Clarity and a crowd of question marks
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's music is full of clashes: laconic observations with anarchistic provocations; childlike wonder with cynical comment; clichés with originality; the ecstatic combined with the ascetic. This is how Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's music has been for over half a century, and calm has not descended upon him with age - fortunately!
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's rather few -vocal works were written in particular periods - partly at the end of the 1960s and partly in the years after 2000. Nevertheless the vocal music represents him excellently, because it exhibits his unmistakable voice in a number of highly zestful works.
At the beginning of the 1960s Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen had gone in for the highly complex music of Stockhausen, Boulez and Ligeti, but a few years later he moved in the direction of a far more simple mode of expression. The classic example is Konstateringer (Statements) from 1969, a brilliant key work of "the New Simplicity", as this Danish variant of minimalism has been called. Konstateringer uses a concrete poem by Hans-Jørgen Nielsen and sets it to music in correspondingly systematic fashion.
Each verse consists of the same few nouns, which are shifted a notch from verse to verse. Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen gives each word one or two fixed notes that are maintained no matter where the word appears. The first singing-through of the sequence of words is in unison and therefore functions as the melodic code of the piece. In the following five verses several melody notes remain "hanging" and form a kind of polyphony without changing the regular melody. This produces a completely objective mode of expression that leads directly to the conclusion of the poem: "I state - that is all".
This was followed the next year by the collection Eksempler (Examples), which is exactly what the title promises: morsels of possibilities and techniques. The texts are by three young poets of the period, and the collection is in Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's words "examples of how a generation expresses itself and examples of the exploitation of a highly limited body of tonal material. Three different poets in the same small space."
The first piece in Eksempler is a good example (!): the text revolves around a central axis in which the description of "she" and "he" (in a tribute to gender equality typical of the time) forms a symmetry. The music follows the structure of the poem closely, so the men's voices sing about "her", after which the women's voices sing about "him" in a motion that goes from the tonal ‘gender' minor to the tonal ‘gender' major. As in the other pieces the voices move only minimally, centring on the note D. The settings are very close to the text and the phrasings fall into place thanks to a natural, non-'artistic' diction.
The simplicity was radical for its time, but historically one can in fact speak of simpli-city as a recurrent feature of Danish music. Robustness, an ‘artless' attitude and bold humour were positive descriptions in Danish music well into the twentieth century, and they continue to live their own life in Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's works. A few times he has taken that tradition quite literally. In the Six Simple Danish Songs, which have a sister work in a corresponding collection by his composing colleague Ib Nørholm, there is a living link with the ideal of the popular "Danish song".
"If one is to have any hope of participating in some kind of broad, popular Danish songwriting, there is only one way to go: to imitate the familiar," Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen explains. "It begins fairly sensibly with Forårsnat (Spring night) by Tove Ditlevsen and then goes steadily downhill. My last song Det på billeder (Something in pictures) can hardly be called a song at all; it is rather a fierce declamation of Jess Ørnsbo's poem (which doesn't exactly sound like the ‘Danish Golden Age' either). But even this gradual downplaying of the singable is for me a point that reflects the developments in poetry - and in the Danish language. Only SIMPLICITY endures."
At an age when others begin to retire from the labour market, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has expressed himself with great vitality and imagination. The three longest works on the CD show this clearly.
Three Stages from 2003 is an exuberant masterpiece which with its unorthodox mixture of bizarre humour, sophistication and surprising references could only come from the pen of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen.
"The three stages" is a concept from Kierke-gaard's philosophy. Here the stages are spread over three "scenes" (as in the other sense of the word ‘stage'): a hectic scene in the city, a reflective scene in the forest, and in/on the last "stage" a fusion of the two worlds with the all-embracing ocean.
The joyous chaos of fishwives, slogans and cusswords (both the older Danish ones and today's popular English ones) in the first movement is in glaring contrast to the second movement, where the Renaissance master Clément Janequin's Le Chant des -Oyseaux, supplemented by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's own interest in birdsong and the legacy of "the Danish song" make the music a veritable orgy of forest sounds. The third movement fuses these worlds quite concretely: three of the low voices sing their exact parts from the first movement, and four other voices similarly repeat the music of Janequin from the second movement. Above this we hear Shakespeare's Sonnet LX, Like as the waves... as a cantus firmus. With a disarming final comment on this portrait of life, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen explains: "With these three movements I have tried to bring several signals together; after all, both humans and animals are incessantly signalling."
For many years Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has drawn inspiration from the writer -Samuel Beckett. A poet he has only come upon later is the Australian Les Murray.
"When you become fond of poems, it isn't a very obvious move to start singing them. That would be a shame. I've always thought that (I don't have much vocal music behind me) - but you also have to pull yourself together, break down your own ingrained antipathy, idiosyncrasies and worries; and Murray's poems really cried out to me with a freshness both delicate and rugged," says Gudmundsen-Holmgreen about Les Murray, whose language he describes as "nothing less than boundary-breaking, imaginative, sometimes devil-may-care. All very inspiring for me."
Four Madrigals from the Natural World from 2001 use texts by Murray. "The texts are images, situations from - or meditations on - the natural, ordinary, original or rural world," Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen comments. "Les Murray's way of approaching this world has very little to do with sentimental regional nostalgia. The poems reek of boldly conceived reality, at bottom with a clear realism, but at the top - in the actual form - an abstract game, a daring and vigorous poetic language.
"The poems cry out for music. I abandoned old idiosyncrasies to do with image-creating effects - and surrendered to the madrigal form with its distinctive so-called "-madrigalisms", which for example involve animal imitations. This can especially be heard in Octave of Elephants." A very modest description of the kind of extreme doo-wop song that unfolds so -obstreperously that the words of the poems must in fact step back a few rows.
From material from a coming opera, Sun Goes up, Sun Goes down, Pelle Gudmundsen--Holm-green has created the three-movement choral work Igen (Again) which is his only work with texts from the Bible. But the subject of the cycle of life is surely also "apt" for a composer in his late seventies?
The first movement is repeated in a much expanded form as the last movement. It has now grown to twice the size and the voices have spread out into a broad 12-part polyphony that ranges all the way up to the high C. It ends in a dazzling light - but against the background of quite different thoughts from those we have encountered in the second movement. Here time is measured out in small gradual steps that are repeated in a massive statement that "everything has its season". Igen is a serious work about the eternal recurrences of life, which seem both absurd and painful for an agnostic like Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen.
Jens Cornelius, 2010
A note from Paul Hillier
The first pieces of Pelle's which I encountered (back in the 1990s) were Statements and Examples. I have long been fascinated by concrete poetry and the idea that words may not so much be ‘set' as translated into -music; a process that might be described as the absorption of poetry as a visual substance into sound as shape. And although the texts here cannot formally be described as concrete poetry, their appearance on the page is part of their meaning, and this does seem to have influenced the composer's approach too. Both works have been recorded before (unlike the rest of the works on this CD), but Examples was considerably revised during the recording session, especially with regard to elements of rhythm and tempo.
One of the significant elements in Pelle's music is a process related to spectral analysis, though I hear it more as a physical pro-cess, as if taking a shred of cloth and teasing it with a needle to pull out the separate lines of thread, thus releasing small, dense textures of sound from single notes. He does this to even greater extent in his Beckett settings (Je ne me tairais -jamais, 1966, and Trois poèmes de Samuel Beckett, 1989), but in Examples the degree of inflection remains more private and lyrical. It is a work where the non-Danish speaker will probably want to follow the text closely while listening!
This technique recurs in other works such as Igen, though this, the most recent work on the CD, is perhaps most remarkable for the tonal gravity of its central movement and the scintillating choral sonority of the outer movements. It was composed for Ars Nova Copenhagen and the material is connected, I understand, to an opera the composer is currently working on.
The madrigals - settings of the Australian poet Les Murray - are tours de force of musical pictorialism raised to the Nth degree. I'm not sure what Murray would make of them - the words are brilliantly set but sometimes get submerged in the sound-world they have conjured forth, and poets are not always sympathetic to this lèse-majesté. The vocal writing, especially in the Bat and Elephant songs, is virtuosic, running the gamut of extended vocal technique, though always for directly expressive purposes.
The ‘simple' Danish songs remind us that even today's serious composers need to be able to write tunes on occasion (and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen can); and again, non-Danophones will need to check out the texts.
Finally there is Three Stages, which I think is a masterpiece of what might be called the palimpsest technique of superimposed variation. We commissioned this work to fit into a very specific concert programme called Cries & Birds. The programme included the Cries of London by the Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons and part of a work of the same title by Luciano Berio; it also featured Le Chant des Oiseaux, the famous ‘programme' chanson by -Clément Janequin (C16) - i.e. works based on both urban and rural soundscapes. I gave Pelle the outline of these ideas and suggested he write a ‘Cries of Copenhagen' for us. He did, but went further! The Janequin chanson became the aural framework for the whole piece, and Vagn -Holmboe's 1988 collection of old Danish street cries was the source of most of the street cries. But in addition we hear snatches of ‘rural' folksong and ‘urban' children's songs, brief allusions to Berio (at the start of I and III), someone calling for a taxi, and for good (Jacobean) measure Shakespeare's sonnet Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore.
These works, taken together or bit by bit, subscribe to my notion that this CD really does represent the natural world of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen.
Paul Hillier, 2010