Notes of longing and roaring silence
Anne Middelboe Christensen on Bent Sørensen and his vocal work ‘Snowbells’
The uneasiness comes immediately: as soon as your ear senses Bent Sørensen’s music your brow puckers. What exactly is happening? Often you can’t actually ‘hear’ anything – your body just senses some sound on its way. Now and then the music comes from so far away that you have to attune your listening apparatus to remoteness and horizon, before you become aware that the sounds are gathering into notes.
Bent Sørensen’s music is a music of silence. But it is also a music of longing. If you have the slightest trace of the romantic in your blood, you will be drawn in by Bent Sørensen’s notes of longing. It seems they can filter through fire and water – and the intellect. But the point is that as soon as you have caught the strains of the music, it vanishes again. Like music of oblivion.
As a composer Bent Sørensen is peaking right now. He can do it all, has done it all, and still wants to do it all – and much more. Bent Sørensen was born in 1958, but aesthetically he harks back to the music of Late Romanticism, as well as forward to the most soaring digital sounds. He is a supreme master of the conventional forms of music, which is very probably why he plays with their dissolution. Bent Sørensen’s music is almost visual in itself; and for that reason too it has a doubly impressive effect in a concert hall. He uses bowed strings so the bowing seems like whispering – and he makes human voices sound like the breath of wind. Together, the notes become scenic bombardments of the senses that you can almost see in the air.
Bent Sørensen has written for symphony orchestra and chamber musicians, for choir and for individual instruments. He has written opera. And not least, he has written the highly original music of disappearance Sounds Like You, which became a so-called ‘concerto for orchestra, choir, actors and audience’ – premiered during the Bergen Festival in 2012 by the stage director Katrine Wiedemann, with a dense text by Peter Asmussen, in a radical, erotic staging up against the conductor’s stand and in among both musicians and spectators.
Before that, Bent Sørensen’s preoccupation with memory had also found concrete expression in the choral work A Leaf Falls to the Sky, based on Knud Romer’s poem about his father, who had fallen victim to Alzheimer’s disease. ‘It made me think my father’s brain was like a music box that had broken down,’ as Knud Romer put it. Bent Sørensen’s music was wonderfully hazy, just like the man’s memory – and at the same time it was punctuated by ticking clocks that seemed to have a life of their own. It was given its concert premiere in 2009 by the singers of the Danish National Girls’ Choir, and in 2012 it was immortalized in a documentary film by Didde Elnif and Anders Birch, expressing the sadness of forgetting and the desperation of remembering.
Snowy owl fantasies
With the work Snowbells, however, Bent Sørensen created something definitively new. Snowbells realized the dream of creating visible sound as remote as could be from the formality of the concert hall. Now Bent Sørensen’s music was to move out into the landscape; out where people in past centuries had not necessarily heard anything but flutes and harmonicas and the odd folk fiddler – and the church bells. Out to Hærvejen – that is, the ancient Danish road south for cattle and traders, down along the backbone of Jutland from Viborg in Central Jutland to Kliplev in South Jutland. There Bent Sørensen recorded the sounds of the bells of eight different churches along Hærvejen and then made them peal and chime in a staged winter installation far out in the forest one summer month in 2012 – in Palsgård Forest near Nørre Snede between Horsens and Herning.
The White Forest was the name of the installation that he created together with Katrine Wiedemann. True, you could only find your way there if you caught sight of the three pieces of white paper that pointed the way from a small car park in the middle of the forest. But when you followed the direction of the arrow, you could see how the tree trunks began to whiten. Not with snow but with paint that ran down the trunks. And the soughing of the wind began to change – and became women’s voices singing! All around in the trees, birds sat looking down at the listening wanderer – a snowy owl here, a falcon there. True, they were stuffed, these feathered watchers, but they were no less impressive for that. On the contrary. For they helped both to heighten and disturb the atmosphere of this magical moment in an enchanted forest.
In there among the tree trunks, the church bells began ringing. Hesitant, gentle, calling, ingratiating – and coaxing, booming, threatening, judgemental ... Many bells for all sorts of existential human emotions. Surprise and solemnity pulsated and alternated among the white-painted branches of the trees as confusion fell over the white-splattered earth, accompanied by playful male voices.
All this unexpected sound fired up your body. Your legs just wanted to spin and leap wildly – and your body wouldn’t have thought twice about lying flat on its back in all that white to form ‘snow angels’. But your eyes saw all this with a certain scepticism. For where were all the bells coming from? How could the pealing get so intense? Well, speakers were secretly lashed high up to the tree-trunk masts, concealed behind the white-painted leaves, as if in preparation for a cruise with Odysseus. And up there the church bells sounded exactly like what they were – authentic medieval cast iron.
Voices were interwoven with the bells; voices full of religious intensity, but with no religious message – just voices in a church interior with the vaults a long way up and sustained echoes. But also voices full of tomfoolery and teasing, and with a penchant for jazzy aftertones and let’s-get-on-with-it cadences at the end of otherwise aeon-long refrains.
This song had nowhere to go. Or rather nowhere but this same forest clearing, where the animals kept one another at bay – and where the snow-paint rooted the humans to the spot. Time stopped passing. Only the sunlight in the leaves shifted slightly. Here you felt only the condensed breath of the spectator’s own body. And the present was transformed into the always and the eternal.
At least, that is, until a roar was emitted by the speakers; an utterly startling macho roar that scared the human hearts present into skipping a beat and leaping up – and the extinct black grouse on the tree trunk into flapping its bizarre wings in confusion. The roar whirled around among the tree trunks, putting all idyll to flight and dispelling all the charm of the choir. From here on all human voices sounded at least as animal-like as the sounds of nature around this small, protected whiteness of forest. And the human heart might well have chosen to take to its heels and avert its ears ...
What devilry had got into Bent Sørensen’s score on such a sunny day in a forest clearing? I don’t know. But I do know that the whispers and the roars linked arms to keep me in the secure embrace of his distinctive sound of longing. It almost CALMED me to feel the shock of this surprise-attack music, precisely because I was expecting the unpredictable. This is inherent in the premises of longing: you have to keep experiencing the unreal – and longing for the unattainable. So a roar is quite in order.
The contrariety principle in Snowbells corresponds to the utopia of sound that is no longer there in Sounds Like You. Only at the moment when the silence has been shattered by the booming of the bells and the roaring of voices is it felt in all its horror – or all its calm. And only at the moment when a melody has died out can it be found in earnest amidst the reality of the possible combinations of notes. While at the same time a melody can only be found when it is played.
Musically, Bent Sørensen quite clearly likes to play Russian roulette with memory and oblivion. Precisely because music is so intangible, it is clearly tempting for Bent Sørensen to play with the idea that music only exists for as long as it is remembered – and that it can only really be remembered while it is being played. It isn’t enough to be able to hum a refrain. The complete music with all its tonal nuances only exists at the moment when the musicians put bow to strings and their arms draw the bow through the air.
Perhaps, too, this is why Bent Sørensen seems so fascinated by silence. That is, by the fragile point where silence is broken by sound – and when the notes of the music metamorphose from emitted sound waves into being perceived as music. And where else would he be able to demonstrate the optimal study of silence than right here, deep within a forest? True enough, the choral singing for Snowbells has been recorded in Studio 2 at DR Koncerthuset, where the Danish National Vocal Ensemble sang its way along the longings of that ancient highway, conducted by Paul Hillier. But the effect was greatest in the forest. As for the church bells, out there in the forest, of course, no ordinary ear could differentiate among the eight sets of church bells. But the bells of Viborg Cathedral naturally sound different from the bells of the Skt. Nicolai Church in Aabenraa.
‘If you can’t hum what you love, you must love what you hum.’ So wrote Bent Sørensen himself in his blog at seismograf.org, while he was composing Snowbells. He was struggling with a poem by the poet of the Jutland heath, Steen Steensen Blicher, to which he wanted to give a melody. There was just this catch: he himself kept humming something quite different from the tune he had put down on paper. And ‘No longer can I linger,’ the song goes.
Access to the music of the unconscious seems to be a goal for Bent Sørensen’s unsettling music of memory, now captured on CD among church bells, choral voices and white-painted tree trunks along Hærvejen. Perhaps also with the sound of a black grouse that has taken off for skies of yearning. With a roar.
Anne Middelboe Christensen, cand. mag., is a theatre critic on the newspaper Dagbladet Information. She has written books about ballet, including Sylfiden findes (2008) and Dance in the Mirror - The Ballet Photography of John R. Johnsen (2012). As a theatre reviewer she let herself be lured into Bent Sørensen’s world of theatre music – and since then she has never left it.
On the other works
by Trine Boje Mortensen
Bent Sørensen writes for voices so that they sound celestial – or at least hover weightless in space and at the same time sound so familiar that you feel a comforting arm around your shoulder. Intimacy and humanity do not clash with the ethereal and supranatural. Like a Schubertian mixture of sad and glad, they exist in direct contemporaneity. That the expressive core of Sørensen’s vocal style has not changed markedly over the years can be heard in these works, which come respectively from the mid-eighties and the early 2000s.
The snowbell (2009; 2014). Bent Sørensen’s melody for the Danish 19th-century writer Steen Steensen Blicher’s poem Sneeklokken (The Snowbell), flows gently; like a humming of eternity which, despite the rounded phrases along the way, constantly flows on in the melody’s Escher-like cycles where the beginning is the end and continuation inevitable. A melodic driving force for the main work on this recording, Snowbells.
Greyborn (2009) is a setting of an erotic poem by Juliane Preisler, in which the grey chill and weight of the salt sea permeate everything and the voices add sweet savour.
Life and death (2009). Nature is close in Peter Asmussen’s text: the screeching pheasant, waves, sun, song and the grass. The music is simple, but with an inherent unsettling quality that struggles to break out and is hummingly calmed several times.
3 Motets (1985). The three Latin verses chosen for these three motets are rich in contrasts: a text about mortality and smallness, one full of jubilant energy, and finally another one about the brevity of life. The music closely reflects the content of the texts, with outer movements that plunge the listener straight into the depths, the darkness and the beauty, and a middle movement that begins as an example of jubilant Renaissance and then, as if by magic, changes imperceptibly into contemporary, whirling sounds.
Lacrimosa (1985). Bent Sørensen: “The text is from the Latin Requiem and the piece is an independent work and at the same time forms part of a planned series of Requiem fragments.” The music hovers like clouds around the listener in a dark out-of-body, or more specifically out-of-music experience.
”and the sun sets” (2008). To a text from Pia Juul’s poetry collection said I, I say. The music revolves around itself and thus reflects the central word in the text, ”turn”: turn around, turn back. The work was commissioned by the Usedomer Music Festival.
Benedictus (2006). Bent Sørensen, quoted from a note on Benedictus: “Listening to the world is listening inwardly – Think before you listen!” The music, the composer goes on to say, arose in Visby on Gotland, from among other things the experience of the small streets and the church in the town. The composer calls for the music to be performed spatially, so the sound comes from all directions, ascending and encompassing.
The sea stands so still and shining (2005). A chaste musical interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s yearning text in which even grief is beautiful and death is love.
Trine Boje Mortensen is Promotion Manager at Edition Wilhelm Hansen and a music journalist specialized in contemporary music.