By Bertel Krarup
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b. 1932) is something of an institution in Danish music. The man and his music both rank high in the Danish universe, and more than anyone he has helped to ensure that recent Danish music has features that make it stand out notably from music in the rest of Scandinavia and Germany. He has a mind of his own and makes room for the ‘different' in both style and sound. He has firmly refused to be browbeaten by the kind of theorists and ‘trendsetters' who want something rigidly defined from music. He has described his work as a kind of ‘pot-luck music' which of course reflects both his European and Danish identity, but also leaves room for American impulses. It is perhaps precisely this unorthodox, composite nature that explains why so many people outside Denmark have difficulty understanding his music, and why his intentions have sometimes been mistaken for "sheer confusion and a village idiot mentality". Lately, though, this has changed considerably, and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen is today the object of growing international interest.
He has his roots in the world of the visual arts. Impulses from this world, and not least from his father, the sculptor Jørgen Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, have made a strong impression on him: "Apart from an interest in space and material, what I got from him was the ability to maintain an awareness of the sensual and to preserve the mind of the child and, one hopes, a certain innocence in my work" (interview in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift, 1992). The spatial can for example be expressed in mobile-like forms, and the interest in the material is notable in most of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's works, where space is defined clearly in terms of smooth, rough, angular, soft, raw or polished surfaces.
The stylistic point of departure in the works of his youth in the 1950s was Danish post-Nielsen Neoclassicism spiced up with important impulses from Bartók and Stravinsky. But a decided turning-point came in 1960 when Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (like such prominent composing contemporaries as Per Nørgård and Ib Nørholm) was exposed at the ISCM festival in Cologne to overwhelming impressions from the Central European avant-garde, above all the leading figures of serialism, Boulez and Stockhausen - and not least to Ligeti's new views of sonority. The new influence is unmistakable in works like In terra pax (1961) and Chronos (1962), where he took up the relationship between ‘time' and rhythm in music in earnest and made his impact as one of the crucial young composers in Denmark. However, the Central European effect gradually waned as a result of the inherent scepticism of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (and of the Danish environment in general) towards over-rigid ideologies; and new impulses, from the USA for example, soon came to play a very considerable role in the shaping of his works.
Characteristically enough, the American influence mainly came from a visual artist, Robert Rauschenberg. His assemblages of found and collected objects (‘combines') left undeniable traces on works like Collegium Musicum Concerto, Frère Jacques (both from 1964) and Reprises (1965), in which Gudmundsen-Holmgreen attempted "to create object-like sounds or elements and let them meet one another". Despite some features preserved from serialism, phenomena like collage and in particular repetition had now become equally important - in an anti-expressive universe characterized by black humour and the grotesque, almost a musical approximation to the pessimism and focus on meaninglessness that one finds in the work of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who has fascinated Gudmundsen-Holmgreen ever since the end of the 1950s "as a fixed reference point, an eternal challenge, confirmer and contributor". Three works reflect in their very choice of text this persistent rooting in Beckett - Je ne me tairai jamais. Jamais (1966), Songs Without for mezzo-soprano and piano (1976) and Trois Poèmes (1989).
The reaction against Central European modernism, which made its real impact in Denmark in the mid-sixties, was strongest in the so-called ‘New Simplicity' with its characteristic elements, including concretism and stylistic pluralism. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was one of the main figures in this ‘movement', which of course used extremely simple modules, small melodies and the like, things anathematized by Central European modernism. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen makes a point of such simplicity in a work like Tricolore IV (1969), which as the title suggests uses more or less three sounds and inevitably had a highly provocative effect in its day. However, in this respect it is probably Plateaux pour deux for cello and percussion (1970) that wins hands down with its almost legendary combination of instruments, cello and car horn; a sound constellation with connections back to both Futurism and Dadaism. At the same time it is an important element in the formal structure that he has given the parts "a carefully systematized form of interaction, a structured interplay."
Structural order and clarity are universal features of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's music. Since the middle of the 1970s this has been manifested in particular by the use of a so-called filter; that is, a certain selection of notes in the form of a self-reflecting tonal ‘grid' which leads to a symmetrical structure, including frequent mirrorings - cf. a work like the clarinet trio Mirror Pieces (1980), whose title "is to be taken absolutely literally". About the use of tonal filters he says: "I help the listener by organizing the landscape we move around in ... [with] a filter of notes." Major works like Symphony, Antiphony (1977) and Concerto grosso (1990) exhibit this kind of structural order, but at the same time - like the bulk of the works from the last twenty years or so - leave room for artistry, musical warmth and immediacy: "The hard-line anti-art period of the 1960s, with absolute minimalism on the one hand and serialism on the other, is a historical phenomenon ... First and foremost because the music of the East and Africa has penetrated the music of the West and has given it new potential for sensuality." It is part of the picture that Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has never felt any attraction towards electronic music and its possibilities, and among the late major works we characteristically enough find four string quartets (nos. 5-8). ‘Instrumental concertos' like Triptykon (1985) for percussion and orchestra and For cello and orchestra (1996) also underline a growing interest in the musician in the role of living presence, something that also characterizes the shaping of the violin part in a work like The Creation - The Sixth Day (1991). There is quite simply more space for music in the works, and today Gudmundsen-Holmgreen dreams of "uniting asceticism with ecstasy".
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has called himself a minor figure in Danish music - an outsider - but it will be evident that he is in reality one of the major names, an ‘established outsider'; indeed he is one of the few Danish composers to have received the Nordic Council's Music Prize (in 1980 - for Symphony, Antiphony).
Comments on the works
By Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
Since 1980 the musicians in LINensemble have been an inspiring, loyal part of my life with chamber music. This has resulted in the present CD with LINensemble as the core ensemble, and with music I wrote between 1961 and 1997. The music spans almost forty years, a long period in the contemporary music context. How does this journey through time sound on rehearing? I must say I am grateful for making the trip with LINensemble and guests! Very grateful. And the music? Is it the same person who has written the pieces? Whether it is noticeable to others than myself I can't say, but here I would like to mention some features that have been characteristic of my efforts throughout the period.
Learning from Bach, Medieval and Renaissance vocal polyphony, Webern, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Boulez, I have always viewed conSTRUCTION as a key concept - to purge the music of sentimentality and to give it internal substance. On the other hand the sound of ‘reality' with its ‘chaos', noise, things, machines, beings - Varese, Cage, Tibetan monastery music, Bulgarian women's choirs, Sardinian male choirs, Spanish flamenco singers, jazz - plays an equally large role in the SOUND one encounters in my music. The FORM is often almost static; one moves slowly or in jerks from one place to another. The slowness will undoubtedly be a problem for some listeners! And this will presumably not be improved by the way restlessness has spread all around.
Mirror Pieces (1980) is the first example of collaboration with LINensemble. It is also a striking example of what I strive towards, as mentioned above. The three movements are all based on the same ‘tonal mirror':
The interval relationships arising from this - as melodic snatches and chords - are twisted and turned in all three movements. These "things", the pieces of a mirror, are put together in a mosaic where each ‘thing' has an independent extension, and polyrhythms or polymetres arise. The three-movement layout is classical: quick, slow, quick. Less classical are the exaggerated lingering in the second movement and the extremely terse third movement, which is a tingling, airy concentrate of the first movement.
Passacaglia (1977) was written with the same tonal mirror as Mirror Pieces, and everywhere the rhythm is based on a 15-bar (3 x 5) polyrhythmic framework. The title refers to a constantly repeated progression of notes/chords as presented at the beginning of the piece. The tabla instruments are not used as Indian spicing, but are an integral part of the ‘play' and sonority of the music (related for example to the pizzicato of the cello).
Double (1994) is quite appropriately in two movements and for two musicians. The relationship between the movements is not as in the Baroque double, but the material in the movements is based on the same basic substance - which is again a mirror-space, expanded beyond that of the two preceding works. The first movement is a kind of stilllife, and the listener will probably expect some action from the second movement; but just as one thinks one is well on one's way with this second movement, one is thrown back into the first, and material from there is repeated and developed. The second movement, however, turns out to have a will of its own and takes over with a feel of break-dance. The movement ends in the world of noise.
Territorial Song (1997) is again a pure LIN piece, like Mirror Pieces commissioned by the trio. One can safely say that the various ‘beings' keep a firm grip on their statements - hence the title.
In terra pax (1961) is the earliest-composed work on this CD, but also this piece is consistently constructed. The notes are part of a progression of four mass chords, and the rhythm is always subject to five lengths which control both form and detail in a hierarchical system. Time is not presented in a mathematical (metric) form, but visually: the time/rhythm is represented optically within a constant subdivision into seconds, the first implemented experiment of this kind in Denmark. The title is ambiguous, reflecting duality or a paradox among human beings. Peace is preserved by the exercise of power, violence and cruelty - "In terror Pax"! The piece was written during the hottest period of the Cold War as a protest, a kind of private CND march.
Finally, Plateaux pour deux (1970) is what most people might not consider a very tasty ‘dessert'. The use of the car horn is not the result of any desire to insult anyone, but demonstrates the above-mentioned interest in ‘reality', or tolerance towards sounds of all kinds. The cello and other sound sources are treated formally throughout, as can be seen for example from the limited tonal resources of the piece - a first step towards the mirror-space mentioned earlier:
This symmetry, which with its constant expansion of the intervals confines the potential for melody to the middle, was also the only tonal material (with the central axis d') for the half-hour orchestral work Mirror II from 1973.