PELLE GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN: Repriser
08 February 2017
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (henceforth “PGH”) called Rerepriser a “pretty ugly piece,” and words or phrases such as “a lot of noise,” “abrasive,” “dirty, poor sounds,” and “white noise” appear in conjunction with other works on this CD. Consider this fair warning. These works are not meant to be relaxed to, with a snifter of brandy by your side as you sit easy in front of a roaring fire.
PGH, by the way, was a Danish composer, born in 1932, who died just last year. Fellow Dane Ursula Andkjær Olsen, on the Music Sales Classical web site, described him as “an anti-expressive, anti-virtuoso, anti-romantic skeptic; a lover of the absurd theater of Samuel Beckett and its grim, black but also tender humor; a pessimist who did not believe in big words and swelling harmonies, far less mankind’s finely wrought systems and truths.” I think of him as the musical equivalent of Jean Dubuffet.
The works on this CD bear this out. Traffic, composed in 1994, was the result of a car door (!) that the composer was gifted with at the end of a concert celebrating his 60th birthday. He was challenged to write a piece of music incorporating said car door. This was too much for even PGH, who found the door singularly unmusical, but he did compose a piece that used “other corny sounds instead.” Suffice it to say that Traffic is, even for this composer, a hell of a racket. Nevertheless, it does seem to tell a story, or at least to express the emotions one feels in the middle of a hopeless traffic jam, and also that one feels upon escaping it. The score includes parts for two percussionists, one electric guitarist, and one electric bassist. As you walk in, you’ll find earplugs taped beneath your seat!
In terms of volume and density, the other works on this CD are less extreme. Repriser and Rerepriser both were inspired by the writings of Samuel Beckett. (The titles can be translated into English as “Recapitulations” and “Re-Recapitulations.” If talk of Beckett makes you think of Morton Feldman, these two works are not distant from Feldman’s world. PGH seems like a funnier, more anarchic version of the late American master, however. Repriser (1965) is a 21-minute work in nine sections. Its follow-up is in a single-movement, and has a span of 11 minutes. Both divide their introspective musicians into smaller groups which sometimes attack each other (not literally!), ignore each other pointedly, or do their own thing with a practically autistic fixedness. Some of Beckett’s words from The Unnamable seem fitting here: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” When, in the middle of Rerepriser, a skeletal Latin dance tune begins trying to pull itself out of the music’s textures, one smiles but is hardly surprised, given the composer’s gift for provocation.
The 3 Songs are absurd but not silly. The texts are banal excerpts from a Danish newspaper, and of no importance whatsoever. The mezzo-soprano sings them in an almost childish voice, and the instrumental ensemble busies itself over a handful of notes, over and over again, as if the musicians were too embarrassed to pay attention to what was going on around them. You might say “ha-ha,” but it will be a queasy, uneasy “ha-ha.”
Og (the Danish word for “and”) was prompted by the Kierkegaard bicentennial, of all things. (The title is riposte of sorts to Kiergegaard’s pioneering Either/Or.) Again, this is a rackety piece in which the musicians are not on the same page with each other, figuratively speaking. Also, this is another work in which the blocked mood of the first part is redeemed as the work goes on. There is hope after all. The mediator is Mozart, whose music Kierkegaard enjoyed. A moaning allusion to “Là ci darem la mano” (fittingly) seems to take the other musicians by the hand, and to spur them on to find answers to their existential problems. (Sad to stay, Mozart’s little snippet gets left behind.)
The Athelas ensemble has been around for many years and has played PGH’s music on several occasions. These musicians seem comfortable with the composer’s sarcasm, humor, and Beckett-like tonescapes. Although this is not easy music, the Athelos Sinfonietta of Copenhagen is a patient and enthusiastic guide, and these new performances do no harm—neither to their reputation nor to the composer’s! That being so, they are recommended, but only if you are a sturdy person.