"I think my music is highly visually evocative," says Niels Marthinsen.
At all events his music forges contacts between the listener and the composer - to a rare degree for contemporary music. Niels Marthinsen's works often have an immediate physical appeal, and he knows how to grab hold of the listener and hang on.
He wants to write music that doesn't exclude anyone in advance. It has to appeal to both heart and mind, and the route to both these faculties of the listener is quick when Marthinsen is the composer. One of the reasons for this is his grasp of the actual composition work. In terms of technique, Niels Marthinsen is one of the best grounded composers in Denmark. In his own words, he has his "heavy goods licence" as a composer and shies away from no technical challenge. He is more likely to seek out the challenges and work to pass them on so that the performing musicians will also feel the intensity that arises when the utmost is close at hand. And that excitement is propagated to the audience.
Niels Marthinsen's technical vitality goes hand in hand with his decided universality. "There's nothing you mustn't do in my music," he says, and this has become a kind of credo for him. He often violates taboos. They may be taboos of sound and expression, but they may also be more general taboos, for example against mixing humour with seriousness and having a strong ambition to make direct contact with the audience.
Marthinsen views the relationship between composer and listener very realistically: "You have to allow for the listeners' sensory apparatus and make sure there's something in the music that doesn't have to be decoded first. That may sound cynical, but it isn't. I use myself as audience. My own musical intelligibility index also has to go both up and down, and I myself need the music to say "BOOM!" now and then!"
At the same time he is highly aware that this can't be done just by banging on the drum now and then. Powerful, outward-looking music needs a lot of genuine substance, unlike hollow film music, for example. And finally, it is far from always appropriate to use the full power of expression at all. "Not all art is intended for a wide audience," says Marthinsen, "and some art isn't even meant for a public space. But when I write opera or for a symphony orchestra, it is crucial that my music is addressed to many people. It's showtime! and I like it! Otherwise you won't get away with aiming at the back row either."
Niels Marthinsen was born in 1963 and grew up in Viborg in Jutland. He made his official debut in 1993, but by the middle of the 1980s he was already a busy composer. Since his debut he has been productive in all the areas in which a composer can express himself: he has composed music, taught, organized, debated, written and administrated with great energy and efficiency.
Since 1965, when the composer Per Nørgård moved his composition classes from the Copenhagen Academy of Music to the one in Århus, Århus has been a key city for contemporary music in Denmark. And that is where Marthinsen studied composition in 1982-90. In the soloist class he was a pupil of Per Nørgård, but he has also been taught by Hans Abrahamsen, Steen Pade, Karl Aage Rasmussen and Poul Ruders. As early as 1988 he himself began teaching subjects including composition, instrumentation, theory and music history at the country's music academies.
Niels Marthinsen's official debut as a composer aroused considerable attention. "Blood transfusion for Danish musical life" was the headline in one of the big Danish newspapers. His success brought him a flood of commissions, and since then he has only written commissioned works. That is how continuously his music has been appreciated.
Some artists with a talent for organization end up overwhelmed by paperwork, and Danish music exhibits a dreary succession of composers who have come to a halt artistically as a result of taking on too many administrative duties. This is not the case with Niels Marthinsen. Expending energy on other branches of musical life has not stifled his creativity. He has been the chairman of the young composers' society Aarhus Unge Tonekunstnere and the festival Ung Nordisk Musikfestival, secretary-general of the Nordic Composers' Council and a member of the Danish Music Council and the National Arts Foundation's committee for classical music. He has been an organizer of a succession of festivals including the Danish Composers' Society's Biennale and the Nordic Music Days, and he was artistic director of Århus Sinfonietta in 1993-2000.
In addition he has edited a book and Internet-based instructional material about contemporary Danish composition music (see www.forgrundogbaggrund.dk). And for his work - and his music! - he has been awarded some of the country's most important music prizes: the Astrid and Aksel Agerby Music Prize, the Hakon Børresen Memorial Grant, the National Arts Foundation's three-year working grant, the Victor Borge Music Prize and the Wilhelm Hansen Grant.
An amazingly long string of works have come from Marthinsen's pen. They are written in well nigh all sizes and genres (although there have been no ballets so far) and they are often extremely demanding technically. In the worklist we find four solo concertos, three operas, a symphony (in two versions) and many works for sinfonietta or chamber ensemble, often with virtuoso features.
"Certain instrument combinations are not that important to me. But in general I like ensembles that can make a lot of noise! I would have no idea what to do with small discreet ensembles of harp, guitar and flute, and I am not too comfortable with string quartets - unless they're electrified ..."
So how does the music get composed?
"I need to have at least two or three good ideas that really hit the spot, but the ideas must also create the sense of a totality. In reality it's like a good sitcom: it isn't the individual characters but the combination of them that makes the whole thing interesting."
There are plenty of combinations in Niels Marthinsen's music, as he uses a toolbox so big that it contains the music of several centuries. Chopin, Beethoven, The Beatles, Grieg, Schumann, Langgaard, Chabrier, Carl Nielsen and Chinese pop music lie close at hand along with the whole modernist tradition.
"Modernism has left us a whole bunch of really fun composition techniques and technical inventions. I help myself to those, even when I'm writing music in C major," he says. In Niels Marthinsen's earliest works there were many academic ideas, but today he no longer cultivates that kind of thing. If it can't be heard it's of no consequence, he thinks. "Now the academic is only a part of the toolbox. So is a tonal system I found at the beginning of the 1990s. On the whole I often re-use my own music, both small morsels and larger pieces. Quotations from other composers are also in the toolbox. I don't try to sound like anything else. I don't try not to either."
Something is often let loose in Marthinsen's music. Monster Symphony is a clear example. It is a radical reworking of his own First Symphony from 1995. Ten years after it was written he chose to cut it up and overwrite the fragments with quite different music. The model was the Danish painter Asger Jorn, who experimented in the 1950s with painting over older pictures by other artists.
Marthinsen's original symphony is a long five-movement work that arose as a study over one of Grieg's small Lyrical Pieces. In the ‘overpainted' Monster Symphony hardly anything of the original symphony is left untouched. Over half has been cut away, and in the rest of the music monsters have been let loose, both over the music and in between the cut-out sections. Niels Marthinsen has also added jokey movement titles to the music: "Monsters' Mating Call," "Baby Monster's Lullaby" and in the last movement "Real Monsters". The whole symphony is dedicated to the composer's young son, "he taught me everything I know about monsters," as it says on the title page of the score.
There is no mistaking the monsters in the music. They surge out at the beginning of the first movement, which is like an auditory cartoon film with grotesque, insane howls and gestures. Great roars in the brasses, quartertone screams and animal rhythms warn you firmly not to venture close to a flock of rutting monsters!
"I really think music at this entertaining level should be allowed to be humorous about itself," says Niels Marthinsen. But the humour in the symphony does not last. In the second movement, certainly, we can experience the dramatic hatching of a small baby monster, and hear its quartertone crying and a monster mother that sings a soothing lullaby, but a symphonic seriousness also grows out of the movement, and in the last movement, which is longer than the first two together, there is not much nonsense left. Here be real monsters, and it is not funny at all. Listen for yourself. If it sounds too daunting, remember the composer's note: real monsters aren't - if they did they wouldn't be real monsters.
Panorama was commissioned by the Copenhagen Philharmonic (also known as the Tivoli Symphony Orchestra) in 1993 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Tivoli Gardens. Niels Marthinsen himself writes of the work:
"The word panorama means "a wide view". It also means something more specific: a machine from before the time of cinema and television that runs a painting of a landscape past the viewer. My Panorama is mostly associated with the latter - a picture of something large is rolled slowly by.
"The music doesn't represent anything. It's unsentimental and direct; it isn't meant to convey particular emotions, any more than an untouched landscape is. The music is just there and makes an impression or not - it's all in the mind of the beholder.
"I began composing Panorama on the basis of an academic idea: if you erase all the melodies and the quicker sequences, ornaments etc. from a large Late Romantic score (in short, if you remove all the blacked-in notes), a slow sequence of chords will be left. Panorama is about capturing this idea of a very slow progression, and at the same time about creating life inside the chords, first and foremost by means of the instrumentation.
"Although Panorama is not based on the ‘empty' notes in a particular work from Late Romanticism, it still sounds as if it has been washed ashore from the old days. For I chose to make the music tonal and only moderately dissonant as a kind of nod to my idea of erasing all the black notes. The modern quality of the work is that precisely one of the para-meters of the music, harmonic progression, is exaggerated beyond all limits, because not much else is going on, and because the tempo of the work is so slow. In that sense Panorama reminds me of a painting I once saw. It must have been half a metre wide, but two metres tall. At its bottom a green hill was painted with an oak tree at the top; the treetop reached up about 50 cm from the bottom of the frame. The rest was blue sky without a single cloud."
Niels Marthinsen's third opera, The Confessional, was finished at the beginning of 2006 with its premiere the same year at the Danish National Opera in Århus. The opera has a libretto by Kerstin Klein-Perski, freely adapted from a short story written in 1843 by the poet Christian Winther.
Christian Winther was one of the great names of the Danish Golden Age, and he wrote "The Confessional" for his collection Fire noveller (‘Four Short Stories'). It is a small but grim horror story where a noble Italian marchese, with great equanimity, kills the lover of his young wife and has the story hushed up afterwards.
Much of the action of the opera stays close to Winther's original, but Marthinsen has moved the plot from Italy to Spain, and has changed around the gender roles in the basic plot. In the opera it is the woman who kills her husband's - male - lover, after which she wins the position as head of her husband's family.
A flourishing genre of Late Romanticism was orchestral suites that gave material from an opera or ballet new life as concert pieces, at once independent of and associated with the original. As a composer in the age of the flickering media, Niels Marthinsen has chosen a different solution: to make a trailer for the opera, an advertising film, and his own presentation of the "opera trailer" is as original as the piece itself:
"I think you should go and see the opera, for it is full of straightforward emotionally charged music that grabs your attention at once - and the opera welds several genres together in an integrated personal idiom, all the way from traditional opera singing through spiky modernism, Spanish folklore and American minimalist music to melodies and grooves from mainstream pop music. And it is all borne up by a melody, for The Confessional is a bel canto opera.
"But first and foremost you should see the opera because the story is incredibly exciting: an Englishwoman, Gabi White, marries a Spanish count, Miguel, and thus for the first time in her life chooses love over self-control and a career. When Gabi arrives in Andalusia, it turns out that the marriage is based on a lie: Miguel is unfaithful to Gabi with another man, the architect Julian, and has mainly married her to satisfy his mother.
"Miguel's mother, the dowager countess, understands that Gabi has the potential to become the new head of the count's family. So she persuades Gabi to stay. But Gabi murders Miguel's lover in order to take complete control of her husband and his family - if she can do this she can do anything! Miguel is crushed, but the Church and the family accept what Gabi has done and celebrate the consecration service in the newly renovated cathedral with Gabi as an almost luminous centre of the ceremony.
"The Confessional is thus about passion, power and betrayal. To really tempt you into see the production I have spliced extracts from the opera together into a trailer in four parts. There are no singers, but the trailer is for a full symphony orchestra, and no punches are pulled.
"The first part of the trailer takes place before the opera begins. It is a high-octane cocktail of all the fantasies Gabi has had about being with her husband in Spain; but the fantasies come to a stop when Gabi arrives and encounters the blazing heat of the Andalusian sun.
"The second part is a kind of nightmare scene. It is siesta time, and Gabi has a dream that mixes desire and fear, where pictures from her past appear. And over the dream we hear the demonized, harshly dissonant chanting of monks.
"The third part is a set of variations where a bass melody is repeated many times with a sequence of chords that can be found everywhere in the opera. At the climax the timpani plays the ‘fate motif' of the opera as if it is bombs exploding.
"The third and fourth part are played as one continuous section and the trailer ends with a cliffhanger: the prelude to the scene where Gabi exposes Miguel and murders the architect."
Jens Cornelius, 2006