Mark-Anthony Turnage and the Beyoncé mystery


Credit for this spot goes entirely to Andy Hamilton, but what do you think? Was Mark-Anthony Turnage quoting Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ in his Proms commission, Hammered Out, given its premiere last night?

Turnage himself, in a brief interview before the Proms broadcast, references  funk, especially Tower of Power, and r’n’b of the James Brown vintage. But intriguingly he also says

there are a couple of hidden things, but I’d quite like other people to find them out rather than me saying them.

Even more intriguingly, Anthony Burton’s programme note (which doesn’t mention Beyoncé) tells us that this passage is related to a climactic passage in Turnage’s forthcoming opera Anna Nicole (based on the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith).

So what do you reckon? Here’s Hammered Out on BBC’s iPlayer stream; the Turnage starts at 3:24.

And here’s Beyoncé:

What’s more – are there more references to be found? The Stravinsky-ish bit at 5:53 sounds like it might be something else, for example …

Update: 27 Aug, afternoon: Well, it seems that everyone agrees that the reference isn’t hidden at all, and I’m pretty convinced now that it’s a deliberate quote. But not one of the five major reviews so far published (Geoffrey Norris, Telegraph; Guy Dammann, Guardian; Michael Church, Independent; Barry Millington, Evening Standard or Edward Seckerson, The Arts Desk) spotted it. An unusual example of a new music audience ‘getting’ a new work much better than any of the critics?

Update 2: 31 Aug: The iPlayer and programme links will go offline soon (the BBC only posts them for a week after broadcast). But for downloads of both, and an extended review of the piece, please see 5 against 4. See also these two videos for a flavour of the work.

Update 3: I’ve written some of this story up for the Guardian’s Music Blog.

47 thoughts on “Mark-Anthony Turnage and the Beyoncé mystery

  1. As I wrote on Andy’s facebook page:
    There’s an obvious pun in the title about being drunk when out (in public). And it’s a pun that plays on the ‘other’ definition of ‘hammered’ as ‘Of grapes: Having innumerable marks as if they had been hammered into shape, a result of good cultivation’ (OED). And that, with it’s pun on cultivation, would support a reading about the piece being a play on ‘bad-boy behaviour’, which is what one might expect from Turnage, no?
    And that reading further suggests that the work’s relationship with Beyoncé’s song, with it’s subtitle ‘put a ring on it’. I suggest that the connection of ‘rings’ and ’rounds’ might be musically meaningful.

  2. I don’t know Andy on Facebook, so I hadn’t seen that – thanks for reposting it here.

    My first punning thought was to do with metalwork, and of a jeweller ‘hammering out’ a gold ring – similarly to your OED reference.

    There might be something in rings and rounds too.

    But really, I think it’s just a bit clunky. That’s not necessarily Turnage’s fault – it’s more or less impossible to get an orchestra to swing – but it’s a risk he must have taken with eyes open. What makes the Beyoncé track – the razor sharp beats, the subtly stratified timbres, and Beyoncé’s voice itself – are always going to be lost in an acoustic, scored setting, and all you’re left with is a fairly uninteresting melody.

    Although, as this discussion shows, not an unrecognisable one …

  3. I’m really quite interested in this, because it’s not often (not often enough!) that people so readily identify source materials in ‘music played at proms’. It did sound clunky, but I’m not sure I hear it as trying to do what Beyoncé’s producers do (and are very very good at).
    Much of his music doesn’t quite work for me, since I’m too often thinking ‘I get the joke, does he?’ But in this case, the joke seems pretty widely shared, and I’m left wondering if the Prom’s organizers get the joke. I’m guessing at some level they do, and that there’s a supporting structure that rather enjoys the paradox of continuing to support music that’s seditious. It’s tricky to argue against Turnage on the grounds that ‘the music’s just not good enough’ if its point isn’t to be good (to support that which hands out ‘good certification’). It’s possible to argue it as a form of the ‘low modern’ I guess, especially since my sympathies to high modernism aren’t exactly occult, but if the title is any indication then if it were a poem one would be settling in to an afternoon of cryptic-crossword-like puzzling. But I suspect trying such an approach would be rather a waste of time in this case. I think the challenge by Turnage is a real one, particularly for anyone who finds it a problem that it’s being performed – which is surely the definition of an effective polemicist?

  4. I’ll have to think about the rest of your post a little more, WCSS, since it opens up some pretty massive territory (as you no doubt know!), but I wonder how much the Proms organisers did get the joke. Plenty of the surrounding material – in programme booklets and broadcasts – mentioned James Brown and Tower of Power, the two stylistic touchstones ‘sanctioned’ as it were by Turnage’s own comments on the piece. He keeps the Beyoncé stuff (and anything else that might be there) close to his chest, under that “hidden things” comment. It’s understandable that no one else mentions this at the time – Anthony Burton presumably only had a score to work from at most for his programme note, and it would be a pretty sharp (and confident) announcer who drew attention to the reference after their first hearing of the piece. What is interesting is the line between the “sanctioned” and the “hidden” references that Turnage himself chooses to draw.

  5. Not that well hidden. I attended the prom and a few seconds in was thinking “this is Single Ladies”.

  6. Exactly. One hides the message from some and makes it plainly obvious to ‘those in the know’. Pondering who they are and their power is when it starts to be interesting… I don’t know you, Gary C, but if you are Roger’s Right Hand Man, then I’m curious to say the least.

  7. Thanks for your mention Tim but I think many, many people heard it. I know the song so well as my three nieces sing it and do the dance routine (attempt) at most family occasions (and I think it is a great song and perfect video). When I heard it last night I felt shocked and didn’t find it funny at all but maybe this was what Turnage wanted. It was definitely not hidden. None of the reviewers spotted it so far.

  8. Andy – I’m pretty convinced now that it is a deliberate reference; but I only heard it this morning (via Aaron Cassidy’s Facebook page) and didn’t want to appear as though I’d come up with this all by myself.

    Odd that no reviewers have spotted it though.

  9. ps should say I wasn’t shocked by Turnage using the song at all but by how much of it he took and how it becomes, from a few listenings, a central unifying idea. I was worried lawyers would appear on the next flight from LA.

    1. Why snobbish? So many audience members did hear the reference, it’s not exactly obscure, and it seems to have been so central to at least one dimension of what Turnage was doing (it informs a very large proportion of the music). And, IIRC, it’s a pretty unusual instance of such a direct and specific appropriation of contemporary pop in new music – surely that’s worth noting, at least as a historical curiosity?

      I just think it’s regrettable that none of these angles were picked up on, and all we got were various reheatings of Turnage’s own words on the piece (notwithstanding his teasing comment to explore his chosen references further), with the odd reference to easy touchstones like Adams, etc.

  10. Backwards Hooked on Classics. And of all the orchestras you’d want to hear waddle through fake funk (or at least, swung Sousa) …

  11. I’ve just found this topic by googling for hammered out beyonce, just to see if anyone else had spotted this. So, yes, count me in among those who think this quite deliberate. The Anna Nicole Smith connection would be entirely appropriate, given that she was principally famous for marrying rich blokes?

    I also wondered if the title might be a nod towards MC Hammer, but I probably wouldn’t recognise any quotes from him, anyway

  12. Was at the prom and it was obvious within a few seconds. Didn’t have a programme and was quite confused. Don’t quite understand why he was doing it and the joke got boring within the next few seconds. The main chorus reference went on and on for the whole piece without much development. Would have rather have gone to see Beyonce! Would be interested to know how much Booseys paid for the license to rip it off.

  13. Just following up on Jonathan’s last sentence ….

    What are the legal/copyright issues here? Having just listened to the ‘mash-up’, which isn’t really a mash-up at all b/c the two songs are almost entirely identical, I’m actually curious if a) there is any violation of the copyright of the songwriters (who, obviously, aren’t actually Beyonce (wikipedia says: “composed by Christopher Stewart, Terius Nash, Kuk Harrell and Knowles”), and b) if MAT is in any breach of contract for the commission. Granted, that material is only a portion of the piece (though it’s clearly the central theme), but it’s really an arrangement and not an original composition (as indicated above by all the people who immediately knew it was ATSL, not a reference to ATSL).

    (Btw, note that in the wikipedia entry it reads, “Mark-Anthony Turnage composed a setting of the song which he titled Hammered Out. It received its premiere at the BBC Proms.” … with the footnote pointing back here.) 😉

  14. I really hope this is covered by Fair Use, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the commissioning party would be a tad upset over this.

    Also, this is my favorite everything.

  15. Legal or not, Fair Use or not, it has created an interesting talking point for the audience at the BBC Proms. With the aid of the internet, it would possibly also attract extra interest among the LA Phil audience. I don’t think the commissioning parties would be too upset about that at all, from a marketing point of view.

  16. If no agreement already exists, and the label and publisher can show it’s not fair use – which would be easy, I would have thought – then I can’t imagine any future economic benefits the piece might yield flowing anywhere other than towards Nash, Stewart et al.

  17. Just watched back on iplayer, and I’m totally confused about the pre- and post-performance discussion. Were all the (crass and very cheap) references completely lost on the BBC pundits/presenters? Not a good piece at all. I agree the Beyonce riff was clear from the first minute or two…but I’m still at a loss trying to work out what Turnage wanted to achieve. A bit of end-of-the-pier novelty summer music?

  18. I blogged about it as soon as I returned from the prom as well: (then received that awesome link from Andeh above, confirming the obvious). I bought the programme at the interval because I wanted to find out *why* Turnage used the song – was it a commentary on pop culture? A perversion of something else? Whatever it was, I didn’t find it in the programme notes and was thus thoroughly shocked at the audacity (or intention?) of not mentioning the song.

  19. As the Guardian’s critic on the evening I feel mightily embarrassed not to have recognised the song, and more embarrassed still that I didn’t know the song to recognise it in the first place. It seems to be one of the biggest R&B hits of the last few years.

    Now that I’ve managed to hear the song and the clever mashup provided by Andeh above I can’t quite believe what Turnage has done. I’ll definitely try to find out more – and let you know if I do.

  20. “There’s an obvious pun in the title about being drunk when out”
    “My first punning thought was… of a jeweller ‘hammering out’ a gold ring”

    Maybe this is chiefly an American English thing, but as I’ve always used it, “to hammer out” means “to churn out”. It seems apt.

  21. According to a Facebook post by Gabriella Swallow (Turnage’s wife), the reference is deliberate. The reason why he did it is surprisingly (and charmingly, in my view) banal: his young son loves the song and apparently walks around the house singing it all the time.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, given the possible legal implications, that Facebook post has now been deleted…

  22. [I should add that I have not violated Ms Swallow’s privacy by revealing the information above. The post appeared on the Boosey & Hawkes Facebook page and so was publicly visible.]

  23. Found this convo via Google and am quite enjoying it. Just a point in regard to whether one “got” the reference to “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” [not an issue for me, ’cause I discovered the Turnage piece through one of the mashups, and wouldn’t bet on my having recognized it otherwise, though probably would have been saying to myself, “this reminds me of something; what the hell is it?”]: loads of melodies sound like other melodies, some deliberately, some unconsciously, some coincidentally, etc. I often miss the obvious references and then hear connections that aren’t there, or when I do hear I have no idea what’s intended and what isn’t. And just to give an example, I’ve probably heard Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” and Ashlee Simpson’s “Surrender” over a hundred times each, and I know that Ashlee has covered “Celebrity Skin” in concert, and I saw the episode of Ashlee’s reality show where she and her label president, Jordan Schur, are discussing “Surrender” and Schur says that it makes him think of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” my assumption being that he’s correctly inferring from the sound that Courtney Love is a huge inspiration for Ashlee, yet I didn’t realize, until just a few days ago when I ran into a YouTube mashup that showed it, that “Surrender” uses the riff from “Celebrity Skin.” So… well it’s not a contest, to see who gets it. No one gets it all.

    A subtopic of this particular conversation being the crossing of discourses, I was brought up short by the word “obviously” in the following passage from Aaron:

    I’m actually curious if a) there is any violation of the copyright of the songwriters (who, obviously, aren’t actually Beyonce (wikipedia says: “composed by Christopher Stewart, Terius Nash, Kuk Harrell and Knowles”)

    Well, the full sentence from Wikip is:

    “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” is an R&B song by American R&B recording artist Beyoncé Knowles, composed by Christopher Stewart, Terius Nash, Kuk Harrell and Knowles for her third solo album, I Am… Sasha Fierce.

    So obviously Beyonce actually is one of the songwriters. Also (in regard to a couple of other posts), not having previously heard of Turnage and not knowing the context (or the discourse, really), I’m hoping “get the joke” and “seditious” aren’t really all that applicable to Turnage’s piece. It would be sad if they were.

    The choreography for the “Singles Ladies” vid quite consciously draws on Bob Fosse, and this isn’t considered seditious, or a joke.

  24. (And for anyone interested in following up on the connection between “Celebrity Skin” and “Surrender,” I love “Celebrity Skin” whereas “Surrender” is one of my least favorite Ashlee tracks, and for Ashlee in her full Courtney mode you’re better off listening to “I Am Me,” even if the latter doesn’t borrow riffs. And anyway, I’m speaking loosely when I say “uses the riff,” since I don’t mean “plays the riff” but “plays something similar to the riff that was almost certainly based on the riff,” the rhythm and the style of power-chording being identical but the notes not.)

  25. Sorry to join this discussion so late. I missed the Prom and the ensuing kerfuffle but what is striking is the thoughtlessness of Turnage’s appropriation. Or did he understand that by asking an orchestra to play Beyonce he would so effectively reveal everything that is bad about orchestral ensemble playing? If you ever wanted to hear what ‘old man’s music’ sounded like this was it.

  26. Hmmm I wonder did the ‘Hammered out’ excerpt ever get used in Anna Nicole? I mean to say, as the Beyonce was so easily recognisable at the Proms, was it as easily recognisable in the Opera at the ‘climactic scene?’ I only saw the first 30 minutes then it got taken off BBC Iplayer!

    1. Hi Kimberley,

      Trawling back through my memory of what Mark has since said about Hammered Out and Anna Nicole, I don’t think the intention was ever for the Beyoncé material to appear in AN, but there may have been other (Turnage-only) overlaps between the two. That said, I also vaguely recall that he made some cuts to HO before this Proms performance (and some more still before the LA performance), and the overlapping material might have been in there. In any case, given how this one played out I would be EXTREMELY surprised if there was any trace of Beyoncé in Anna Nicole!

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