The inhabitants of the planet Tlön, in Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” have a radically different understanding of the universe than we Earthlings do: “For the people of Tlön,” Borges’s imaginary historian tells us, “the world is not an amalgam of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts.” Their languages are entirely free of nouns, and the very concept of a noun—an object with a stable, temporally continuous identity—strikes Tlönians as a physical impossibility. They have “no noun that corresponds to our word ‘moon,’ but there is a verb which in English would be ‘to moonate’ or ‘to enmoon.’” The Tlönian equivalent of a statement like “The moon rose above the river” might be rendered in English as “Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.”
In the music of the English composer Thomas Adès, harmonies behave rather the way objects do on Tlön: they are verbs, not nouns. It rarely makes sense in his music to speak of, say, D major as an object that can be isolated in time; and yet a D-major chord may well make itself felt as a shimmering, ever-evolving presence, part of the “onstreaming” (upward, behind the onstreaming it D-majored). It is this paradoxical sense of everyday musical objects defamiliarized, of nouns alchemically transformed into verbs, seemingly solid substances activated and liquefied, that has made Adès one of the most influential musicians of the early twenty-first century—for his fellow composers in particular.
Adès is both an innovator at music’s cellular level—his idiosyncratic use of irrational time signatures, such as 2/6 or 5/12, might convince listeners that their hearts have developed an unsettling habit of skipping beats—and a virtuosic showman with an over-the-top, more-is-more aesthetic. This is an unusual combination. It’s rare for an artist of such sheer technical mastery to also have Adès’s taste for extravagance, excess, fun. He is willing to run antipodal aesthetic risks: at times he verges gleefully on the grotesque, while elsewhere his music manifests a disarming psychic and emotional openness. He has invented new orchestral colors, and he’s taught us new ways to dance. In different ways, he is both our Berlioz and our Stravinsky.
Over the past decade Adès has tended to focus on a single large-scale composition for years at a time, so the recent releases of superb recordings of his opera The Exterminating Angel (2016) and the vocal-orchestral Totentanz (2013), which is paired with the pianist Kirill Gerstein’s authoritative reading of Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018), afford a rich opportunity to experience the full range of the composer’s musical idiom throughout the 2010s. Though Adès’s works are almost never overtly topical, they often seem—especially in hindsight—to possess a subterranean clairvoyance: just as his apocalyptic America: A Prophecy (1999) attained a toxic, radioactive relevance after the September 11 attacks, so The Exterminating Angel, which tells of the mysterious, interminable confinement of a group of dinner-party guests in a single room, is full of surreal premonitions of the global claustrophobia out of which we have yet to emerge.
At the core of Adès’s musical psychology there lies an innocent, childlike refusal. “I have a problem—well, it’s not a problem for me, but it can make life confusing talking to anyone else—which is that I don’t believe at all in the official distinction between tonal and atonal music,” he tells the journalist Tom Service in their book of conversations, Full of Noises (2012). The reality of this “official distinction” was taken for granted in most discussions of classical music in the latter half of the twentieth century; indeed, the presumed tonal/atonal dichotomy became an essential organizing principle, a neat way of corralling new music into discrete schools. As a student, I remember being asked by musicians and nonmusicians alike whether my music was “tonal or atonal.” I felt a little unnerved by the bluntness of the question: Were these the two kinds of music? If I studied at a conservatory, would I be recruited to one team or the other by some swaggering captain, as in gym class? Once I had declared my allegiance, would I have to do battle with the opposing side?
The refusal to recognize these categories implies an unwillingness to define familiar, tonal-sounding harmonies as “stable” and atonal ones as somehow “liberated.” Emancipation, for Adès, lies in a third path: he freely uses chords and gestures that we might fleetingly recognize from the music of past centuries, but in his hands, they are unstable, volatile substances. They tend not toward resolution but toward evanescence and escape.
This approach also contains an implicit refusal of any purely linear idea of musical history—for instance, the notion that just because a few European men felt an oppressive sense of shame about the political implications of certain post-Wagnerian harmonies after World War II, those harmonies must remain illegal for all of us. Such an idea makes no sense to Adès. (It wouldn’t pass the smell test on Tlön, either.) In his eyes, the sheer availability of a millennium’s worth of world music—through scores, recordings, YouTube videos—has caused a kind of flattening of the historical continuum. Within this vast repository, a composer might find material for the creation of new worlds in some pretty unexpected places. And why not, when the alternative is a narrow Oedipal struggle with the generation of one’s musical parents? Adès’s stance is, paradoxically, both blithely ahistorical and notable for the acuteness and thoroughness of its historical consciousness. History is not a dead weight, in his view, but rather a still-living, ever-mutating compost heap, a fertile ecosystem within which we may forage, hunt, build.
All opera composers surely yearn, consciously or not, to find their ideal subject, the elusive story that would fit their sensibility so snugly that the distinction between what’s happening onstage and what’s happening in the music would—impossibly—dissolve. The listener, encountering such a piece, might have the uncanny sense that the characters are embodiments of forces that are always present in that composer’s music, even their instrumental works. These perfect marriages are exceedingly rare, but they exist: Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is one such unicorn; Harrison Birtwistle’s oeuvre of Orpheus-inspired pieces is another. To this very short list I would add Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film.
The plot of Angel is simple and surreal. A group of wealthy socialites arrives at the mansion of Edmundo and Lucía de Nobile for a dinner party. It quickly becomes clear that something is amiss: as the guests arrive, the Nobiles’ servants are hastily preparing to flee the house, mumbling excuses to their infuriated mistress on their way out. After dinner the guests gather in the drawing room, where they unexpectedly linger for hours. When they finally decide, close to dawn, that it’s time to go home, they find themselves incapable of leaving the room. As this inexplicable hostage situation stretches out over days and weeks, the guests’ behavior degenerates into primal viciousness: they run out of food; a young couple commits suicide in a closet; fights break out; some people suffer hallucinations; and a few of the men finally decide that Edmundo, their host, must be sacrificed. They are liberated when a young guest, Leticia, forces everyone to retrace their steps and reenact every event from their first night of captivity. The spell is broken, and the guests finally cross the threshold, some of them weeping with relief. In the final scene, however, the “exterminating angel” strikes once again, this time in a church where a mass has just been offered in gratitude for the guests’ apparent liberation.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect story for Adès’s sensibility, for a number of reasons. There is, of course, the easy analogy between Adès’s music and Buñuel’s visual Surrealism: a chord whose properties we thought we knew might, in Adès’s work, suddenly slide off the edge of the earth, as a clock might in a Salvador Dalí painting. But this analogy, though enticing—Adès’s mother, the art historian Dawn Adès, is an expert in Surrealism—is also inexact: music is a temporal art, not a spatial one, and I find that Adès’s mature work, for all its vividness and its power to shock, unfolds in a fundamentally organic way that has little to do with the jarring juxtapositions that often characterize Surrealist visual art.
A truer basis for Adès’s attraction to Angel is his professed sensitivity to the absurdity of many of humankind’s social rituals, including the conventions of musical performance. He has said that he is prone to asking himself, even in the familiar arena of a concert hall, “What are we doing here? What are all those musicians doing?” In other words, what is the nature of the forces that propel us, as a species, to congregate in these elaborate ways? By whose will do we move from one place to another? When you stop to examine it, it certainly doesn’t seem to be our own. The Exterminating Angel puts this enigmatic force under a microscope and asks what would happen if it were suddenly switched off—exterminated, that is, by some impish “angel.”
Another aspect of Angel that seems to have attracted Adès is its sheer profligacy. He has a great love both for lavish musical materials—lush, extravagant orchestrations; voluptuously dense harmonic voicings—and for the thrill of setting those materials on fire and watching the whole exquisite fabric burn up in midair. In his instrumental music, one will frequently encounter a well-bred orchestral instrument—an oboe, for instance—squealing in indignation at having to turn some somersault that no composer has ever asked it to perform before. The characters in Angel react with similar pique as they find themselves, in spite of their genteel manners and designer clothes, dragged ever closer to the condition of beasts.
A few years ago, an administrator at an opera house that was presenting Angel told me—throwing his hands up in theatrical despair—that putting this opera on night after night was “like watching money burn.” Angel is indeed distressingly expensive to produce: the cast includes fourteen principal singers and eight secondary roles, plus a chorus and an enormous orchestra that includes a battery of offstage percussionists. I don’t think my sober-minded friend intended this double meaning, but “watching money burn” isn’t a bad image for the events of Angel’s drama. The oblivious socialites who populate the opera’s cast are themselves the rarefied materials, the fresh meat, that are immolated and served up over the course of the evening. As the guests arrive in the first scene, keen-eared listeners might sense the presence of a hungry composer licking his lips, sharpening his cutlery: the ingredients are being assembled, and how tender they are! A hellish catharsis awaits. Many of Adès’s pieces feel like bonfires of the vanities; this one is a bonfire of the vain.
The Exterminating Angel had a long gestation period, during which Adès took a number of detours to compose other pieces. Perhaps the most significant of these is Totentanz, which is a tour de force even by his standards, and one of the most exhilarating musical works written so far in this millennium. Totentanz, whose Lisztian title is the German term for a danse macabre, is scored for two singers (baritone and mezzo-soprano) and large orchestra; though it is barely thirty minutes long, it is operatic in its scope. The work’s text derives from a medieval frieze in a church in Lübeck, Germany, that depicted the skeletal figure of Death “dancing” with a person from every rank of society, from the pope down to a newborn baby, with poetic dialogue between Death and his mortal interlocutors inscribed beneath the images. (The frieze was destroyed in an air raid that devastated Lübeck on the eve of Palm Sunday, 1942.) The painting’s message is clear: every one of us is on Death’s dance card, and no one can refuse his invitation.
In Adès’s setting, the baritone is Death, while the mezzo-soprano portrays each of his human victims in turn. Death is cruelly peremptory with some characters, especially the self-important ones, while he treats others with an eerie tenderness—notably the last two, the Maiden and the Baby, the latter of whom he summons with the finespun lure of a Mahlerian lullaby. (This Death can also be venomously funny: he tells the pope, for instance, that he’s going to have to take his hat off, since it won’t fit in the narrow box that will be his new home.) Totentanz’s orchestra is a garish infernal machine full of rattles, bones, whistles, and whips, and it makes for an earth-shaking experience; it’s the only piece I’ve ever heard performed in New York’s David Geffen Hall that managed to shatter the sound barrier of that space’s notoriously dull acoustic.
Totentanz is, I think, in deep dialogue with The Exterminating Angel: the latter work’s angel-force and Totentanz’s death-force are close cousins, two spirits that operate within the same demonic hierarchy. We might even think of the Angel as a mischievous servant-demon to Death, Puck to Death’s Oberon—or, in a more specifically Adèsian analogy, Ariel to Death’s Prospero. In Adès’s operatic adaptation of The Tempest (2004), Prospero is a baritone, as Totentanz’s Death is, and Adès’s Ariel is a high-flying, dizzyingly acrobatic soprano. The Exterminating Angel’s titular spirit is made manifest in the orchestra by the electronic ondes Martenot, a distinctly “aerial” keyboard instrument whose sound is that of a playful, lyrical ghost. Like Ariel, the Angel’s daily labor entails swooping down in order to gigglingly torment a band of hapless mortals.
The mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, who performed in Totentanz’s premiere and also sings, with awesome mastery, on the Boston Symphony recording, has aptly described the “ecstasy of panic” that overcomes some of Totentanz’s characters, especially the ones who are attached to their worldly power and childishly cling to it, like devalued currency, even in their final moments. There is an erotic thrill to the whiteout of terror that these people experience when they realize the inescapability of the encounter, a tingle of rapture that is repeated so incessantly in Totentanz that it seems almost an addiction. This same ecstasy of panic is also the source of The Exterminating Angel’s power: the Angel has the entire cast wrapped around its ghostly finger and cheerfully toys with them before our eyes. Every motion we see onstage is the writhing of a fish on an invisible hook.
The essential similarity between the Angel and Totentanz’s Death lies in the variability of the relationships between them and their mortal victims. The nature of each encounter depends on the victim’s reaction to the presence of the supernatural being. In general, if a character is foolish enough to thrash around in an attempt to escape, Death and the Angel are likely to be particularly nasty with them. The best thing to do—as with a frightening psychedelic trip or a skid on an icy road—is to lean into it: the characters who surrender themselves to the experience are typically treated with great solicitude.
This is exemplified by the Maiden and the Baby in Totentanz and the young lovers, Beatriz and Eduardo, in Angel, who ultimately commit suicide in a delirious joint Liebestod. The music for all four of these characters has an exquisite sickly sweetness that we witness, over the course of each scene, going sour and finally rotting to the core. (Curiously enough, each of these scenes is preceded by another character singing some variant of the phrase “Consummatum est,” Jesus’ last words on the Cross.) Both the Baby’s music and that of the lovers in Angel begin as a mesmeric floating lullaby, but the misty radiance of the texture does not last: each ultimately develops a pulse, a sort of fetal heartbeat, which steadily grows into a drumbeat of annihilation. In each piece, the characters recite a mantra as the cosmic quicksand pulls them under: “my love, my refuge, my death,” in Angel; and “tanzen…tanzen…” (“dancing, dancing”) in Totentanz. Drumbeats bookend each bar, on the pickup and the downbeat: the inexorable pounding of nails into a coffin.
“The gates of Hell,” W.H. Auden once asserted, “are always standing wide open. The lost are perfectly free to leave whenever they like, but to do so would mean admitting that the gates were open, that is to say that there was another life outside.” The gates to the Nobiles’ mansion also stand wide open throughout Buñuel’s film. The guests remain within not because some divine judge has ordained their imprisonment but rather because their souls are hopelessly entangled with their material wealth: they refuse to recognize that there is “another life outside.”
What is it that finally frees them? Adès’s answer to this question differs strikingly from Buñuel’s, and accordingly the climactic moment of the guests’ liberation is one of the few significant points of divergence between film and opera. Buñuel’s cast is liberated by a conscious act of repetition: when poor Edmundo is about to sacrifice himself to his increasingly wrathful guests, the young and previously aloof Leticia suddenly cries out. She has noticed that everyone has ended up in precisely the same positions in the room they occupied on the first night of their ordeal. She insists that they reenact, as best they can recall, everything they said and did on that first evening: one guest, Blanca, plays the piano; everyone applauds; Edmundo says he wishes they had a harpsichord; and Blanca announces that she is tired. Once the guests have performed this ritual of repetition, they find that they are free.
We might remember at this point that the film’s first scene had featured an odd, unexplained repetition: when the guests first enter the mansion, Edmundo calls for the footman to get the coats; he realizes with irritation that the footman isn’t there; the guests walk upstairs—and then the entire sequence repeats itself. It seems like an editing mistake. In hindsight, however, it reveals itself as a hint dropped by Buñuel that the cast is trapped in a barren, Escheresque temporal loop: another evening at the theater, another dinner party, another sheeplike ascent of a marble staircase. When the guests finally accept the reality of life as eternal repetition, they achieve a moment of transcendent, Kierkegaardian clarity. But their liberation is provisional at best. To be aware of the cyclicality of existence is, for Buñuel, merely to be in on some cosmic joke: the world outside soon reveals itself, chillingly, to be simply a bigger version of the same room.
The subtle but profound difference between Buñuel’s treatment of the moment of liberation and Adès’s depends on the composer’s decision to fuse two of the film’s dinner-party guests—Silvia, a glamorous opera singer, and the supposedly virginal Leticia—into a single character (named Leticia). In Adès, at this crucial repeated moment, the entire cast begs Leticia to sing. The first time she declines, but the second time she consents, and her song proves to be the key that opens the door out of the Angel’s torture chamber. The Angel, a musical force itself, demands a musical counterspell. In Buñuel, pure repetition gets the guests out of the drawing room, but in Adès, it is Leticia’s music—which is a new element, not a repetition—that makes the difference.
The text of Leticia’s song is based on a haunting Zionide by the medieval Spanish Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi: “Zion, do you ask of my peace, who longs for yours?” This Hebrew-derived text is part of a rich nexus of references to Jewish poetic and musical traditions in Adès’s work. Though he was not raised Jewish, he learned as an adult that his name is one of “immemorial Jewish origin,” and he subsequently became fruitfully curious about this phantom heritage. (Incidentally, the Ades Synagogue, in Jerusalem, is a center for ancient Sephardic traditions of liturgical music.)
In Full of Noises, Adès explicitly connects his fascination with Jewish cultural traditions to his sense that “I’m afraid I am only at home with a certain temporariness, an instability…. I always had a slight sense that I wasn’t completely rooted in one place.” A few pages later, Adès quotes André Breton’s line “Life is elsewhere,” noting that some of his most memorable musical textures have been inspired by the idea of music as “elsewhere.” The cast of Angel, if they hope to be liberated from their purgatorial here-and-now, must also achieve the humility that’s required to confess their longing for an “elsewhere.” And how better to express this longing than in music?
When the cast implores Leticia to sing, the music traces a breathtakingly beautiful crabwise ascent that recalls a passage in Adès’s orchestral piece Tevot, whose title carries a rich double meaning. Tevot is the Hebrew word for a bar of music, but it is also redolent of the term for Noah’s ark and for the cradle that carries the infant Moses across the Nile. A bar of music is thus a vessel, a kind of raft, that might carry us from one shore to another. Elsewhere in Angel, one character sings an eerie little song full of ocean imagery, whose lyrics are inspired by still another Hebrew-language text, a children’s poem by the writer Chaim Bialik: “Over the sea,” she asks, “over the sea, where is the way?”
These interconnections in Adès’s oeuvre—uneasy waters, uneasy harmonies; the suffocating materiality of the present, the longing for a lost homeland; the bar, the ark, the exiled singer—are all the more potent for their subtlety. They do not advertise themselves but flow beneath the surface, in the music’s bloodstream.
The suggestion that music is a quasi-Kabbalistic key, capable of opening a locked spiritual door, is a welcome note of hope in a piece that is otherwise exceedingly bleak. My only qualm about Angel, which is not a criticism so much as a content warning, is that, in addition to being exhilarating, it is exhausting. My nerves feel pretty raw just studying the score; I can’t imagine what it’s like to perform. Adès’s music is so explosive and so dense that I find I often prefer to experience it in smaller doses—a twenty- or thirty-minute symphonic or chamber piece, for example, rather than an opera.
Adès has voiced his ambivalence about some works by the composer György Ligeti, whose music he fundamentally admires, for its unalloyed grimness of outlook: “Why are we here, dealing with this,” he wonders, “if it’s all just a black joke?” The Exterminating Angel toys with a similarly dark worldview: Ligeti’s one opera is called Le Grand Macabre (1978), and surely Angel is Adès’s own grand macabre. But I think the opera’s powers of catharsis far outweigh the violence it does to the listener’s nervous system (and the finances of any theater that dares to present it). Like the Angel with which he wrestles, Adès’s spell is mighty hard to resist.
This essay is adapted from The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera, which will be published in December by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Matthew Aucoin.
May 13, 2021