Thomas Adès was born in London in 1971 and studied piano, percussion and composition at the Guildhall School of Music in London. He then read Music at King’s College, Cambridge, before embarking on a career as a composer and conductor.
Adès’s first professional post was Composer in Association with the Hallé Orchestra, from 1993 to 1995, during which time he wrote These Premises Are Alarmed for the opening of the Bridgewater Hall in 1996. He wrote Asyla in 1997 for Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Rattle later conducted Asyla in his opening concert as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
Adès has received commissions from further afield, notably America: A Prophecy written for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
His compositions have featured at festivals around the world, including New Horizons Festival in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Festival and the Melbourne Festival.
From 1999 to 2008 he was artistic director of Aldeburgh Festival, the music festival co-founded by Benjamin Britten.
Adès has conducted a number of orchestras and ensembles around the world, including Boston Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Orchestre National de France, London Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern.
He has made several recordings as a pianist, including of works by composers Stravinsky and Busoni.
He was music director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group from 1998 to 2000.
He is the only composer to have won the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize for large-scale composition three times.
His partner is the video artist Tal Rosner. They collaborated in 2008 on a piano concerto with moving images In Seven Days.
5 Adès works to listen to
Asyla, written in 1997, is written in four movements and was commissioned by the CBSO and conducted at its premiere by Simon Rattle. The piece includes cowbell and a quarter-tone-flat upright piano.
Tevot was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and its world premiere was conducted by Sir Simon Rattle on 21 February 2007. In Hebrew, Tevot means ‘ark’ but can also mean ‘box’ or ‘vessel’ or alternately, ‘bars’ in a piece of music. Adès told The Guardian ‘I liked the idea that the bars of the music were carrying the notes as a sort of family through the piece’.
Powder Her Face, written in 1995, is an opera for four singers chamber orchestra. The opera is about a beautiful and promiscuous Duchess who is publicly disgraced during her divorce from the Duke of Argyll. Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times said of the work: 'Since its premiere Powder Her Face has been known as an opera about tabloid culture and the transience of modern celebrity, and it certainly is that. But more clearly than ever it also comes across as a work about class resentment, about the coruscating, deadening effects of money.'
The Tempest, written in 2003, is an opera in three acts based on Shakespeare's play of the same name which Alex Ross from The New Yorker describes as a ‘masterpiece of airy beauty and power’. Tom Service, in The Guardian, said: 'The sounds in The Tempest are, I find, some of the most unforgettable and most moving of any recent music.'
Darkness Visible is a piece written for solo piano in 1992 that references a John Dowland lute song and causes shimmering textures with a ceaseless tremolo.
In his own words
In the July 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine, Thomas Adès talked to our interviewer James Naughtie. Here is some of what he said…
‘Politicians, who are actors really, puzzle me because I don’t think it’s natural for a human mind to be arranged pointing in one direction. You have to pretend if you say that’s the case. Because it is not the way it is. And Wagner is often – enjoyably for me – torn apart by the contradictions.’
‘The music in my mind is a sort of underground river that flows on all the time, and it’s looking for a channel. So in a piece, for example, with an idea, text and character, they are just the channel and I have to let the music dig out, if you like, the piece from the rock’.
‘When I set a text to music, I’ve got the words, and in composing I don’t reach out and grab as many butterflies as I can and hope I find the right one. That’s not the way. Elgar spoke about the air being full of music: you just take as much as you need. That’s close to what I think.’
‘If I listen to Tristan, I find it’s really very much a working out of certain harmonic problems that were posed by Liszt. What I love about Liszt is that he left a lot of things unresolved.’
(Of Peter Grimes) ‘I just can’t believe in all these people dressed up as fishermen and that woman singing about her knitting. I mean, who cares?’