On Classical Music: Thomas Adés’ Polaris

The trend toward what I’m tempted to call “pattern storm” music has by now firmly established itself. Is it a phenomenon of this century, or did it start slightly earlier?

In any case, the artful layering of artful layers in a continuous flow, now rising, now falling, is a form as surely as any of the many definitions of “sonata.” It may even be in danger of becoming as ossified as sonata form.

Certainly, any piece by Esa Pekka-Salonen exhibits the tell-tale signs of late phase degeneration in its gigantisms. Loud thumping anthemic tunes ring out over loud thumping, sound-effect-laden textures, only to die away and be replaced by a variant.

Do such continuous, onrushing pieces have an ending? It’s not unreasonable to wonder if the conclusion of many a work in this category is the onset of carpel tunnel syndrome. Even with the automated features of Finale, there’s only so long the tendons can tolerate so much cutting and pasting.

Yet, “Polaris” by Thomas Adés runs this well-worn gambit with far more restraint and grace. You can hear it here (scroll down) and follow the score here. Without question, in my mind, the success of the piece has more to do with the quality of his ear than anything else.

Yes, you can find some silliness about “magnetic notes” and a circulating twelve note series, but the only reason “Polaris” is worth the time it takes to wash your hands is that Adés has given his process ─ whatever it is ─ artistic shape.

From my perspective, I’m always looking for a tad more definition in recent compositions than I can find. This is the era of the blobosphere and I’m the primitive who just emerged from a long frozen nap in a block of ice, so that’s my problem. In spite of myself, however, I find more than a little to learn from in this music ─ though I do wish adherents to this genre could be a tad more inventive at climactic points.

Considering that the magnificent chaos of Charles Ives Fourth Symphony is about a century old, I feel I have a right to expect a little more ─ also of myself.

For as much as I like a work with polish, with a solid unifying principle and a careful attention to sonoric topography, I recognize the limits and dangers of such preoccupations. The tilt toward Perfectionism, the fear that one note out of place could ruin the “integrity” of the piece, is creativity’s greatest enemy.

So even here, in “Polaris,” I feel the lack of anything remotely impulsive, spontaneous or willful. Though Ives’ formal technique never got past “Soft-Loud-Really Soft-Really Loud-Unexpected Pause-Really Soft Again, you’re never at a loss for inventiveness and, above all, personality.

Where Adés, et al offer a really tasty, mélange of flavors in a delicious bisque-like texture, Ives knows a jalapeño offers much needed contrast.

Whether or not I win the award for worst possible analogy, is beside the point. Especially with someone as apparently gifted as Adés, I would hope that music more closely related to the ebb and flow of everyday reality might eventually occur to him. Because whatever the real world is, it’s messy. And it seems to me that the most moving music grows out of that realization.

Where the piece does succeed, more so than many others of its kind, is in the composer’s deft modulation of texture over the course of time. It has “areas,” points where his concentration shifts and he reminds me of Debussy’s own fascinatingly subtle textural shifts. “Reminds,” however, without actually assimilating.

For just as in the case of Ives, the lessons of the previous century are still not learned. To me, this is a source of perpetual frustration ─ the squandering of the creative ecology by opportunists intent on “moving on” before important developments have been properly understood, let alone developed to their fullest.

But of course, that’s too much of a burden to place on this light, unassuming and entertaining piece. “Polaris”’ polish and grace earn it the right to be heard and enjoyed on its own terms.


Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available  in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.