Per Nørgård: The Will-o'-the-Wisps-in-Town
28 January 2013
American Record Guide
The few times I’ve listened to Per Norgard’s music, I have felt confronted with a musical culture that I’ve never encountered before. It lacks the brashness and physical force of much American music, lacks the world weariness of German music. It does seem to have a sense of irony about it, and playfulness, but both are serious and inscrutable. The two works here are, instinct tells me, powerful and compelling works; but the only concrete justification I can point to has to do with the music’s colorful and singular orchestration and its freewheeling eclecticism. Like a lot of new American music, it remains free of any particular aesthetic allegiance or manner, but it manages to do so with a seriousness that I don’t often detect in American counterparts.
Will O the Wisps in Town was commissioned to celebrate the 200th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen. The text, by Andersen and Suzanne Brogger, extends and updates Andersen’s fairy tale of the Marsh Witch, who warns a poet about a group of will o’ the wisps who have a year to corrupt 365 human beings, leading them into moral bog holes that descend endlessly. In Brogger’s treatment—which reminds me a bit of Brecht—the will o’ the wisps are ineffective because mankind is already too corrupt; and the Marsh Witch assures the poet that fairy tale characters end up no better than their human counterparts: no happy endings here. Norgard adapted the original work, for larger forces, into a more compact instrumentation (singer-narrator, trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, and piano); the sound, as I suggested earlier, is remarkably fresh and varied. The story takes a while to get off the ground (the first third of the work concerns the poet searching for fairy tales that are no longer as readily available as they once were), and the wide variety of styles in the music makes the whole even more unsettling than my summary would imply. But the work grows on me with repeated listening and it gives me the interest to explore more of Norgard’s work.
The program includes the instrumental composition Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, scored for the same instrumentation as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time; the title refers to a Walt Whitman poem, part of Leaves of Grass, paying tribute to the sea—though the work has less to do with the sea than with the idea of waves or oscillations in general and a kind of metaphorical connection from Norgard’s native Denmark to Hawaii. (Hawaiian chant, according to the composer, inspires some of its melodic material.) The performances are first rate and the sound is magnificent. Bonus DVD included.