

“It’s so much clearer, it’s very logical in Hebrew…” says Adés, who is not fluent, but is studying the language. “In the English, it’s not nearly as clear. I have nothing much Jewish in my upbringing at all, but I’ve kind of become very fascinated.”

While they acknowledge that the King James version of the Old Testament might be more familiar to many of their audience, it quickly became clear to Rosner and Adés that it would not have the kind of precision they were looking for in terms of what they wished to express in the work. For example, Adés points out, the way in which the state of the world is described at the very beginning of Genesis. “In the English, the translation which everybody knows is ‘without form and void’, whereas in Hebrew… it’s about chaos.”

That concept of chaos is one which lends itself nicely to the piece, as does the cyclical nature of the Old Testament story, with parallels between the first three and second three days of creation offering Adés an opportunity to employ recurring themes in the music. “Having it all so logical like that makes it much easier to follow in the music,” he says.

The pair agree that there is an added element of richness and playfulness that Hebrew allowed them to explore. “Meeting other Israelis, I feel — if I can say this — that in general they’re much more naturally fascinated by language,” says Adés.

Rosner concurs: “Hebrew’s a very playful language, words are really linked.” And having grown up in Israel means that Rosner’s relationship with the Torah — as a history book as well as a book about language and a religious text — is reflected in his modern interpretations of the ancient story. “The way that I work is that I take a lot of photos and footage of things, and I deconstruct them,” he says.

However, Rosner reflects, in some ways the work has been easier for them to create away from Israel. “I’m just thinking it might be a bit easier to do this here… In Israel people might be a bit sceptical, I think the people know [the story] so well.”

“It would probably seem obviously religious full-stop,” Adés agrees. Rosner nods. “That would be the kind of orientation,” he says. In contrast, producing the work in Britain and the US has given them the range to explore the mythic aspects of Genesis while also acknowledging the essential accuracy of the Torah.

“Pretty much everything in the story is more or less in the order that we know,” Adés says. “I think at the time they probably thought they were making the most scientific description of what happened.”

Putting the work together has been a process of exchange — working individually, the pair have passed music and images back and forth in order to create a cohesive piece.

“It tends to be that when I’ve finished a chunk, then that week he gets it and responds to it. I think it would be quite difficult the other way round,” Adés explains.

“The thing is that the visuals that we’ve done are quite tied together,” Rosner says. “The visuals are very responsive [to the music]. It’s not like wallpaper… it’s actually a very intricate response to the sound. Working this way definitely changed my approach to music —– in the [projects] which I did before with music, the piece was already finished before I started.”

The project has also caused Adés to engage with a new approach as well. “It’s very hand-in-glove actually,” he says of the collaboration. Following his receipt of sections of the video work, he says: “Many times I sort of ended up changing things, changing the colour a lot, changing the whole emphasis — it’s really pushed the music in all sorts of extreme directions.”

With the experience having been so positive thus far, will the pair collaborate again in the future? Adés says that the cyclical nature of the Torah prompted them to reflect on the possibility of another beginning.

“I said: ‘How are we going to end this?’,” Adés recalls, addressing Rosner. “And you said: ‘Oh well, we’ll just start the next cycle.’ And I thought, that’s a very Jewish kind of concept.”

In Seven Days is performed on Monday April 24 at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1. Tel: 0871 663 250

    Last updated: 12:30pm, April 24 2008