When Art and Life Merge
by Anders Beyer
Art created and life lived belong together like
Siamese twins for the composer Karsten Fundal (b. 1966). If one of them does not function, the other becomes enfeebled and inactive. In Fundal's case this means getting a grip on oneself and establishing a proper relationship with the surrounding world as much as with the artistic career. It's all about balance in life and in art, and in the end also about being part of a meaningful social context, establishing a humanity and being something - for others as well as oneself. So in approaching Fundal's music you have to consider what exists alongside the art, all the conditions that, in the final analysis, must be fulfilled so that the art can be manifested in musical expression.
As a composer Karsten Fundal has always been fascinated by getting music into a system. The notes don't come by themselves, they emerge as the result of a process of familiarization with certain systems, which in turn enable the composer to realize an idea or a vision. But the technicalities or the systems are never ends in themselves. Technique, thought and text in and around Karsten Fundal's music always have a spiritual or metaphorical meaning. The cement that binds his musical architecture together is more than just numbers, methodology and fascination with science; his music constantly seeks out the places where spirit and precision can follow the same musical path.
At an early stage Karsten Fundal became interested in the apparent opposite of system - free improvisation with the idioms of jazz as the sounding-board. When the ten-year-old was introduced to the pianist Keith Jarrett's so-called Köln Concert with its musical emancipation of both improvisation and tight control, the boy began thinking along new lines:
"Keith Jarrett has meant a lot to me. After experiencing the so-called Köln Concert I began to systematize my improvisation in a particular direction. Before this event I had mainly improvised against the background and inspiration of the Moonlight Sonata and the like. My parents had a very limited selection of records; on the other hand those records got some serious listening. There were some Lieder by Schubert, which riveted my attention even at the age of six or seven. The melancholy of Schubert's music, the ambivalence of the music's mutable use of major and minor, influenced me from the start. When I hear Schubert today I'm still incredibly affected by it."
If Fundal is affected by Schubert, it is because his music has both a melancholy inwardness and an outwardness with a certain robustness of expression. His music has both aspects in it. This accords with Fundal's interest in the ideas of the founder of analytical psychology, C.G. Jung. According to Jung, in a man the inner creative side is of the opposite gender, which means that the man has an inner femininity, the anima. The opposite is true of women. Creative drive therefore comes from this inner polarity. Fundal explains:
"For some reason my inner femininity has for many years been melancholy. When you talk about opposite-genderedness in the Jungian sense, people often think it means you have a woman inside you. That's nonsense, we're talking about symbolism here. With femininity we're dealing with a qualitative entity rather than a physical one. This doesn't only apply to me. Everyone has an inner polarity. Jung says that the inner opposite gender of artists is often better developed. That's because they've been more in contact with it by practicing their creative profession. Whether it comes through in a special way in music compared with other areas - I don't think so.
It's a psychological mechanism, you don't do it consciously. When we talk about it, it's a rationalization. Jung discovered it by working with dreams. It's complicated, for if we talk about my ambition, that's a masculine feature. We are talking about symbols, so let's say instead that it's all about forms of energy. But that doesn't directly have anything to do with my music. It's a bit like the driver in the computer that runs the program, but doesn't directly have anything to do with the program - but the program can't do without the driver either. So a particular driver can be used for many different programs. If you have a word processing program the driver doesn't have anything to do with word processing. Femininity is a driver, an energy entity that's simply a catalyst for processes. Obviously, awareness of all these things influences my whole understanding of the surrounding world."
The first work Karsten Fundal acknowledges is Hoquetus from 1981. He started, like so many before him, by discovering Bartók and Stravinsky. Then Ligeti and Xenakis. Fundal had to go to the Academy to develop his skills, to learn the contrapuntal disciplines that are the essence of western music. Palestrina and Bach. It's so incredibly sophisticated and awareness of their music is important because that is what separated classical music from non-classical music.
Fundal readily admits that he stands on the shoulders of Bach. He has first and foremost learned counterpoint from Bach. From Bach too he has learned the idea that there are two or more co-existing identities that relate to each other and affect each other.
Fundal was first taught by Hans Abrahamsen, then by Ib Nørholm at the Academy. He also attended a course given by the American composer Morton Feldman in Dartington in England, which Fundal describes an intense experience. Feldman's sense of timing and the repetition of identities in unpredictable patterns gave the Dane a kind of ‘Aha!' experience. Something to do with phrasing fell into place:
"Feldman's feeling for silence was striking. I wrote a work that was inspired by Feldman's music. It's called Ballad, from 1986-88. Otherwise my music sounds nothing like his. I would describe the period of Hoquetus as a period of discovery, when I discovered polyrhythms or the interference phenomenon in particular. That's what Hoquetus is about. I became incredibly fascinated with shifts in patterns. In fact they have preoccupied me continuously ever since. But I'm not a minimalist. In the minimalist structure there can be a layer that repeats itself recognizably in 7 and another layer that repeats itself recognizably in 5. That's really what happened in Hoquetus, but already there I was fascinated by letting the system ‘run in the background', that is, letting the shifts operate as an underlying coding, but you don't hear everything. Then you superimpose layers on that, where you get hold of another code. This creates a shift that is so powerful that it becomes unpredictable. While at the same time you hear a consistency behind it. It's exciting to work with."
In the early years Karsten Fundal mainly composed for smallish ensembles. Before he went to Holland to study with Louis Andriessen Fundal wrote the string quartet Hoquetus, where the sonority is greatly inspired by Xenakis' music. The sources of inspiration are also very varied: Morton Feldman, Louis Andriessen and Iannis Xenakis.
Fundal went to Holland in 1986 and began studying with Andriessen at the Conservatory in The Hague. he lived and studied there for six months and only managed to write one work: Ballad for orchestra. Then he came home to Copenhagen, but couldn't settle down to the rhythm of the Academy in the capital and tried the Aarhus academy. Along with other composers Fundal went every fortnight to Aarhus to study with Karl Aage Rasmussen and Per Nørgård. These teachers provided new fuel for Fundal's engine:
"There was something quite concrete I got the hang of in Aarhus: interfaces and logical types. I was preoccupied with those for the two years I was in Aarhus. The work with complex entities: for example if you have a chord and a melody then you have two logical types. You have accompaniment and you have melody. But if you aren't aware of the difference between the two, you can easily mix them up unconsciously. Then you're in trouble. As a rule that's where things go wrong. Not much music came out of that period. I stalled completely for the first year. That was because I became conscious of something I had done unconsciously. It's a bit like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time and being shocked that you're something you can see. I had to go through the awareness process. I could hardly write anything at all, because I had all sorts of thoughts and theories about tone rows, harmonic series and much more. I was caught in an area between traditional thinking and something else that was new."
Fundal has always had a feeling that there was some system he should find. Suddenly, he found that system in the period when he worked in Aarhus, but at first he could not compose with it. It is a so-called feedback system: he had always had an idea that one could create musical motion that could be controlled but where one could not predict the details. Fundal had this image in his mind for many years, but then he invented the feedback system. It is not a row or series, but a system that is constantly developing. It consists of several layers at different speeds, the fastest of which is optional except for the notes that coincide with the other, slower notes. The slower layers, where the notes are predetermined, control the faster layers - which is why it is called a feedback system or a dynamic system.
Fundal's dynamic system can be heard for the first time in Butterfly for accordion and wind quintet. It is a very short piece, because the composer worked the whole thing out on a pocket calculator. Every time a new note comes it requires three new calculations. One very quickly reaches several thousand calculations per note. So Fundal had to have a computer program written, and got his brother - a computer scientist and mathematician - to do it. Fundal still uses that program.
One might be tempted to conclude that Karsten Fundal dreams of finding the definitive Wunder-formel that can express ‘everything'. But it isn't that simple. The composer explains:
"I'm so bad at maths. I can't even make an algorithm. It doesn't interest me. Once I had a dream - I think most composers have - of creating some super-algorithm that could generate an unpredictable composition which one could still shape a little. In reality it's a wish to get in touch with the control mechanisms in music. For we have a huge problem with contemporary music, for example in terms of time. Classical music in the old sense, major-minor tonality music, is fantastic, because it contains the past and future within it with the use of tonic, dominant, subdominant: when you have a certain chord progression, with a good composer like Bach, then most of the chords have a dual temporal function that functions as a kind of focus points in the development: the individual chords always point back to the tonality you're coming from, and forward to another new tonality or a progression. This, along with the counterpoint, creates a field of tension in the music that is so sophisticated that it's hard for us to compete with. We have a problem there with contemporary music. It's this problem we've been unable to get definitively beyond since Schoenberg. The problem arose when there could no longer be allusions to this tonality. So in fact one got a non-linear field of polarities - there's no ‘preferred direction'."
If it is true that contemporary music has an array of aesthetic challenges and problems, then one of the tasks is to justify that a musical unit or progression continues in the way it does continue. In classical music it is a straightforward matter when music should stop. This is no longer true. The time issue is so much of a presence that with several composers it is put right up there in the title of the work. That issue is also crucial for Karsten Fundal, who has found a solution and can therefore go even further with his music:
"I solve the problem by ensuring that all my systems develop in time. They have a built-in time factor. Since I studied in Aarhus I've only worked with music that develops in time. The problem with the twelve-tone system and the systems developed in its wake is that a twelve-tone row has nothing to do with music, for it has no relation to time. It's a physical-spatial phenomenon which then has to be inserted in a time frame. What the Central Europeans were so fascinated by in the last century was having something or other one could write up on a blackboard and say "This is my tone row". And then they hoped this was a code - but it didn't relate at all to the fact that time passes while one plays the music. That means that the row is non-dynamic. That's the problem. I haven't found the philosopher's stone, but I think it's fascinating to work with progressions that go through various transformations, as happens in my violin concerto. It can move into a note repetition and instability can arise, and triads can arise. The music passes through various transformation periods. The same is true of the hierarchic rows I work with: every single time I go into a layer it will have a new kind of dynamic, a new kind of tonality, a new kind of emotional melodic system."
by Thomas Michelsen
It's all about exploring the material, Karsten Fundal has said, and in this statement lies a crucial clue to understanding the way he composes. Fundal's music is inspired by mathematical and scientific theories. It is generated from calculated structures. But the composition process is just as much about spontaneous choices, for the composer must become so intimate with his material - so in love with it - that he can move around in it with dream-like assurance.
Music is very often based on growth principles akin to fractal structures, so the computer must be used to carry out the complex calculations necessary for the development of the material. But the computer is not a sound machine that churns out fully fashioned works without a human being to work against it. On the contrary, the composer constantly intervenes in the development of the structures, and it is a crucial point that his choice interacts with the structural developments and changes them.
Zoom for chamber ensemble was written for the Danish Chamber Players, and the title of the work refers to the idea that one zooms in - as with a camera - on a detail in the musical picture, from which a new image arises. From this point of departure one zooms in again on a new detail and so on. The work is in that sense a series of pictures, but it all happens so quickly that it is experienced as one long journey drawing the listener inward through the music. The composer calls the process a ‘panning' through infolded orders, which he explains with the following metaphor:
"A flat piece of modelling clay in many different-coloured layers, strictly separated from the beginning, is folded again and again. Each time it is pounded flat again, so that with each folding a more complicated pattern of colours arises. One can always see the remains of the original and the preceding structures, at the same time as new structures arise. The subtitle, ‘Figure and ground study III' refers more specifically to the composition technique where a scale motion is started, then notes are picked out according to a particular principle. In this way a new scale is formed, which in turn forms the starting-point for a selection of notes according to the same principle and so on."
Between the ensemble work Zoom and the CD's concluding percussion concerto for soloist and sinfonietta we find a number of smaller chamber music works for three or four musicians.
The Wings of a Butterfly for clarinet, violin, viola and accordion takes its poetic title from the world of fractals and chaos theory. The fundamental idea of the composition is the chaos theorists' central principle of feedback. Artist and structure interact. Within a mathematical model the composer makes free choices. Each of these choices is fed back into the calculation process and thus has far-reaching - indeed unpredictable - consequences for the development of the whole, since at the same time they help to determine the composer's next choice.
Chaos is not just chaos, but often involves regularities which however lie outside the laws of traditional linear mathematics. The title The Wings of a Butterfly refers to the famous chaos theory statement that a butterfly that flutters today in Peking can change the storm fronts in a month's time in New York. A very small event can cause a great deal of turbulence over very great distances because of the unpredictable complexity of the feedback system. From the unison motion of the violin and the accordion the music spreads out into an ever more violent storm. New shifts take the process further, and small melodic strands, insistent note repetitions, simple sequential patterns and tumultuous movements monopolize the attention until the music falls calm.
Traces for clarinet, violin, cello and piano is, as the title suggests, about traces, or more specifically about traces that leave traces that leave traces etc. Accents with a (fast) pattern of notes form a new (slower) pattern. Within this pattern new accents form a new pattern and so on. The result is a poetic tonal world of descending motions which leave both reflectively lyrical and energetically snappy impressions.
After these two quartet works comes the clarinet trio The Ways of Lightness and Falling, written for the Danish LINensemble, which with its many years of activity has attracted a wide range of Danish contemporary composers and has thus been a vehicle for the composition of a substantial body of new music for this instrument configuration.
Over long stretches the music takes off in hovering, self-absorbed games, but the contemplative expression has painful undertones. Fundal writes in his preface to the clarinet trio that the composition took form at a time when he was absorbed by the feeling of an inner struggle between two apparently opposite psychological forces, which he experienced at the time as lightness and momentary falling from this state of lightness - a sudden strong sense of gravity. The two feelings could very well have been due to the tension between the artist's closing-in on himself in creative self-expression and the insistently different reality-oriented demands of the surrounding world. Each of these forces pulls in its own direction, until the cello in the end takes off, the music rises into the air and vanishes.
Two Simple Movements is another quartet, a relatively undemanding and easily listened-to piece composed for flute, violin, cello and piano. Despite the title it does not, as one might expect, fall into two separate musical movements. The title points rather to the music's two utterly different - and simple - species of motion: a slow, chromatic, stubborn one alternating with a rhythmic, clear and danceable one. The two kinds of motion take turns to hold the stage and influence each other in constant duos.
Ritornello al contrario is a three-movement solo concerto for percussion and sinfonietta, which places the percussion soloist as a traveller in a varied landscape.
The first movement allows the soloist to work from wood instruments (low log drum, marimba) via vibraphone up to bright-sounding metal instruments such as glockenspiel and crotales, while the skin-membrane percussion is kept in the background for a while. The slow second movement forms an atmospheric contrast which at the same time, however, has immediately comprehensible roots in parts of the first movement. This interlude is a little jewel of a magical movement, with glockenspiel and vibraphone accompanied by among other things whispering woodwinds playing without mouthpieces and with clattering valves, and harp and guitar, where a knocking with the nails on the instruments creates a uniquely magical mood. The last movement works its way forward in a rhythmic crescendo to the surprisingly theatrical climax of the concerto, after which the music evaporates.
Karsten Fundal drew his inspiration for the concerto from a glockenspiel he bought in a medieval town in the south of France. The many interwoven episodes of the first movement express the fundamental idea of the work - the juxtaposition of contrasts. This principle is reflected at another level in the contrast between the very lively first movement and the very static second movement. The third movement forms a contrast with both the preceding movements: with its rhythmic energy it is more stable than the first movement, while the soloist's constant acceleration of the tempo against the ensemble's ever slower tempo creates a sense of direction by virtue of an increasing polarization which is played off against the time-negating universe of the second movement. The delicate tones of the French glockenspiel can in particular be heard reflected in the solo part of the second movement. Ritornello al contrario was commissioned by ATHELAS Sinfonietta Copenhagen for the ensemble's percussionist Thomas Sandberg, who gave the concerto its first performance in 1998.