Der Wind bläset wo er will
Der Wind bläset wo er will
Danish composer Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen brings together two of his major orchestral works of the 2010s, Der Wind bläset wo er will and his Cello Concerto, for his third release on Dacapo Records. Olesen's stunning music is about life and about being alive: each piece is a world unto itself. They are recorded here with cellist Johannes Moser and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Otto Tausk.
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About life and about being alive
By Lasse Laursen
Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen often prepares his music with the help of many different rules and systems. But the purpose of these methods is primarily to secure his own focus, as they are not really essential when you listen to his music. Olesen creates music that is neither dominated by systems, by chance nor by what is found; on the contrary, it is dominated by an exceptionally well-developed imagination. In this way, his creations can therefore also be seen as narratives of situations and conditions of a universal human nature – a music about life and about being alive, and full of strong and both banal and basic emotions and conditions of often surprising dynamism, inviting the listener to participate in the outcome of the situations. That the music through its universal starting point can invite the listener to join in, is not least due to the fact that Olesen’s wrestling with history is without that distance, without that breach of historical continuity, which is normally so characteristic of contemporary music. His music does not renounce experiences of the past, but likes to explore them; sometimes specifically with quotations or pseudo-quotations, always relating to a contemporary experience. His music, therefore, is also lacking any kind of post-modern irony. On the other hand, though, it is often full of (black) humour with an unusual ability to describe absurd characters or conditions in the encounter with the historical material.
Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen studied composition with Poul Ruders, Henryk Górecki and Karl Aage Rasmussen among others. He is also trained as a cellist with Hans Erik Deckert and Harro Ruijsenaars. This combination is clearly felt in Olesen’s compositions where the instrumentation often is extremely inventive as well as demanding.
Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s production includes orchestral music and chamber music, among these eight string quartets, where his deep understanding of string instruments naturally shines through. Apart from the two works on this album, Olesen’s major works include the piano concerto Steinfeld (2004), the opera The Picture of Dorian Gray (2013) and Weihnachtsoratorium (2017) based on J.S. Bach’s work of the same name.
Der Wind bläset wo er will (2011)
Der Wind bläset wo er will is super refined orchestral music realised in the French style, where the material stays in a particular instrument or group of instruments where it is introduced, but where also the choice of instruments, the way of playing and the registers are as important as the notes being played. The enthusiasm for sound is evident, for example, in the extended percussion section, which includes a myriad of instruments: from the hammer in Mahler's 6th Symphony to a selection of more common percussion instruments – drums, tam-tams and crotales – to exotic instruments like an Indian gopichand, also known as a ‘boing box’, and a musical saw. But the enthusiasm for sound can be heard also in the way Olesen uses the instrumental groups, for instance in the opening of the work, which is dominated by three very different trombone parts: one with an extremely high (and thus somewhat plaintive) repetitive note; a second one grunting in its lowest register, and then a third one playing a lapping wave-sound made out of overtone glissandi. Which notes each of them is playing does not really matter, as long as the notes remain the same. They are statements of sound more than notes, and as such more like the sounds of nature, like on a field recording, than of traditional music.
This game with the listener about what something may be or which associations it may bring along, is a recurrent theme in the music, that seems to reach its climax when the otherwise unmistakable champagne cork, against all common sense, is identified as the natural splash from a swamp of loops. But even traditional music can be heard in Der Wind bläset wo er will, such as a walking bass in the opening scene or, somewhat later in the piece, the disintegrated version of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in f minor, Op. 52 for piano, and as the work unfolds, the balance between the sound we hear and the music shifts towards the latter.
The title comes from the Gospel of John, where Jesus teaches Nicodemus that ‘the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’
Like the wind in the quotation, Der Wind bläset wo er will is music of an unknown origin. It does not rise from a special kind of method of composition, system or style, and it also shows itself to be very difficult to predict, like when it loses itself completely in ‘something else’ at the end. But it is not only on a macro level that the music makes its own origin and its own chronology topical. The music is – even from moment to moment – in a constant state of balancing between the predictable and the unpredictable to such an extent, that it is almost impossible to guess the next repetition or contrast, but also impossible not to make a guess.
Inspired by the title of the work, the music seems to be equipped with its own nature, characterized by raindrops, animal calls, far-away-music, puffing sounds and wind effects, something which might be realistic. The music is not realistic, however, but it is credible. At the same time, Olesen succeeds in creating a framework around the music which prevents that the many ideas and instruments undermine the credibility of the music. We may be in a world of unknown or unlikely, perhaps even magical phenomena, but it seems that there still are some fundamental rules and laws in action: The music attaches to the physical space where the sounds are placed high or low, close or far away, and where gravity presses everything downwards.
Der Wind bläset wo er will was initially materialized as a drawing and then realized as a score in 2011. The orchestral work was written at the time when the composer became a father, and it is undeniably a different and carefree working method compared to the one which characterizes Olesen’s Cello Concerto.
Cello Concerto, To the memory of my mother (2014, revised 2016)
Realism in a totally different concrete way characterizes the programme notes that Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen wrote about his Cello Concerto: ‘This concerto is full of lots of technicalities and structures which I have forgotten all about now, unfortunately. But without all that it would have been a hotchpotch of emotions, as I wrote the piece when my family and I were looking after my mother when she was dying. I see that the piece has become a kind of rondo. The music seems to want a place to return to – maybe because my mother was a person to whom I could always return when everything around me exploded. In the end the rondo dies and moves away to another place, just like all mothers do.’
That place, whereto the music keeps returning again and again, is a tirade of scale movements in a quick and playful tempo, introduced by the cello at the beginning of the concerto. A theme which – despite the programme note – could also be a self-portrait of the composer as a cellist, or at least a memory about endless, but also happy hours of practising in his room as a child. The theme seems carefree and without a goal, and not until the orchestra joins in with the cello does the music take form in earnest. This seriousness intensifies when the theme seems to lose both energy and freedom with every repetition, until the very last one when it is tutti strings that present the theme – like a shadow of itself. But before this last repetition, the music has come to a stop already or has become a weightless loop of half-notes where the same melody is played in turns by the soloist and different orchestral sections. A loop, which after many repetitions, is drowned or erased in a collision with the D major of the opening music, after which we hear the opening music for the last time, now as background music for a duet between cello and violin in an extremely high register. Ending, rounding off or just saying goodbye is the true theme of this music.
Olesen’s Cello Concerto, although composed only three years after Der Wind bläset wo er will, was written in the shadow of personal circumstances such as a divorce and a diagnosis of sclerosis.
Lasse Laursen, composer and Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus