PELLE GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN: Repriser, Incontri & Green Ground
01 January 2017
Last June saw the passing of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Denmark’s puckish musical outsider. By coincidence Dacapo, a long-term supporter of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s, had scheduled the release for that month of three new discs of his music. These, alongside the success of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you (Abrahamsen was Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s student), offer us a good opportunity to revisit Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s oeuvre.
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen had a familiar stylistic development. Initially influenced by Bartók and Nielsen, he then spent a few years in thrall to serialism before, in the mid-1960s, shifting to a stripped-down, tonally inflected musical language, in line with what came to be known as the New Simplicity. That tag, however, doesn’t at all do justice to Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s eccentric music, which is deceptively hard to pin down.
On the surface it seems familiar. Sure, there’s the repetition of brief tonal cells; musical quotations (familiar figures from Stravinsky, Sibelius, Mozart); modality; dashes of Nordic colour; quirky instrumentation; simple metre; Stravinskian objectivity; and, overhanging it all, a wry air by which Gudmundsen-Holmgreen makes clear he doesn’t take himself too seriously. But for me there’s something else going on here: at its best his music uses those features only to pass through them into a more mysterious, anonymous zone.
Take Incontri (2010–12), for example, from Incontri: Works for Orchestra. An opening jocular clarinet motif is abruptly framed against the martial air of snare and timpani rolls and trombone swells. Then some Varèsean chords appear; then an energetic major-third motif on the violins. These disparate elements periodically recur without ever seeming to meet, and when the music is up and running it’s fascinating to hear the elements slip by each other. The poet Patrick Kavanagh, talking about that wonderment of childhood dispelled by adult life, wrote: ‘Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.’ In Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music, wonderment shines in the thin chinks separating the contrasting musical elements.
The other two works on the orchestral disc show Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s impish side. Mirror II (1973) opens with a beautifully restrained wash of colour, equal parts Sibelius and Ligeti, before obliquely launching into several movements of Stravinski an metrics. In Symphony-Antiphony (1977), the Symphony lasts all of two and a half minutes; the Antiphony goes on for 26.
Two of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s longstanding collaborators were Copenhagen’s Theatre of Voices and San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet, and they feature together on Green Ground. This work of 2011 highlights Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s constructivism and its kinship with Renaissance and Baroque techniques such as ground bass. So first we get No Ground, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Eleventh String Quartet, an airy mix of atonality and open-string fifths; then the choral work Green, whose austere vocals recall Dowland and are accompanied by crotales and woodblocks; finally there’s No Ground Green, in which—why not?—the two preceding works are simply laid on top of one another in palimpsest fashion and performed simultaneously. The two other works on the disc, New Ground and New Ground Green follow a similar strategy, one that suggests the word-shuffling of Samuel Beckett.
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Beckett affinity is most apparent on Repriser: Works for Sinfonietta and Small Ensemble. Three of the works here are from the 1960s, when the composer was under Beckett’s spell. This disc is the darkest in hue; it is also the best of the three. In Repriser (1965), an ambience of the absurd is conjured by spare wind and brass ejaculations, sporadic tubular bells, pitch bends and quartertones. Rerepriser (1967) injects some heavy metal riffs into the proceedings, played by electric guitar doubling harpsichord (of course). Parts of Traffic (1994), on the other hand, are so ridiculously corny it’s hard not to laugh out loud: opening with the cacophony of a traffic jam, the work then subsides and at one point there’s what sounds like a slap bass solo in the middle of a Dixieland jazz session. The Three Songs to Texts by Politiken (1966) for solo voice and ensemble, in a manner reminiscent of (but pre-dating) Gerald Barry, set brief articles, seemingly chosen at random, from the titular Danish broadsheet newspaper; the topics cover dramatic items like the Danish government’s debating of a finance bill.
The one aspect of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s style that leaves me cold is his occasional postmodern penchant for musical quotations. But there is much else here to make him a composer worth spending time with (the discs also feature fine booklet-notes by Andrew Mellor of this parish). With an increasing number of advocates among conductors and ensembles, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen is a composer whose reputation will continue to rise.