Peter Bruun by Jakob Wivel
You could easily get the idea that the composer Peter Bruun is a bit of an oddball - not least when you listen to his early music. Sometimes it sounds as though he has converted to Buddhism, at other times an old Danish song or even a modern Danish Top Ten schlager peeps out from it. And often it sounds as if he has a rock drummer hidden away inside him. That he romps apparently unimpressed through very different musical universes, and seems to show a new side of himself in every single work, is nevertheless part of the reason he is a quite special voice in Danish music. For Peter Bruun isn't afraid of anything.
Maybe this is because he grew up in a home where music wasn't listened to much. In other words he was no "child prodigy" who began playing violin at three, nor did he write his first work at the age of six. In short, there were no early signs that music was to be Peter Bruun's career. It was only in high school that it started. There, British pop-rock groups like Duran Duran, Simple Minds and Spandau Ballet came crowding in. Peter Bruun began playing and composing his own pop and rock - and at the same time he sang in the church choir, which performed his first choral work. By then Peter Bruun was 20 years old. He began to read philosophy and to study with the Danish composer Niels Marthinsen. Later he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, where he studied composition and music theory with among others the composers Per Nørgaard and Karl Aage Rasmussen.
As a composer Peter Bruun has brought all this along with him. He simply takes all music seriously. When he uses the above-mentioned Danish Top Ten song in his work 4 Pieces in 3 Stages, it isn't to sneer at it. It's because he likes it, because it means something to him. While many another composer would probably consider it to be something inferior, not worth working with, Peter Bruun embraces it with love. For him it's just as valid as any other kind of music. He isn't afraid of its sentimentality; or of sentimentality in general; nor is he afraid to express himself simply, to work with simple, recognizable material. It may be a major triad or a small part of a scale, perhaps just a few notes, or a single motif. He insists that this is just as good as working with all sorts of complicated composition techniques - and it is characteristic of him that he does it with very great care. The "awkwardness" you can hear now and then in Peter Bruun's music turns out, when you listen harder, to be extremely sophisticated.
He doesn't concern himself much with the old masters. In that respect he feels the same way as many of today's young and not-quite-so-young composers do: it's far too overwhelming to have to take the whole heavy legacy of classical music on board when you write music. And modernism's demand for the "nie erhörte Klänge" doesn't seem to be anything that has ever bothered Peter Bruun. But that doesn't make his music any less original. For him it's the present day that counts, and that often makes him combine the simple with the very complicated - to great poetic effect. And although Peter Bruun on the face of it may seem difficult to ‘make out', there is always a certain recognizabilvity in his music - not necessarily stylistically, but at least as regards the sensuality of his sound. And not least by virtue of the tight way he screws his music together, which makes it so aesthetically effective, and makes him one of the most distinctive and exciting voices in his generation of Danish composers.
A silver bell that chimes all living things together
is from 2001 and was written to a poem by Rolf Gjedsted. It was commissioned by the Figura Ensemble to be played together with George Crumb's work Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, for more or less the same grouping. Crumb's work was written to texts by Lorca. So it was decided that Bruun's piece would also have something to do with Lorca. But it was to be in Danish, so the choice fell on the Danish poet Rolf Gjedsted, who had written a poetry collection called Lorca's House. The poem is actually called "You are like a tree"; Peter Bruun found the title of the work in the third verse; he has also found the titles of the movements by playing around a little with the lines of the poem. In the first movement "Through labyrinths of branches and green leaves, I find my way to you" has become the movement title "Through your Song". Here the introductory sheets of sound are broken suddenly by silver bells and a shrill clarinet, only to fall calm again before the mezzo-soprano sings with increasing intensity about finding one's way through scents, skin, blood and deep dreams with a hint of an Andalusian melody line. A good halfway into the movement fierce percussion and strings enter - and here the Arab-Oriental character becomes particularly striking.
The first line of the second verse, "My homeless memory" has become the title of the second movement, "My homeless clarinet", for that is the instrument that plays a discreet leading role in this rather meditative movement before the central and longest movement of the work, "A silver piano that chimes all living things together". Here broadly pulsating sections alternate with more lyrical ones that build up to the next broadly and more erratically pulsating one, while the passion of the mezzo-soprano seems to become increasingly desperate with each build-up.
In the fourth movement Peter Bruun has modified the first line of the poem about "The mournful shadows" which are always in flight from death to "The mournful guitars", which has become the title of the movement. Once more, an expression of his distinctive feeling for combining the poetic with something quite concrete, for in this short little movement the electric guitar really has a mournful effect. In other words, the titles are of musical importance.
The poetry in the even shorter fifth movement is more grotesque, where the poem's "Now a butterfly takes off" has become "Now a double-bass takes off". Nevertheless, surely no one can be in any doubt that it does just that, finely fluttering and butterfly-clumsy in its windblown flight? In the last movement, where "Now it is raining on a child" has become "Now it is raining on a song", the poetry itself perhaps takes off more, for what an image there is in that title! The movement falls neatly into verse like most of the old popular Danish songs. And each verse begins with "rain" sprinkling the piano.
Letters to the Ocean
was originally written as a quintet for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and percussion for the Seattle Chamber Players. In this form the ensemble gave the work its first performance in Seattle in 2006, but the version for large ensemble that can be heard on this CD was made for the Danish Ensemble MidtVest in 2008. The title is yet another expression of Peter Bruun's soft spot for poetic subtleties. It comes from the Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen, who wrote the libretto for Peter Bruun's MIKI ALONE - Seven Songs for a Mad Woman. Here we find the line "One could send a letter to the ocean..." Absurd as this line might seem literally, Peter Bruun fell for it - and the result was four letters to the ocean.
The first begins with a striking motif with a peculiarly emphatic inertia that is repeated, first with increasing weight and power, only to lose heart later, until the clarinet succeeds briefly in arousing it to action again. This is followed by an oddly floating middle section whose cautious poetry ends up being swept away by the return of the introductory motif, which however seems less self-assured this time.
The second movement sounds to begin with like a pastorale, like pure rustic idyll, but it is not long before a fragment of the first movement's subject disturbs the calm with shifting temperaments and different "lightings". The movement almost takes the form of a rondo where the rural idyll constantly alternates with the contrasting ‘subject sections' which, as in the first movement, have the same sensual substance in their various sonorities - just as the idyllic passages develop anew each time they appear.
The third movement exhibits a new afterglow from the introductory motif, which is repeated. Here the character is much more airy, more dreaming or unworldly.
The fourth movement is a version of a song Peter Bruun has written to a poem by another of his favourite writers, the English Gerard Manley Hopkins, and this is also what has given the movement its title, "Heaven-Haven". It was originally written for a singing guitarist. Its delicate ensemble sonorities and simple, slightly wistful melody line are infinitely remote from the potently pulsating beginning of Letters to the Ocean.
Waves of Reflection
is another example of Peter Bruun's poetic vein. In the first movement's delicately static universe a small, tripping melody tries to take off in the accordion, but apparently without the necessary vitality. It later makes the attempt in slightly different variants in the flute, the clarinet and the oboe, then again in the accordion. At no point does it succeed in manifesting itself properly, but for some reason it does not seem unresolved. For it sparks expectations of what it could have become - and thus underscores the fact that suggestion often has far stronger expression than a statement glaring in neon.
In the second movement, as in Letters to the Ocean, a rhythmic melodic theme of powerful inertia forces its way in again and again. It is repeated incredibly many times with small variations, and falls into blocks - also rather like a refrain in a rondo - until at the end it definitively puts paid to the more delicate episodes in between. This is followed by a very quiet movement that sounds a little eerie with its trembling strings at the beginning and not least the accordion, which seems simply to idle along without any real sense of direction. But this comes in the last movement, where Peter Bruun turns up the sonority-saturated inscrutable poetry that is so -typical of him.
Jakob Wivel is a freelance journalist and a music critic on the newspaper Børsen.