Frozen Moments is a stunning debut album by the young Danish composer Mette Nielsen, featuring the award-winning Danish string quartet, NOVO Quartet, and the gifted clarinettist Jonas Frølund. The works on this album explore various ways to enter sound, pause time, or otherwise alter it, and offer an introspective collection of compositions that challenges the listener to ponder the nature of time and sound.
By Andrew Mellor
There is always music whirring around Mette Nielsen’s head: the accordion tunes of the family home; songs of youth; the ever-present ‘complex machine noise’ that she hears between her ears and has spent years negotiating onto the page. In the decade since Nielsen’s graduation from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in 2013, the results of that process have won her plenteous prizes and been performed by groups including Ensemble intercontemporain, Athelas Sinfonietta and the symphony orchestra of the city in which she was born, Odense.
Songs and singing have remained a vital component of Nielsen’s work, even when no vocal chords are exercised in its performance. She herself sings in the all-female Bulgarian vocal ensemble Usmifka, whose drone songs, improvisations and reverberating raw sound have helped her tap her own sonorous power and confidence as a composer. Her 2017 graduation concert from the Soloist’s Class of the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus, wove remembered songs from the performers’ childhoods into a broader piece throbbing with vocal melodies.
Nielsen’s continuing response to her own musical experiences in childhood – and her earliest attempts at composition well before she reached the age of 10 – are reflected in her occasional writing for student or child ensembles and the nuanced, beautiful imperfections those ensembles inevitably produce in performance. That might be connected to Nielsen’s fertile interest in what she calls the ‘imperfect unison’: the state of friction that exists between two minutely differing frequencies, which may stray apart or strive to get closer together. This tension between two almost-identical notes presents Nielsen with the opportunity, in her own words, ‘to open up some very small rooms.’
Encounters with the music of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Rasmus Zwicki (a sometime teacher) alerted Nielsen to the creative possibilities of the absurd and the aleatoric. Like the former composer, she has employed modular techniques by which one titled score might consist of a single component of another, or an existing score with parts removed. Elements of chance stemming from random generators co-exist with the sort of absolute control that might see Nielsen personally feed instructions into the ears of individual musicians mid-performance.
Plenty of these techniques help shape the works recorded on this album, a snapshot of a decade in the life of the composer but, given how prolific she is across many genres and configurations, only that. The trilogy of related works Alone, Together and Apart puts that modular technique into practice as each score reveals further truths about the two others. There is music powered by song and music that drills deep into the idea of the imperfect unison. ‘In different ways,’ the composer explains, ‘these pieces are about moving into a sound, stopping time or changing time.’
NOVO Quartet © HEIN Photography
String Quartet in One Movement (2012)
One lesson Nielsen learned as a student under Bent Sørensen and Niels Rosing-Schow (among others) concerned the bridge between ‘the idea’ and its execution – and the acknowledgement that ‘the idea’ might have to change or develop to exist in the real world, much like the process of attempting to capture or recreate a fleeting image glimpsed through a window.
After a creatively challenging period during which she took a year out from her studies, Nielsen wiped the slate clean with her String Quartet in One Movement – a ‘ground zero’ for her compositional philosophy that sees her get down to basics of technique and sound while also finding extreme, vindicating resonance in her own assertion that a unison is never just a unison.
The music passes a single note around the four instruments of a string quartet. The note D (an open string on the instruments in question) is rhythmically divided from its initial minim into crotchets, triplets and semi-quavers and subjected to terracing volumes and a cornucopia of textural variation including a delicate col legno battuto (the striking of the strings with the wood of the bow). It resembles a cleansing search for ensemble equilibrium but also a ‘splitting’ of the unison that results in music far less minimalistic than it might appear.
Alone, Apart, Together (2021)
Alone, Apart and Together are separate pieces that are to some degree codependent – ‘companion pieces’ in Nielsen’s words. Alone is scored for a solo basset clarinet – the deeper, richer variant of the standard clarinet that emerged at the end of the 18th century and for which Mozart wrote his clarinet concerto. In Alone, the clarinet is heard exploring a space in all its emptiness – a void that is partially filled in Together, in which three strings resound in those very empty areas the clarinet appears to probe. In Apart, we hear the string responses without the clarinet’s staking-out. As a result, says Nielsen, ‘time becomes elastic.’
Alone was written for the clarinettist Jonas Frølund, who in the score is asked to explore multiphonics and to growl and sing through his instrument. Often he sings on a unison with the note he is concurrently producing on his clarinet, his voice pushing slightly off the note towards a semitone that creates a friction with the instrumental note that remains true.
Jonas Frølund © Birgit Tengberg
The atmosphere of Alone is one of searching: the instrument casing the joint, taking measurements (including that of its own range), springing out from the coiled energy of a pack of tight semitones. The notes themselves can be charted according to what Nielsen describes as a ‘tone spiral’, the pitch-DNA of the piece. Over its course, the solo clarinet surmises the position and content of this tone spiral – discovering the shape and character of the space it is occupying. In so doing, it ascertains that it is, indeed, alone.
Apart gives us the other side of the story – the space itself, as embodied by string quartet. It is set in motion by abrupt, clanging chords of open fifths on each instrument that act as gateposts. They initiate the reactive reverberations that follow, many of them notated with ‘free’ tempi – an aleatoric technique meaning each musician plays the written notes and their prescribed rhythms, but according to their own personally-conceived time span as determined by reactive listening to colleagues.
This contributes to the feeling that ‘time’ as we understand it does not exist in Apart. Perhaps that idea stems more from the broader concept that what we hear in this piece is consequence without action. There is the occasional feeling of a lyrical tune as an echo of something not heard, while extended techniques including ‘scratch’ or ‘scrunch’ tones contribute to the idea of reactive reverberation. Even those stern fifth chords are eventually dislodged, a sure signal that the foundations we heard in Alone are no longer here to underpin the music, which ultimately evaporates.
As the name suggests, Together unites the two scores. We hear the clarinet’s antecedents and their consequences, rendered here on three strings. The non-sequiturs of Apart, in particular, suddenly fall into their logical position as part of a truly reactive musical dialogue. Nielsen’s tone spiral assumes its architectural significance, the combined clarinet multiphonics and string overtones forming a sort of unifying web, and the whole settles into whatever place or space it has been tentatively sizing-up.
Quartet in Memory of a Song (2016)
Kvartet til minde om en sang (Quartet in Memory of a Song) uses a tune Nielsen herself wrote in childhood (that which also featured in her graduation piece, ‘En sang’ – ‘A Song’). The melody is presented almost in the manner of a fugue subject, but one that doesn’t develop in the traditional sense.
Instead, a corrosive variation piece emerges in which the tune is rendered increasingly fragile and non-present: wobbly, apparently dreamed and psychedelic, in disguise, distorted to the brink of noise, smudged, scratched, rubbed-out almost to the point of extinction, made elusive by tracking harmonics or distracted-from by pinging pizzicatos. Individual instruments go their own way with the tune but often can’t help but slide off it. However elusive the tune seems, its presence is always felt – somehow.
Notion of a Frozen Moment (2020)
‘What would it be like if you could pause in the middle of a piece – if you could stop time, walk around all the elements and observe them?’ asks Nielsen in the preface to her score for Forestilling om et fastfrosset øjeblik (Notion of a Frozen Moment). The idea conjures up ideas of a now-familiar cinematic technique in which a moment of action is frozen but cameras continue to move around it, surveying people and objects held in the air – frozen in time.
This score for string quartet presents a musical realisation of that idea while extending Nielsen’s interest in focusing-in on extreme detail or a single musical object. Here, the scene is set courtesy of relatively simple music in which the song-like thematic ‘hook’ is heard in the viola. Following a tempo change just under a minute in, we begin to look back at that material from all manner of angles, zooming in on certain elements as if to hold them in the air, twisting and turning them before our eye-like ears. But it transpires that the thematic unfurling didn’t, in fact, stop: the theme kept running, which presents plenty more material to rewind, pick up and examine – along with the impetus to return to that simple opening music and examine it afresh, again.
The process continues. Along the way, the music freezes on particular notes or chords for periods of 5 (twice), 10, 15, 25 and 40 seconds – the pitches standing still but the music still shifting as each musician is allowed to fluctuate between different forms of prescribed articulation – using different parts of the bow or string to achieve a different timbre. It’s as though we are taken inside the chord to look at its innards and see it from within, like the roving movie cameras that circle the frozen scene for the viewer’s benefit. The last of these ‘freeze frames’, of 40 seconds, ends the piece with the sense that the music is now lodged in infinity – a scene stilled forever, and therefore never ending.