For Want Of A Nail

If you follow Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s indispensable Rambler, my UK music blog of choice, you’re probably already acquainted with the baffling situation regarding Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Hammered Out, a recent BBC Proms premiere that sounds unmistakably like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” Given that “Single Ladies” was seized upon as topic of discussion some weeks ago in the context of Joelle Zigman’s post, how could I not bring this strange turn of events up?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: According to Tim’s Guardian article, “Single Ladies” is but one of “a couple of hidden things” in Hammered Out. Perhaps I need to listen again, but I found very little Tower of Power and virtually no James Brown in Turnage’s piece, to take the two influences Turnage supplied as a starting point. What I did find is “Single Ladies,” and plenty of it. Other than his boilerplate intro, there’s not much in Hammered Out that isn’t directly traceable to the song. Turnage must really have liked it, because he sure as hell put a ring on it; anyone who tells you otherwise, including the composer, is being either deliberately deceptive or frighteningly naïve.

And what’s wrong with that? I think we’ve grown up enough that we can admit it: Generating new-sounding material is only a small part of the composer’s job, and that task can be stretched, externalized, or altogether dispensed with until it bears no resemblance to the “coming up with” of material that most non-composers probably think we spend all day on. It doesn’t bother me at all that Turnage turned an ear to Beyoncé and her co-songwriters (Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Thaddis “Kuk Harrell” Harrell, and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart), although it does pain me a bit that the lowered scale degree six in the bass that appears during the chorus is drained of its rhetorical venom once the verbal context of the lyrics is missing; in “Single Ladies,” we can understand that C-natural to mean the foreshortened dread that sets in when the addressee contemplates a lifetime without Beyoncé in his arms thanks to his own carelessness, whereas Hammered Out‘s blandly punning title suggests no such moral.

What’s really unusual about Hammered Out isn’t that it borrows material from “Single Ladies”: Rather, it’s that the piece makes absolutely no sense to me except as an arrangement of “Single Ladies.” If you already know the Beyoncé single when you sit down to hear the orchestral work, the experience of Hammered Out is entirely unmoored from the immanent fabric of the piece; instead, it’s in the gradually revealed relationship between the two musical objects. After Turnage’s intro, one waits for “Single Ladies” to end and Hammered Out to truly start, but it doesn’t: “Single Ladies” continues, then ends. Maybe Turnage deserves to be praised for this starkly conceptual move. Moreover, Tim’s account of the press coverage suggests that Turnage presented a kind of secret code word: The younger Proms listeners picked up on the connection right away, but what was so plain to them may have been lost on older listeners. Maybe this is Essex Man sticking up two fingers to the unhip UK classical music establishment, even though from where I sit (and I suspect many of my British friends and colleagues may agree), that establishment has been pretty good to Turnage over the years, all things considered. To be honest, though, I’m as mystified as anyone by l’affaire Turnage/Beyoncé. Comments welcome.

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Our final featured composer on Newmusicscrapbook.com this season is Joomi Park. In our interview, Joomi and I discuss her vocalise Take Me Under Your Wing, the formation of composers in her native Korea, and her trajectory since moving to the United States. Let me also take this opportunity to thank all of you who stopped by the site: I hope you’ve found the music and interviews enriching. The archive will stay online, and, who knows—we may add more content in the future. Watch this space!

5 thoughts on “For Want Of A Nail

  1. holbrooke

    I first expected this might be provocative and spark some interesting thought or discussion. But well, it isn’t and it doesn’t. And that’s if you can force yourself to even make it through the whole thing.

    Reply
  2. amc654

    Yes, ‘starkly conceptual’.

    Or ‘fraudulent’ and ‘adolescent’. It’s a fine line.

    (All that nonsense aside, what’s really shocking about the piece is just how awful those first, non-Beyonce :30 are.)

    Reply
  3. danvisconti

    Hi Colin, that was a great exposition of this strange musical event and (I thought) more to the point on several issues than in the Rambler posts–one big one being that this is *mainly* an arrangement of “Single Ladies”, not some kind of pop-collage piece that quotes “Single Ladies” in some kind of balance with other influences, James Brown or otherwise.

    I’m thinking also of Thomas Ades’s arrangement of 1982 ska-rock hit “Cardiac Arrest”; I don’t see why the Turnage affair rates as anything other than an arrangement (with that aforementioned Highly Questionable Opening Passage added), albeit a loose one in turns. And what are the copyright ramifications of this kind of cop, whatever one judges the real aesthetic merits to be?

    Reply

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