Poul Ruders' music is characterized by a pronounced will to expression. It is
stylistically varied and typically has a wide expressive register. Ruders'
artistic development has taken him in various stylistic directions, as can be
more than glimpsed in the works represented on this CD: three works for solo
guitar, one for voice with guitar accompaniment and two for ensemble. The works
on the CD range in time from 1973 to 1996.
It was hearing Krzysztof Penderecki's
neo-Expressionist modernism, especially the work Threnos from 1960, that started the young Poul Ruders off as a composer.
His debut, the piano work Three Letters from the Unknown Soldier
(1967), shows the Polish inspiration as clearly as
could be desired, but the style was soon superseded by inspiration from other
At the end
of the 1960s Danish music was undergoing an interesting post--Serialist
development characterized by concepts like ‘New Simplicity', ‘stylistic
pluralism' etc. At the beginning of the 1970s Ruders received marked impulses
from the distinctive ‘quotation' style of his contemporary Karl Aage Rasmussen,
often described as ‘music on music', and from Peter Maxwell Davies' music
theatre works. The latter's use of pre-Classical music provided particular
inspiration for a special ‘medieval style' from Ruders, the most spectacular
result of which was the pastiche work Medieval Variations from 1974, a piece of burlesque medieval Verfremdung midway between composition and arrangement. Just as pivotal, but for
other reasons, is the piano sonata with which Ruders started off the decade:
the Dante Sonata (1970), whose style and content point
forward towards the later ‘abstract dramas' for orchestra, for example Thus Saw St. John (1984). The guitar piece Jargon from 1973 works with quotations like the music of Karl Aage Rasmussen,
while Pestilence Songs (1975), Rondeau (1976) and Diferencias (1980) in various ways adapt
historical music from the Renaissance, Middle Ages and Baroque respectively.
The years 1970-80 were Ruders'
apprentice years. The first mature works were written around 1980: the chamber
concerto for nine instruments Four Compositions (1980), and the wonderful neo-Baroque Violin Concerto no. 1 (1981),
are both showpiece examples of Ruders' characteristic ‘unpredictability', as
the chamber concerto is dominated by a kind of abstract expressionism, while
the violin concerto is permeated by a transparent, sunny neo-Classicism. These
were followed in 1982 by the masterpiece Manhattan
Abstraction for large orchestra, a work with which
Ruders definitively made his mark on musical history.
Since 1974 Ruders has worked with his
own distinctive invention; the change-ringing
technique. He got the idea while reading the Lord
Peter Wimsey novel The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, in which the English bellringers'
‘change-ringing' plays a crucial role for the plot. It turned out that the
change-ringing tables - when they were used to regulate the constantly varying
repetition patterns of musical motifs of a few notes - were very well suited to
creating long musical sequences in which impulses from minimalism also appear.
However, Ruders' minimalism is dramatic, indeed aggressive, and thus different
in nature from American minimalism. The constantly shifting order of the
change-ringing tables and the composer's often ingenious manipulations with his
diatonic material also recall serialism. This is particularly the case in works
where -Ruders uses more abstract tonal material of the type known from serial
music - although he would not dream of composing with actual twelve-tone rows.
On the other hand his long series of ‘motoric' chamber music pieces for various
ensembles, for example Wind-Drumming, Cha Cha Cha, Alarm,
Break-Dance, Regime and Tattoo
for Three are characterized by a certain
As for expression, in Ruders' own words
this is "visually associative music". -Ruders often speaks of his works as
"acoustical canvases" or "abstract dramas". Music and image are inextricably
bound up in his musical world.
works of the 1980s a more homogeneous Ruders style emerged. Ruders looked
inward for more personal music of a neo-Expressionist / neo-Romantic stamp. The
first work that unequivocally demonstrated this orientation was the
outward-looking ‘Gothic' orchestral piece Thus Saw St. John (1984). The score begins with a ‘programme' along
Berlioz-Strauss lines in the form of an extended quotation from the Revelation
of St. John. The work moreover stands out for its virtuoso treatment of the
orchestra, which bears comparison with Strauss. Similar ‘Gothic' inspiration
lay behind Corpus Cum
Figuris (1984) and Nightshade (1987). Related to these works too is the grandly conceived Drama Trilogy (1987-88), three solo concertos including the
cello concerto Polydrama, which is one of the finest examples
of the neo-Expressionist style, and the symphony Himmelhoch jauchzend - zum Tode betrübt in four movements, which was premiered
to great attention by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in
London in the autumn of 1990.
Ruders' supreme mastery of the orchestra
has brought him respect at home and abroad, as can be seen from the commissions
from ensembles and concert institutions like the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble
InterContemporain, the BBC, Speculum Musicae (New York), the Riverside Symphony
Orchestra (New York), the Royal Danish Theatre, the Berlin Philharmonic and the
New York Philharmonic. In 1996 Ruders was the first Danish composer to have a
work played on the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall. The work
was Concerto in Pieces, a series of variations on a theme by Purcell which is a dazzlingly
composed counterpart to Benjamin Britten's then 50-year-old The
Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
the compositional high points have been the masterly Violin Concerto no. 2
(1991), The Sun Trilogy (1992-95), Symphony no. 2 (Symphony and Transformation, 1996), Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean for accordion and string quartet
(2004) and two operas: the science-fiction-like The Handmaid's Tale which was sensationally premiered at the Royal
Danish Theatre in the spring of 2000, and the grotesque Kafka's Trial, which was written for the opening of the new
Opera in 2005. From these years too come the guitar works Psalmodies Suite in three movements (1990) and Chaconne (1996).
Symphony and Transformation is surely the major work of the 1990s. In this ingeniously composed
work Ruders demonstrates with great compositional consistency the possibilities
of the new composition technique of the decade, ‘minimorphosis'. With the
minimorphosis technique Ruders further developed his change-ringing technique
so that the smallest components of the music (the motifs or ‘the bells'), which
are regulated by tables of numbers, now modulate constantly. As a result, the
motifs and the music as such are plunged into endless transformations (hence
the name of the symphony). With minimorphosis the change-ringing has assumed
new, fantastic dimensions.
The three guitar
pieces that make up Psalmodies Suite are also included in Psalmodies for guitar and nine instruments, which is a chamber concerto or
concert suite in eleven movements.
‘psalmodies' goes back to the ancient Greek psalmoidia, which means ‘song to harp accompaniment', but is also related to psallein ‘to play on strings with the fingers' - as on a guitar. In the preface
to the score the composer emphasizes that his work, despite the connection of
the title with the word psalter, has no specific religious content or
Chaconne for solo guitar was composed in 1996 as a kind of appendix to the
more extensive work Etude & Ricercare from 1994, and is dedicated to David and Becky Starobin. The former
gave the piece its first performance in a concert at the Louisiana Museum of
Modern Art north of Copenhagen in the summer of 1997.
The Chaconne is based on a six-bar theme
which is repeated in various forms a number of times. The minimorphosis
technique is used, and each of the bars of the theme forms one ‘bell'. The form
is duple. In the second part, from bar 42 (midway through), the ‘bells' are
Besides the bell ostinato one hears a
freely treated bass ostinato which played from the beginning consists of the
notes A - d - E - A - d and a chord (Bb7/F ). These notes are
used repeatedly throughout the composition. Several times they appear automatically,
but mostly they are placed in bars where they fit in harmonically.
This piece for
solo guitar has been pieced together of fragments from the ‘workaday language'
of music and was therefore given the title Jargon. With the collage-like juxtapositions of only partly recognizable
quotations from entertainment music, Ruders wanted to create a kind of ‘stream
of consciousness' in the listener's mind. He has also compared Jargon to a Cubist portrait "where the nose is at the back of the neck and
the eyes are down on the chin". The quotations form a 15-minute chain of
snapshots where the introductory C major chord functions as an often-repeated
signal. After many notes, Jargon
ends with a sortie in the form of a small Parisian waltz that is as charming as
it is unexpected.
These six songs
were composed in 1974 to stanzas from the English Renaissance poet Thomas
Nashe's A Litany in Time of Plague, about the ravages of the plague in London. According to the
composer, Pestilence Songs is a pastiche work, a kind of melodrama that combines such strange
bedfellows as Renaissance music and cabaret.
The songs are pastiches in a
Dowland-like Elizabethan style with added, more modern dissonances. They are
linked together by a short refrain in the singing voice on the words Lord,
have mercy on us!, which also conclude the
Strength stoops and Wit with his wantonness have expressionistic features (in the former song we hear a
humorous quotation of Big Ben in London). Beauty
is and Rich men are beautiful stylistic exercises, while the final song -
surprisingly - introduces a cabaret-like French chanson. Song no. 1, Adieu,
farewell, is particularly interesting because of
the way its simple, pastiche-like material is treated. The singer repeats the
same four notes with unaltered rhythm, while the chords of the guitar change
places and order in a way that Ruders systematized in later works with his
so-called change-ringing technique (explained above, pp. 5 and 6). The guitar's
low E string is tuned down to D to allow the playing of the many low D's of the
on a Beloved Tune by J. S. Bach is the full title
of the eight-minute sinfonietta piece. Diferencias is a Spanish word that means ‘variations'. And variations are what
the relatively simple work's accentuations, displacements and varying
instrumental colourings offer.
The theme chosen is a four-bar passage
of J.S. Bach's well known hymn setting Jesu
bleibet meine Freude, which ends Cantata no. 147, Herz
und Mund und Tat und Leben. The piece is therefore
both ‘music on music', ‘decomposition' and neo-Classical. The score begins with
14 words in English that come from the composer John Cage:
have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry
another American's, the poet Edwin Morgan's 14 variations on Cage's 14 words,
which begin as follows:
have to say poetry and is that nothing and I am saying it
am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it
through the permutations of Cage's words by changing their order 14 times - and
that too is exactly how Ruders has composed his piece. Diferencias consists of (not 14, but) a long succession of variations - or
rather permutations - of the (again not 14, but) 12 small motifs into which
Ruders divides Bach's theme. The theme and its first five permutations are
played by the pianist, who with the pedal firmly depressed throughout the piece
repeats the constantly varied Bach melody in the right hand. Only with the
introduction of the chorale Jesu bleibet meine Freude shortly before the end the pianist uses both hands.
the other instruments enter, first the bell sounds of the vibraphone, then the
woodwinds (flute and clarinet), the strings (violin and cello) and finally the
guitar. At the beginning the instruments are content to double the notes of the
piano in turn, but gradually their independence is increased.
This work for
seven musicians and conductor is based on a medieval rondeau (a kind of dance
song). It is a typical example of the medieval style that Ruders cultivated in
The group of instruments is particularly
variegated and comprises:
Piccolo and alto
flute, plus melodica
bass clarinet, plus melodica
Bells, glockenspiel, cymbales antiques and tuned gongs.
3 congas, large
tom-tom, steel drum, large oil drum, football whistle, rattle, vibraphone and
grandfather clock (or metronome)
Grand piano and
The text of the
old rondeau is printed in the score with a remark that the fragments that the
musicians sing in the course of the piece, incidentally to great comic effect,
are to be pronounced in modern French. All the musicians, but especially the
percussionist, sing from a shared part that is placed on a stave in the middle
of the score. However, the song is cut to pieces and therefore becomes mostly
a straightforward piece of grotesquerie played out in an almost constant fortissimo. The articulation instructions are Noisy
& Brutal, Mechanical. After the presentation in
the ad libitum
beginning of the medieval melody, the piece flies off into what is technically
a cantus firmus treatment, although the melody is to a great extent decomposed
and is constantly interrupted by ‘skewed' pauses.
Erland Rasmussen, 2008