PETER BRUUN: The Green Groves
09 August 2016
We can talk in terms of basic musical construction. As the first movement of Bruun’s work for cello and wind quintet Big Bird and His Friends (2009) launches, there’s clear opposition between two contrasting ideas: the initial ‘pecking’ theme and the lyrical cantillations that start to recur over it; a simple pattern (to begin with, at least). But that ‘simplicity’, if not messed around with, can generate its own complexity. And it does. Not only because the two ideas phase teasingly in and out of each other’s paths, but also because the result of that duality is a tension in the middle, a sort of magnetic pull that it’s extremely hard to manufacture for any composer who doesn’t want to repeat his or her self (or others). I hear it as naivety being castigated by modernity, of the music being dragged into a modern discourse, away from the indulgence of Romanticism.
And that brings us to Bruun’s more intangible sense of duality. I hear it as naivety being castigated by modernity, of the music being dragged into a modern discourse, away from the indulgence of Romanticism (tonality, rhapsody) and the spiraling regression of nostalgia – both of which are elements the material sometimes seems drawn to (but only fleetingly).
There are a few ways Bruun does it. His directness with harmony, by which I mean the placing of a single note that can upset the tonal status quo without trampling on the music’s natural flow (an example, again, is the final chord of the first movement of Big Bird and His Friends where the cello is literally up-rooted by superimposition of a wind harmony above it). Then there’s the music’s shuffling, animalistic nervous energy (shades of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen) that means it can erupt on itself at the slightest itch or impulse.
The first movement of the piano quartet Pearls of Tears (2004) teeters constantly on the brink of such an eruption, or even total collapse. Invading forces (those stubbornly repeating notes) warn us not to get too comfortable with the nice tunes or even, taking a step back, with the entire ‘sound’ of the music. The next movement goes even further, hammering out major-seconds and exploring the microtones in between but doing so in an overtly polite way. Even when the music seems to have come to a rest, the pianist is still picking away at major-seconds high in the register like some ineffective alarm. The last movement seems to want to prove that a neat rhythmic pattern isn’t all that much fun either, as it hurtles towards darkness and then falters altogether.
I hear these things as Bruun making sure his music never quite does what is expected of it, for all its improvisatory naturalness. The recording’s headline piece The Green Groves (2013) is based on a melody from Bruun’s own setting of an Ursula Andkjær Olsen text of the same title. But Bruun clothes the initial statement of the folk song in coyness, with all manner of suggestive harmonic and rhythmic foliage. Immediately there is another duality at play: the song itself, but a slight suspicion of it too. The narrative is clearly spelt-out by the movement titles and the booklet note, but there’s something nagging at it at the same time. The folk tune is carried all the way through The Green Groves’s five movements, through fragmentary dreams and angry broadsides, but eventually – perhaps because we got too close to it – it makes off, leaving a thin, tense discord in its wake.
Here is another tight trajectory that teases innocence but now turns it, demonically, towards death. Like Pearls of Tears, Bruun’s string quartet The Black Waters (2012) contains a reference to Persian music, a pearl fisher’s song that came to the composer via the work’s dedicatee Poul Rovsing Olsen. Here is another tight trajectory that teases innocence but now turns it, demonically, towards death. The effect is underlined by particularly evocative playing from Ensemble MidtVest. Throughout the recording, its members sound, collectively, as if they have acute awareness of all the music’s implications.