BIRGITTE ALSTED - LIFE AND WORK by Inge Bruland
Birgitte Alsted was born in Odense in 1942 and studied violin at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. She took her master's degree in the composition of electronic music at the Royal Academy of Music in Århus in 2006, an example of her constant searching and urge to experiment.
Her parents were the engineer Christian Alsted and the pianist and music teacher Inger Ramskou. So in her background Birgitte Alsted had both music and science.
She studied in Warsaw for two years before her violin debut in Copenhagen in 1971. In 1970 the Group for Alternative Music was formed; it was highly experimental, and the members of this Danish group were pioneers of musical performance in several ways; for example, they were first on the scene with "outreach concerts" and had their music performed in unconventional places in Copenhagen like Nørreport Station and the Zoo.
Birgitte Alsted's first written composition, Klumpe, for baritone and chamber ensemble, was performed as part of the group's programme in 1971. Although she gradually concentrated more and more on composition, she never shelved the violin, and she still performs as a violinist in her own works. However, the composer in her increasingly took hold, and in the 1970s and 1980s a succession of works saw the light of day.
Many of these compositions were inspired by and associated with other arts than music. The Forges of Granada, Antigone, Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Dream Play are examples of works that play on the visual and theatrical. The two last-mentioned were created in collaboration with Brigitte Kolerus at the Teatret ved Sorte Hest in Copenhagen.
The work with theatre prompted Birgitte Alsted to start experimenting with electro-acoustic music. In the infancy of this music there was a distinction between concrete and electronic music, each of which had its own base in Europe - in Paris and Cologne respectively. Concrete music consisted of sounds recorded out in pulsating real life, and later electronically manipulated. Electronic music was both generated and manipulated electronically.
Today this distinction has disappeared, and it is characteristic that Birgitte Alsted uses sampled as well as electronically created sounds in her music. Her many electronic works include Zu versuchen, die Fragen from 2002, again an epoch-making compo-sition. It combines words by the poet Rilke and noises like ‘vrooom' (from a door slamming in a stairwell) and ‘sssshhh' (an irritating swishing sound beneath the door) with a variety of other sounds from the Aarhus Concert Hall and the creaking door into the DIEM studio (situated in the same building), where this work was created.
Later too Birgitte Alsted has used a text by Rilke, from the second of the Duino Elegies. It was composed for and given its first performance in 2012 by the Swedish violin duo, Duo Gelland. The two musicians recited while they played! On the whole Duo Gelland has often performed and recorded music by Birgitte Alsted.
Other literary sources of inspiration included the Bible. In accordance with Birgitte Alsted's speculative and at the same time sensual thinking, it was at first the Book of Job that formed the basis for one of her major works, Lament II (1995), which was released by Dacapo. But the Book of Jonah has also provided inspira-tion, for among other works Jonah's CLIMActeric, which was written in connection with the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. A climacteric means a critical turning-point, and Birgitte Alsted's work involves a narrative which, in ingenious folk-tale style, has two parallel plots: the story of the doomed, sinful Nineveh, and our present polluted world where the planet itself has to protest. The narrative involves recitation, electronic music, solo violin and vocals. The composer's works are in fact never static, but - like this composition - may for example be furnished with visual images.
The narrative element is very strong in most of Birgitte Alsted's music, and is often her starting point. Her working process is intuitively determined, and often the form materializes along the way during the process of creation.
One medium that can mould profound thoughts into concentrated form is poetry. The electro-acoustic composition Lament V is an example. Birgitte Alsted has also used other people's poems; she loves the haiku, which we meet in several of her compositions, for example Haiku Wärme from 1995.
Profundity, reflection and the desire for concentration do not prevent humour shining through. In WHaltz for saxophone quartet, the musicians are allowed to let down their hair. The work has been played more than once by the internationally known Danish Saxophone Quartet.
Birgitte Alsted has received many grants and prizes. In October 2011 Agnete's -Laughter was awarded the Major Prize for a Woman Composer of the Danish Arts Foundation. In addition she has won the Hakon Børresen Prize, the Anniversary Prize of the Danish Composers' Society, Det Anckerske Legat, the 3-year grant from the Classical Music Committee of the Danish Arts Foundation in 1980 and 2006, and in 2012 the life annuity of the Danish Arts Foundation. An extract from the argument for the grant in 2006 says: "From works like Lament II, through Zu versuchen, die Fragen ... until today, Birgitte Alsted has in a succession of electro-acoustic works developed a personal and sophisticated sound-universe that is both interesting and captivating."
Mette Koustrup Petersen: Birgitte Alsted, a biography. Thesis, Copenhagen University 2004.
Kvinder i Musik Yearbook 2002 with the theme "Birgitte Alsted". The yearbook features poems by Birgitte Alsted and Eva Maria Jensen, articles by Mette Koustrup Petersen and Per Nørgård, and tribute compositions by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen, Mogens Christensen and Per Nørgård.
Ewa Dabrowska: Interview from 1985 - can be read at Kvinder i Musik's website:
Birgitta Tollan: Interview on Sveriges Radio P2, ‘Monitor', 5 September 2012.
Websites: www.alsted-music.dk and www.komponistforeningen.dk
ABOUT THE WORKS - Profundity, reflection and humor in music
Agnete's Laughter is a sonic work with recordings of vocal exclamations, calls and songs, harp and waves as the basic material. This material was recorded, mani-pulated, edited and finalized to some extent in the DIEM studio (Danish Institute for Electronic Music) in Aarhus, but first and foremost in Birgitte Alsted's own studio.
The work has six movements: 1) Call of the Merman; 2) In the Depths - Longing; 3) Seven Sons; 4) Rocked; 5) Call of the Land; and 6) Agnete's Laughter.
The title Agnete's Laughter evokes early-19th century Danish poems such as Adam Oehlenschläger's "Agnete", Jens Baggesen's "Agnete from Holmegaard" and Hans Christian Andersen's dramatic poem, "Agnete and the Merman". Like those, Birgitte Alsted's sonic work is based on the old Danish ballad, "Agnete and the Merman", but her interpretation of the ballad is markedly different from theirs. In keeping with the view of women current in their time, the (male) poets just mentioned lament Agnete's decision and destiny and so decide to finally let her die with a broken heart. It is clear, however, that Birgitte Alsted lives in a time with a different view of women, and quite possibly her Agnete comes closer to the Agnete of the folk ballad.
In the ballad the Merman and Agnete have a dialogue where he tries to coax Agnete back to him and their children:
M: "And your little children they long for you"
A: "Oh let them long and let them yearn,
Never to them shall I return"
A: "Never do I think of them, large or small,
Of the babe in the cradle never at all."
The ballad is full of symbols that are easy enough to grasp, even without Freud in the back of your mind: Agnete and the Merman both have yearnings and erotic feelings, and Agnete's lust for freedom is clear. Birgitte Alsted was first and fore-most inspired by the actual ballad, but she has also adopted important impulses from Peter Meisling's monograph Agnetes Latter (1988). Peter Meisling's thesis is that it is a comic ballad, and that - even its own time - it turned everything upside down. The refrain of the ballad is significant here: That ‘ho, ho, ho' (in some versions ‘ah, yes'), is it laughter or a sigh? Both ‘Hå, hå, hå' and ‘Åh, ja' have inspired much of the vocal material of the sonic work; the vocal material is performed by the composer herself. That the ballad can also be interpreted in a context of liberation gives it an extra dimension.
A present-day Danish artist, Suste Bonnén, known especially as a photographer, has created an underwater sculpture showing the Merman and his seven sons. The sculpture has been set up at the bottom of Frederiksholm Canal at the square Højbro Plads in Copen-hagen, and is a great tourist attraction.
Birgitte Alsted's sonic work enters into a dialogue with Suste Bonnén's sculpture while at the same time relating to the dynamics of the traffic and other sounds from the city. It was given its first performance at Højbro Plads at the end of August 2007 during the ICMC conference (International Computer Music Confe-rence) in Copenhagen.
Extracts from the arguments for the award of the Prize of the Danish Arts Founda-tion 2011, formulated by the Chairman of the Jury, the composer Bent Sørensen:
"Agnete's Laughter is a unique sonic work ... a quite independent musical art-work which contains so many musical images that even without the visual it is able to evoke unforgettable images and stories in the listener ... Birgitte Alsted succeeds in creating a living inner universe where voices and words penetrate through the electro-acoustic medium ... the ancient tale emerges fused with music and creates an entirely contemporary, relevant universe of grief and laughter that forms a magical musical narrative.
It is the hope of the jury that the award of the prize to Birgitte Alsted will mean that Agnete's Laughter will reach more listeners and will both be restaged in connection with Bonnén's sculpture group and at the same time can be heard in quite different -contexts."
Birgitte Alsted's Melencolia was written in 2001 and supported by the Danish Arts Foundation. The work was commissioned and given its first performance by Marie Wärme. It is for accordion solo and is played here by the young Rasmus Schærff Kjøller, who even before his official debut in 2013 is becoming an internationally known name.
Like other works by Birgitte Alsted, it takes its inspiration from another of the arts than music - visual art, since in Melencolia the composer reflects over the content of Albrecht Dürer's print from 1514, Melencolia I. Birgitte Alsted describes Dürer's picture in these words:
"Here we see an angel of indeterminate gender seated, brooding, with a compass in its right hand and lap - probably in the process of construc-ting something (art? something scientific?). The tools are scattered in dis--orderly fashion around the angel, and there are many mysterious sym-bols - the strangest perhaps being the magic square..."
This magic square is divided up into 4 x 4 small squares, each with a number. The magic element is that the addition of the figures in each row of squares - hori-zon-tal, vertical, diagonal or in combinations of these - gives the result 34. Birgitte Alsted is not the first person to take an interest in this magic square. Thomas Mann, for example, used it in his great novel Doctor Faustus.
As a composer Birgitte Alsted has experimented in Melencolia with trans-ferring the rows of numbers to scales within her work. At the same time this compli-cated mental activity is for her an image of the way the composer can realize her inhe-rent sound images in a work.
Lament V was written in 1996-97 and supported by the Danish Arts Foundation. The work was created in the DIEM studio in Aarhus on the basis of material con-sisting of Birgitte Alsted's performance of a poem she dedicated to her mother, Inger Alsted, who died in 1997. Inger Alsted was a pianist and music teacher, and among other things performed her daughter's music in concerts.
As certain as death
(even if) called hatred and repression
- sooner or later -
tenderness of concrete touch
Universal grief and pain come to expression in the way Birgitte Alsted communi-cates her poem. Sometimes she speaks, sometimes she whispers or shouts. The following is her own interpretation of the poem:
"I wrote the poem under the influence of a particular experience in 1996. Like so many other people, throughout my life hitherto I had not been sure of my mother's love - you got the strong impression of being in the way of her other wishes for her life."
Further on in her interpretation Birgitte Alsted writes about among other things the insight that struck her like an arrow:
"BUT! Suddenly one day, while clearing up, I found a long-forgotten lost item of clothing that she had knitted for me. And then I was struck - by insight into her love (previously rather invisible to me)! Shortly afterwards Michael Madsen commissioned a work for sounds coming up from the gratings under the Copenhagen City Hall Square - in fact he built an underground sound studio that sent sounds up to unsuspecting pedestrians - Fuzzy [Jens Vilhelm Pedersen] too was given a work there - so the first version of Lament V was premiered there in 1996 under the title "As Certain" - I told my mother about the project - she thought it was a fun idea - and called it "sewer music" - and I also played the work for her through her terrible speakers, and I doubt that she liked the actual work - but she was 90, although still with her wits about her. I am very grateful that I was able to acknowledge her love for me before it was too late!"
Belletter (from 2004) was supported by the Danish Arts Foundation, and like Lament V was computer-processed at the DIEM studio in Aarhus. ‘Belletter' is to be understood as ‘bell letter' and the material for the work is a sampling of one stroke from each of the three large bells of the Elias Church in Copenhagen.
The processing of the recording of the church bells has rendered the bell sound more or less unrecognizable. Birgitte Alsted wanted to give the listeners an expe-ri-ence of a dance in space, and talks here about her starting point for the composition:
"The reason I recorded the bells of the Elias Church was a commission from the church for an "angel mass" - so I did that with choir, organ, harps - and the congregation's chorales in between - accompanied otherwise by electro-acoustics generated from the three bells. Belletter was to form the ending of this and mix with the real bell sound during the departure of the congregation from the church. Belletter (like the rest of the "bell work") was originally mixed in Surround Sound, and the idea/inspiration was to produce a feeling that the bell angels were dancing through the whole church interior. The angel mass has never been performed, but later I did the work Dance with Bells (where Belletter is the last movement) - electro-acoustically - which can be heard in its own right. DwB has also been played in concert a few times with me on accompanying violin, for example in Kvinder i Musik's concert with the title Elektricerne (‘The Electresses') in the hall Dronningesalen and for my master's exam in 2006."
Birgitte Alsted's own description of her composition is of course important to a possible ‘understanding' of it; on the other hand, any listener is ‘entitled' to read into the work what he or she directly experiences in listening, and it may be temp-ting for a present-day Danish listener to associate the title of this work with a well known children's programme on TV where the teddy bear ‘Bamse' gracefully ‘ballets' (Danish balletter). With this kind of association the listener can hardly avoid smiling!
Inge Bruland, former associate professor at the Department of Musicology, University of Copenhagen. Member of the board of Kvinder i Musik (Women in Music).