The Magic of the intangible by Esben Tange
Per Nørgård, Hans Abrahamsen and Bent Sørensen are all key figures of the -musical ‘golden age' that Danish music has experienced from the late 1960s to the beginning of the 21st century.
After the strong position enjoyed by central European modernism in the early post-war years, Per Nørgård in particular was an exponent of a new, emancipated form of musical expression, one in which the longing of the late 1960s for an expansion of consciousness went hand in hand with the exploration of a new musical language. In Nørgård's case, this led to the discovery of the so-called ‘infinite series', which was to play a vital role in a number of works, including Spell.
Despite the fact that this musical innovation has helped greatly in the creation of completely new and radical forms of musical expression, a number of composers have also managed to incorporate and renew the yearning of Romantic aesthetics to contain the intangible and the mysterious. This applies, for example, to Hans Abrahamsen, who in Traumlieder has composed subtle music that bears traces of the character pieces and musical miniatures by Schumann.
And in Bent Sørensen it leads to a whole series of works where sophisticated musical characterization is combined with a magically charged sensitivity - of which Phantasmagoria is a fine example.
Bent Sørensen: Phantasmagoria (2006-2007)
In Phantasmagoria, dedicated to and premiered by Trio con Brio, Bent Sørensen opens up a profusion of vibrating moods. Among his sources of inspiration, the composer mentions an evocative gothic picture with a nocturnal ruin, where only the contours of the collapsed building can be made out. Here, then, we are dealing with a kind of double blurring. The ruin, because of its dilapidated state, has already lost part of its original architectural clarity, and as a result of the twilight a partially hidden play of shadows also takes place around the caved-in walls.
Something similar also applies from a purely musical point of view. From the very first note, the music is ghostly and intangible. The violin starts with a single note, but a glissando erases the original note and leads instead to a falling movement where the usually clearly defined notes slip away like sand between one's fingers. The sound of the instrument is also characterised by an unreal tinge, as the violinist is instructed to play using a so-called Tonwolf mute, which drastically dampens notes and gives the sound a snarling, metallic quality. At the same time, the muted note is to be played strongly, which gives it a desperate feeling - like pent-up passion that can only find expression through raw aggression.
When the cello enters after a few beats it is like a shadow of the violin, since it plays the same falling glissandos, but in an attenuated register and with a less insistent sound. Something similar happens at the entrance of the piano. Although the sound of the piano differs considerably from that of the two string instruments, the composer succeeds in letting the piano join in imperceptibly, as a third masked partner in this musical phantasmagoria.
We are in a musical world here that is beyond traditional melodics, yet at times we can hear fragments of distant melodies that are played with great fervour - as if they were a precious memory. And towards the conclusion this movement develops into a crepuscular musical poetry of the first order when all three instruments combine in a restrained hymnlike tremolo that embellishes an echo of an aria from Bent Sørensen's opera Under himlen (Under the Sky) (1999-2004).
In the brief second movement Misterioso e dolce it is as if the music is moving through a narrow tunnel, as the three voices revolve around the same notes in a silent tracking. From time to time, everything fuses together, but for the most part they are on the verge of losing contact with each other, resulting in a titillatingly painful dissonance. After this, the music moves into a warm zone where the three instruments find each other in the middle movement Dolcissimo. The whole ensemble is gathered together in an innocent melody, and by virtue of ingenious oscillations of sound an indistinct harmony is created in which the previous interplay of major and minor takes on a whole host of nuances. For brief moments, harmonious dream visions are revealed that seems to originate from a deeply romantic world. And by mainly keeping the music in a gentle pianissimo and -allowing the violin and cello to caress the notes via the use of a gossamer-light bowing technique - flautando - a mood of peace and absence of danger is conjured up.
In the fourth movement Misterioso e meccanico it is not the pitches of the notes that are unclear. Instead, the pulse of the music is constantly varied, which manipulates our sense of time and makes it feel unreal. Most often, this takes the form of a gradual slowing down that leads to a weakening of the innate energy of the music. As the process is repeated again and again, it results in a sense of loss, but as a reconciling element we can hear a distant human voice in a music that otherwise carries death within it.
In the last movement, the first to be composed, we can hear voices, and it is striking that the three instruments never play together at one and the same time. Once more, we are in a muted sound world, where fragile melodic voices are heard in the distance - this time in the form of an intimate lullaby. This is music that can fall apart at any moment, reminding us of the frailty of human existence.
Hans Abrahamsen: Traumlieder (1984/2009)
For Hans Abrahamsen, the classic piano trio is first and foremost a Romantic ensemble, characterised by great flexibility of sound in the two string instruments and the orchestral breadth of the piano. For this reason, the piano trio is also a natural medium for Hans Abrahamsen, as his music is very much a continuation of the sensitivity and use of fantasy found in Romanticism. This applies to the highest degree to Traumlieder, dedicated to and premiered by Trio con Brio and based partly on 10 Studies (1983-98) for solo piano and partly on Six Pieces (1984) for horn trio. Abrahamsen sees converting and recomposing former works for a new ensemble as an important part of his work as a composer. In this he can be compared with the painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, who throughout his life returned to certain motifs in the hope of eventually being able to separate the irrelevant and focus on the essential in his works.
In the first movement of Traumlieder, Serenade, we are taken deep into a silent dreamland. With muted chords in the piano's lower register and soft string voices stretched out like a sound-veil, this music seems to move as in a trance. Every step is measured, as if taken by a sleepwalker. And although the tempo in Arabesque is quicker and more dynamically varied, we still find ourselves in an unreal world, characterised by a labyrinthine piano voice that, breathing nervously, is increasingly enmeshes in its own web. The following Blues takes us at a calm walking pace deep into the heart of melancholy. The bass line of the piano is marked by a sense of inevitability, and the sorrowful, drawn-out lines of the two singing string voices ensure a sombre setting.
In Marcia funebre the innate darkness that typifies Traumlieder reaches its utmost expression. Unlike the Romantic funeral march, this music is without pulse, and halfway through the movement all veils fall and grief wells forth in frenetically hewn chords, after which time, so to speak, ceases. And fate is inexorable in Hans Abrahamsen's nocturnal dream world, for even though the music returns, an aftershock reminds us of the extent of the catastrophe.
In the two final movements, however, we are presented with some form of opening. For with a rip-roaring boogie-woogie - marked Scherzo misterioso - it is as if the last vestiges of sorrow are annihilated before the music, so to speak, transcends in For the Children. In the final, serene music the violin can be heard like an ethereal voice up above, and a single, elegant melody germinates from the piano, like some carillon. Perhaps this music with its childlike artlessness represents a new beginning.
Per Nørgård: Spell (1973)
With the word Spell Per Nørgård has chosen an intentionally ambiguous title for his piano trio, which also exists in a version for clarinet trio and is based on the piano piece Turn. The word ‘spell' in this context means both ‘to spell' and a magic ‘spell'. And even though the two meanings are on the face of it completely different, they turn out here to be two sides of the same coin. For on the one hand Spell is a work where musical building blocks are laid out like single pieces, yet at the same time it transpires that taken together they form a living organism - and one which, it should be noted, is not subject to any real rational understanding and control:
‘... an organism is not a game of billiards with chains of mere cause and effect, but a field of interaction where a series of forces have a mutual, incredibly complex influence on each other.'
This is what Per Nørgård wrote in 1972 in his seminal article The Expansion of Consciousness while Fully Conscious. In it he formulates an artistic vision that we humans, by acquiring an organic mode of thought, can ‘rediscover ourselves as cosmic beings' and ‘unite life with sanctity'. This lovely, comprehensive vision is developed on a large scale in Per Nørgård's Symphony No. 3 (1976), and on a smaller scale - though no less coherent for that - in Spell. We are dealing with freely floating music where the individual voices stand in a relatively free relation to each other. Unlike the traditional form of notation, where the composer has written down the work in exact note values that the musicians play as precisely as possible, Per Nørgård has developed in Spell a new system in which each individual musician - within an overall predetermined framework - gradually alters the specific gravity of a particular note or musical figure. Specific gravity in this context means volume, duration and tempo, and the development of these parameters is determined by impulses from the other musicians. This gives rise to uncertainty, where every performance differs according to the impulses the musicians give each other.
The result is full of promise, since the usual - often predictable - division of time into exact measures and note lengths is suspended in favour of a sliding continuum. The music is perceived as a large, pulsating organism consisting of individual elements that gradually alter and are partially independent of each other - like cloud formations that imperceptibly change shape and constantly renew themselves, developing in wonderful new directions. The shifting creates the illusion that the time and space of the music are simultaneously static and being reassembled. The moment transcends the now and stretches into eternity.
Esben Tange holds degrees in musicology and media science. He is an editor and concert host at DR P2 Radio, and Artistic Director of the Rued Langgaard Festival.