The musician in focus
- a showdown with traditional
"The music that succeeds in making an
impression on me is in some way thoroughly conceived in the medium in which the
listener encounters it. Whether it's a particular concert form, a CD, a
theatrical production or something else. For then the music is one with the
situation, and it may be pathetic or fantastic, pretty or ugly, beautiful or
nasty, or all of these at once or something else altogether; it will have a
decent chance to exercise its power."
The above quote is from the
34-year-old Danish composer with the pen-name Jexper Holmen. It pinpoints a
tendency of the age that has become more and more marked over the past few
years in the international as well as the Danish contemporary music milieu. The
tendency is all about the dissolution of the traditional musical boundaries -
and the breakdown of the distinction between composer and performer. It's about
making the music more relevant, since the musician gives up his or her humble decentralized
role while at the same time the composer is deprived of his elevated position
in an ivory tower.
music, in the sense of avant-garde composition carefully notated by a composer
in a detailed score, which is then inter-preted as faithfully as possible by a
number of musicians in a concert - this modernist type of contemporary music is
at present increasingly being replaced by music created with working methods
more like those traditionally asso-ciated with the rock and jazz genres:
improvisation and the collaboration of equals - methods, one might add, that
were also the norm in western European composition music at least well into the
Classical period, and which were only really abolished by the notation-fixated
modernism of the twentieth century.
Today more and more performers and
composers are moving away from the aesthetic of modernism and its rigid
distinction between composer and performer. The two parties want to merge
together again, either in one and the same person or by working closely
together as two people, so that the music is created jointly - and then no
longer takes on the character of a sacrosanct object, a so-called ‘work'
offered by the composer to the performer for interpretation, but instead
becomes a musical experience that finds its form in a ‘now', in an encounter of
composer, performer and audience, with the degree of improvisation and
spontaneity this entails. If the music is then captured for posterity on CD, it
is the form of the music in the captured moment that is preserved, not the
music as a definitive work.
The tendency is noticeable in a string of
Danish composers, musicians and electronica artists who make electronic or
electroacoustic music on the borderline between work and improvisation; and on
the borderline between what we have traditionally called classical music and
rock/jazz. From the electronica works one can name at random musicians with
performing names like Bjørn Svin, Opiate and Txture. From the so-called
classical world come a number of younger names like the composer and guitarist
Morten S. Danielsen and the composers and sound producers Ejnar Kanding and
Jens Hørsving, all three of whom, in different roles, have contributed to this
In the text from which the epigraph to the
article comes, Jexper Holmen talks about the ongoing paradigm shift. With the
artists mentioned in mind - and a good many others - he imagines himself into
the future, far from classics like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms - or for that
matter classic modernists like Boulez, Ligeti and Nørgård. "Perhaps", writes
Jexper Holmen, "one will - no longer? - see the image of the composer working
in isolation in his garret thinking up eternal masterpieces and elaborating
them in formally perfect scores, as the epitome of musical creativity."
No, perhaps the future of these composers
really isn't a foregone conclusion. One could also choose to follow Frode
Andersen in this even more rabid formulation: "All that stuff with the composer
who creates lofty inviolable art in his lonely room - that's a new idea, and
perhaps that kind of composer has never existed. Bach didn't see himself a an
artist. Haydn papered his walls with his old music. The artist, as the Romantic
ideal portrays him, has maybe never existed. Maybe he only exists in our vision
The truth presumably lies somewhere midway
between. On the one hand it is well known that Beethoven refused to take a
violinist seriously when he complained over something difficult that Beethoven
had composed. On the other hand Mozart never wrote arias for his operas until
he knew exactly which soloists he was writing them for, so he could use their
personal strengths. At all events the project trash
is an example of how, in our own day, it may once
more just as easily be a musician as a composer who takes the artistic
initiative. Even if the scene is not the traditionally ‘rhythmic' one and the
idiom of the music is more complex than that.
With the musician - in this case the
accordionist Frode Andersen - as the person gathering up the strands, trash
has succeeded in creating art that lives, with a
vibrant presence; perhaps also a presence that is different from the result we
would have if the performer had stood on the sidelines and faithfully/dutifully
interpreted someone else's written music. The showdown with scored music is on.
as its declared aim to place the musician at the centre of the creative process.
Alongside this re-placing of the performer, who deliberately moves from the
role as servile interpreter far into the domain of the composer, the intention
has been to drag the composers out of their ivory towers, explains Frode
has thus been created with the involvement of a total of five composers, all of
whom have worked to Frode Andersen's instructions. These instructions have
addressed both the composition process and the character of the music. Two of
the works, Frode Andersen decided in advance, were to be composed very quickly
and were to be similarly quick to rehearse. One of them was to be a monophonic
melody. Finally, three of the works were to be remixes of an improvisation that
Frode Andersen recorded in a single 18-minute unedited take and then presented
to the composers.
Frode Andersen, who himself loves
electronica, is enthusiastic about the idea of the remix, because, as he says
"a remix can be remixed!"
The first and the last of the three
remixes - respectively by Simon Christensen and Ejnar Kanding - use fragments from Frode Andersen's improvisation. Simon Christensen
is a composer and drummer with a rock background. His music tumbles to the
ground in low, slow pulsation. The sounding result explains the title, The
Acc's Low Track, where ‘acc' is an abbreviation of
accordion. The music crashes. It belly-flops. And then we move into a surreal
labyrinth. The grasshopper sounds are still there, but we approach what has
perhaps become a heart, pulsating in slow motion, until metallic sounds in this
surreal trip make the world cold and empty.
The second remix, made by the Morten
Olsen, who trained as a bassist, is very different. It
doesn't take any great powers of association to link the regular electronic
beeping sound at the beginning with the fact that the title ranos
spelled backwards gives you the word sonar. We are
beneath the surface of the sea in this, the longest of the CD's three remixes,
where the accordion meets the faint glow of angler-fish, the phosphorescence of
seaweed and ... well, continue at will with the underwater associations set in
motion by the title in combination with the melancholic-phantastical sonic
universe of the piece. Morten Olsen is the only remixer on the CD who has been
allowed to add sound elements that do not come from Frode Andersen's improvisation.
For example, we hear an electric bass several times in the course of the music.
The sound of something resembling gay dance music from a worn LP played on the
radio is in
fact from the accordion improvisation. And there is some indication that a
critical situation arises before the sonar - now alone? - emits its scanning,
blinking sounds for the last time.
The classically trained Ejnar Kanding, who
did the rounds of Pierre Boulez' electronic music studios at IRCAM in Paris in
the 1990s, works concentratedly with his point of departure in a very small
piece of Frode Andersen's improvisation. This tiny bit of improvisation is
gradually allowed to spread like ripples in water, one could say. More and more
elements are added, while others gradually disappear. The result is a layered
universe of stereophonically flickering sound-bites over a regularly growling
bass. Elements of something decidedly physical evoke associations with a tragic
monster dragging its clanking chains behind it ...
The other three pieces on the CD were
written down as sheet music. In other words they are in that sense traditional
works, although the performer to some extent has electronic processing,
including delay, at his disposal to expand his interpretative freedom.
Morten S. Danielsen has approached the task by writing quickly and producing music that
can be rehearsed correspondingly quickly, composing a suite of nine movements
called 9 ways to wake up. The associations tend towards the self-destructive, and to begin
with everything is white. Perhaps the waking up takes place in a hospital?
Maybe after an overdose? But soon there is a shift to the ‘dirtier'
rock-inspired idiom for which the self-declared anti-composer is well known,
and which with its solid rhythmic and repetitive effects has supplied the title
of the CD as well as the title of Morten S. Danielsen's movement, Trash. It can also be noted of the movement titles that Andy Kaufman was
an American comedian and writer who, like Morten S. Danielsen's other declared
idol, the Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, died young. Originally the idea was that
the impression of a ‘dirty' sound was to be a dominant factor in 9
ways to wake up, brought out by the use of effects
and overdubbing. Along the way this version was rejected in favour of the
gentler acoustic version recorded here, which - with the use of an amplified
metronome in the third-last movement - nevertheless to a certain degree retains
the raw, trashy expression. In a third version the suite has been rearranged
for ensemble and in that form has been recorded by the Danish ensemble
Contemporánea on the CD Roadmovie accessories, which exclusively features works by Morten S. Danielsen (MSDTC1).
Jexper Holmen's prefer
takes the form of a series of even dirtier musical brushstrokes. Here we have
what could almost be called washes or flushes of sound. On the one hand
aggressive dabs formed conforming to the prescription "it has to be written
quickly and be easy to rehearse" as five series of chords with accompanying
playing instructions. This piece uses delay as well as ring modulation, and the
music is overdubbed.
The piece consists (cf. the number of
chord series) of a total of five sections. Each chord in each section can be
repeated endlessly. The same goes for groups of successive chords, say the playing
instructions, which for the first section prescribe a general pulseless
character "without sharp edges", inasmuch as the section is to be formed as one
long crescendo towards the concluding fermata. The second section should be
formed as a regular pulse of crescendi and diminuendi, with an alternation
between two prescribed rhythmic treatments of the chords, and with deliberately
irregular pulses in some places, as the ‘regulations' dictate. The third
section is to be formed like the first, but "with a little more edge". The
fourth section is to be formed like section two, but "less irregularly".
Finally, in the fifth and last section the series of chords is to be treated so
that it creates a texture of beats and afterbeats that become ever more varied and
free. At the same time, the composer demands, figurations are to be quoted from
the preceding sections.
Andersen has chosen to elevate the movement title Trash from Morten S. Daniel-sen's suite to the status of the title of the
whole CD, it is because, as he puts it, it is "fun picking something up that
really isn't anything and then processing it so that it becomes something. We
should jam more - as we learn from the Baroque period - and allow it to sound
ugly too. The interpreter should have his freedom."
That is the idea of the remix. It's the
idea behind the interpretation of Jexper Holmen's chord series in prefer, and deepest down it's also the idea of the last piece on the CD, laughing
out loud inhaling the SCARLET
SPLEEN (... fade to black). This piece is the CD's
monophonic composition. It is so folksily simple and touchingly tonal in its
acoustic shuttling between B flat major and G minor that even the smallest of
the rhythmic and tonal twists to which the melodic material is subjected along
the way seem like worlds collapsing. Here we have what is at once the CD's most
traditional piece and a core example of the Dogma-like limitations that have
generated it, explains Jexper Holmen, while conceding that "as the composer
involved I have to admit that my little melody would hardly have seen the light
of day if it hadn't been tricked in from the outside."
brings us to the place Frode Andersen wanted to go with the music - the place
where it is not created and written down in a more or less brilliant composer's
secluded, elevated ivory tower but arises in an interplay of creating,
performing and listening human beings. Jexper Holmen has the same experience of
it, and with yet another quotation will be given the last word: "I think that
around me I experience a growing urge and a will not just to write and perform
music, but also to think through the contexts in which it is involved; a
growing recognition that the music that can really make a difference is the
music whose content can't be reduced to just a point in a score."
Thomas Michelsen, 2005