In the music of composer and pianist Nikolaj Hess, the interplay of diverse narratives is often evident. In the concert piece Melody, he seamlessly incorporates subtle jazz impressions into a fully orchestrated work for solo violin and string ensemble, which, unusually, features a discreet rhythm section of drums and double bass. Melody delves into the intimate and nuanced emotions and narratives characteristic of chamber music, coming to life through the refined, poetic violin playing of Cæcilie Balling.
World premiere recording
Where the Seas Converge
By Christian Munch-Hansen
Up in the northernmost part of Jutland, near the town of Skagen, the peninsula culminates in a promontory where the two bodies of water, Skagerrak and Kattegat, converge. Countless visitors have waded into the shallow waters of the sandy beach to stand with one foot in each sea, as the waves from each side break into foamy ripples. It's a piece of renowned Danish coastal nature, filled with light and salty air, immortalized in Danish visual art by famous painters such as P.S. Krøyer, Anna Ancher and Holger Drachmann.
In the music of the composer and pianist Nikolaj Hess, there are also narratives of meeting ocean currents. For instance, when, as a pianist, he combines the lyrical Danish song tradition with effervescent elements from North American jazz and West African folk music. Or when he allows subtle impressions from jazz to meld into an otherwise fully orchestrated work for solo violin and chamber ensemble, which, unusually, features a discreet rhythm section of drums and double bass. Nikolaj Hess himself says about his concert piece for violin, Melody: ‘I wanted to create something Nordic with a global perspective. Both folklore and urban elements should be part of the inspiration.’
Melody is a concert piece for violin with a story to tell. One senses both luminous narrative delight and a distinctive melancholy in Hess's music. Central to it is the melodic impetus, combined with variation and heartfelt hues. Along the journey, the water is stirred into foam, only to calm down again in a ceremonial finale.
At the recording of Melody © Kasper Vig
The Danish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Carsten Seyer-Hansen, highlights violinist Cæcilie Balling as the soloist in the concerto. Her partnership with Nikolaj Hess's piano trio, SpaceLab, commenced in 2015, featuring his brother, drummer Mikkel Hess, and bassist Anders ‘AC’ Christensen. This collaboration resulted in a beautifully balanced fusion of jazz's rhythmic language and the modern string quartet's flexible sonic realm, inspired by artists such as Ravel, Shostakovich and Pärt, as documented on the album SpaceLab & Strings (2021). However, several years prior, Cæcilie Balling had asked Hess to compose a concert piece for her soloist debut at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus. The premiere took place at Balling's debut as soloist in November 2019. Subsequently, the concerto underwent revisions and graced the stage during the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in 2021, ultimately reaching its definitive rendition, as presented in this release.
The first movement is titled ‘Birds’, as the music originally draws inspiration from a series of transcriptions of bird songs. Hess explains, 'I was raised amidst the nature surrounding Vejle in Jutland, forging a connection to both the Nordic essence and the lyrical beauty of nature. Nevertheless, bird songs merely acted as catalysts. In this segment, I unveil tableau-like landscapes that resurface in the third movement.'
In the second movement, ‘Waves’, Hess divides the strings into two string quintets and a low string section as an echo. These elements meet with the solo violin and the discreet felt mallets and cymbals of the drums. The captivating Phrygian sense in the harmony spreads like a pull from the sea. The music may evoke associations with Grieg and Sibelius, and perhaps Hans-Erik Philips's music for the legendary Danish TV mini-series Fiskerne (‘The Fishermen’) (1977). There is an underlying mood of Nordic melancholy and reverence, a sense of unity between humans, nature and destiny.
The third movement, ‘Melody: Pt. I, Tableaux and Theme’, unfolds a rising rhythmic and melodic tension that almost explodes in the latter half. It commences with a pricking pizzicato in the orchestra and melodic intensity in Balling's solo violin, but soon evolves with the strings' incisive punctuations and unison lines. In Hess's words, the movement encapsulates 'restless and unstable moods, culminating in an abstract winter landscape.'
Cæcilie Balling © Kasper VIg
The fourth movement bears the title ‘Melody: Pt. II, Fugue and Improvisation’, marking the work's culmination. This isn't a conventional fugue but an application of fugue principles in melodic development. The music unfolds with varying tempos and time signatures concurrently. In this movement, the orchestra worked from a text score and employed extended techniques. The movement challenges the listener as the music ventures into a collectively improvised zone with layered strings and a tumultuous beat in the bass and drums. Hess labels it as 'exciting and perhaps unexpected', with Balling adding, 'the improvisation part places the musicians on the edge. One listens in a particular way and must be entirely present. I remember when we held a rehearsal concert on stage, it became incredibly intense.' This leads to the solo violin's freely improvised cadenza, ‘Melody: Pt. III, Cadenza’, where Cæcilie Balling takes on a co-creative role: 'In this sonic tapestry, I seize the orchestra's energy, unleashing it with full force through open strings and an intensity that soars into the highest register. From there, I gradually de-escalate, making room for the concluding chorale.'
In the sixth and final movement, ‘Melody: Pt. IV, Chorale’, the music finds its redemptive conclusion. Udenfor har vinden lagt sig (‘Outside, the wind has subsided’) is a wonderful book title from poet Klaus Rifbjerg, and that's how the music feels in this place. Balling notes, 'for me, the movement evokes Mahler – with an expansive and poignant melody that goes straight to the heart.'
Nikolaj Hess on the left during the recording of Melody © Kasper Vig
Melody is the culmination of a longer process for Nikolaj Hess. He played the violin in his childhood and later delved into arranging for strings, studying scores, composition and counterpoint, while also exploring Schoenberg's and Hindemith's textbooks. His extensive experience includes working on film scores for projects such as the epic De forbandede år (‘Into the Darkness’) (2020), Meeres Stille (2013), where he composed a piano piece for pianist Katrine Gislinge, and Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011), where he created music inspired by Wagner.
Melody is also a concert piece that communicates immediately and sensually. Simultaneously, it challenges the conventional norms that typically characterize the relationship between composer and musician. Cæcilie Balling elaborates, 'with Melody, it's the first time I've encountered a work in a Danish context that is so thoroughly composed and yet feels so free in the improvised passages. It has a sense of free fall, which aligns well with my ambition to actively contribute to the liberation of ‘the classical musician’. That's also why I sometimes work on the fringes of the established music scene, attempting to find connections between genres.'
This recording captures Nikolaj Hess entering orchestral music with a distinct melodic and rhythmic sensitivity. It aligns with a trend seen in recent years, where musicians from the rhythmic and improvisational scenes discover natural expressive possibilities in chamber music. This is unlikely to be the last we hear from this coastline.
Christian Munch-Hansen is a music journalist, author and educator. He has worked as a music critic for several Danish newspapers and freelanced for various magazines and cultural institutions. He is editorial member at the journal PubliMus. His published books include By af jazz (2008), Musical Dream Machine (2014) and Forvandlinger (2022).