Anders Nordentoft's music extends a welcoming hand to listeners, free from rigid dogma, focusing on direct communication through storytelling, lyricism and captivating impulses. His aim is to create music that is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, akin to an average day of the week. This is showcased in the three delicate and ingenious sinfonietta pieces on this release, demonstrating Nordentoft's structural discipline while capturing life's broader essence on Earth.
Life on Earth
By Andrew Mellor
It has been said that Anders Nordentoft’s music offers its listeners ‘an outstretched hand.’ His works are refreshingly free of dogma and take direct communication as their starting point, whether through clear narrative, sensual lyricism or an almost physical impulse that seizes the attention. The composer once claimed he set out to create music both ordinary and fantastic at the same time, like a normal day of the week.
Nordentoft has been composing since his early teenage years. He is trained as a violinist from the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where he also studied composition under Ib Nørholm, and later at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus under Per Nørgård. Over the course of a four-decade career writing music, Nordentoft has prioritized quality over quantity. From the start, he has exercised extreme discipline with regard to his music’s structural coherence while willing it to convey the bigger picture of life on earth.
Athelas Sinfonietta with conductor Robert Houssart during the recording of the album Balcony Stream © Athelas Sinfonietta
In the summer of 2020, Nordentoft embarked upon a two-year period as composer-in-residence with Athelas Sinfonietta in Copenhagen. The relationship was officially inaugurated on 26 September that year with the world premiere of Balcony, a four-movement work for large ensemble described by the composer as ‘a complete, small symphony.’
‘I love balconies,’ the composer writes in his own programme note, continuing: ‘a balcony is a viewpoint from where you can observe, and have overview of the street, the city, the sea, the park and so on. When I compose, I feel like a “passenger” on a fictional balcony, where I can receive and process what comes to me.’ The jittery moto perpetuo (“perpetual motion”) of the forcefully rhythmic first movement is eventually stilled by the gentle breeze of a flute that induces lyrical strings, stalked by a snare drum before angular, elbowy music resumes.
The second movement has the feeling of a delicate sculpture while the third sets up an archetypal Nordentoft mechanism in which piano and trumpet are locked in tight counterpoint as if under a spell. That spell is beautifully broken as we are apparently taken onto the balcony above, away from the frenetic activity below. Mechanisms return but falter and in the last movement, this still stringent music finds itself increasingly liberated and dissipated.
Balcony was conceived as a sequel to Stream, written for Athelas three years earlier. It is a tight, rhetoric-free conversation for chamber ensemble whose velocity is determined by its own undercurrents of unease. The composer’s programme note alludes to the title’s many meanings: ‘something streaming, a flow, a stream of water and more…it all fits well with the music’s expression,’ he explains, continuing: ‘the music moves through different landscapes with many changing melodies and textures, extracted from the same musical material – though with exceptions.’
Nordentoft has also referred to the music’s ‘many mood swings’ and to the effect on the score of the light of summer nights. ‘All is held together by a sort of musical undercurrent with varied recurrences of musical progressions,’ he writes. True enough, the work streams through varied landscapes but with a particular sense of dusk, and not only in the wah-wah trumpet that takes a prominent role. There is plenty of embracing contrapuntal lyricism and improvisatory meditation, before the music arrives in the same genteel, percussion-pattering terrain where it started out.
From the recording of Entgegen © Athelas Sinfonietta
Entgegen was written in 1985 to a commission from the Odense Symphony Orchestra. In this piece, the contrasts we experienced in Stream (and to which the composer alludes in his German title) appear internalised as a large ensemble thrutches, fights and dances its way through a forest of rhythmic vitality and temperamental changeability. ‘If there is a programme,’ the composer said of the piece around the time of composition, ‘it is a programme shaped by the almost physical sense I had when composing, that the music could reach for something.’
A grooving ostinato pins the first movement, a ‘very rhythmic’ Allegro, into place (strong rhythms emerged in Nordentoft’s music in the 1980s while this systematic ostinato could be a reference the poetic logic of the Aarhus School). First the ostinato is shared by a violin and viola and later, by a cello and bass.
At first these devices appear in sync with the music’s restless fidgeting, but they prove ultimately unable to tame wild, free impulses that eventually smother it. The second movement’s opening gambit appears to invoke the night much like the music of Balcony, before the clarinet offers an introduction proper. This coaxes the piano into a pas de deux that evolves into a delicate ensemble dance, more balletic and crystalline than the street shuffles of the previous movement. The piano appears to call everyone to order, but the glockenspiel decides when the game is up.
Andrew Mellor is author of The Northern Silence – Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture (Yale University Press, 2022).