Per Nørgård: Libra
28 January 2013
American Record Guide
Three unusual choral works by Per Norgard.
Libra (1973) is scored for solo tenor, guitar, two mixed choirs, and vibraphone. It is a cantata in 10 movements, inspired by the 10 signs of the zodiac, though the events of the movements have nothing to do with astrology; their texts are from Rudolf Steiner and the Psalms of David, and deal with unity and God. The psalm texts, translated into Danish, are set in the style of chorales; the Steiner fragment, sung by the tenor in German, as timeless drifting through space. The chorale music slows down to match the speed of the floating Steiner setting so that both can be sung simultaneously by the choirs and solo tenor. The cosmic harmonies and sustained rhythms are taken from portions of Norgard’s famous “infinity series” (“famous” is a relative term, since the technique is completely individual to Norgard, unlike classical forms of serialism, which have proved useful for all sorts of composers). The musical results of using Norgard’s system are flexible, and can produce a wide variety of harmonic languages. Some of his works can be highly dissonant, but they need not be. This piece, probably because of its choral scoring, is consonant, but harmonically unique, its voice leading smooth and its atmosphere otherworldly. It’s also very beautiful. Mr Riis has a rich dramatic tenor perfect for this assignment. The guitar, which appears as solos and as accompaniment, offers expressive color. The music may be compared with Ligeti’s choral work from the same period, and if you’re fond of the music Kubrick used for 2001, you will love this.
Dreams in Broad Daylight (1989, 2002) is a mixed choir piece on texts by Paul Eluard. Fragments of Eluard’s surrealist poetry (in the original French) are set as continuous, spacey, melodically angular dreamscapes, their language barely understandable (if at all). This was originally part of a work where these texts and texts by John Cage were sung simultaneously.
Cycle (1977), for 12-part choir on five texts by Danish poet Ole Sarvig, is built on “infinity series” melodies used in Norgard’s Third Symphony, and since both are built with the same material they can be harmonized simultaneously in layers—a technique Norgard has used in numerous works. Three of these melodies show up in this piece. The opening text comes back rewritten at the end of the piece, as in “coming full circle”, one potential expression of the title (there are others). The melodies are a bit vague, but have fuzzy diatonic reminiscences sometimes. The texts deal with growth and death, which I guess is appropriate in context.
The vocal ensemble acquits itself well in this extremely difficult music. Norgard is not very well known in this country, though he is overseas.