Songs of Doubt
Songs of Doubt
“Beautiful and innovative” Danish newspaper Information
Making important decisions can be complicated. It can also be perfectly simple. Most of the time, though, it seems like it is both. Echoing such intertwined feelings of doubt and clarity, Niels Rønsholdt (b. 1978) presents a unique song cycle full of mirrors, sensitivity and undaunted experimentation.
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A short video portrait of Niels Rønsholdt, produced for his publisher Edition·S.
Songs of doubt (Prospect/Retrospect)
by Trine Boje Mortensen
“Each moment of important decision in our lives makes a radical distinction between before and after, between the past and the future ... The piece is shaped as a series of very simple songs that undergo the complications of decision – of doubt and hesitation. The music seems to be looking both forward and backward – alternating between prospect and retrospect, between expectation and memory.” This is how Niels Rønsholdt himself describes Songs of Doubt.
“I’ll depart, I’ll return, I’ll depart”
“A conclusion arrived at after consideration” – this is one of the dictionary definitions of the word ‘decision’. It sounds so calm and rational. You write a list of pros and cons, and the longest list settles the matter – for or against. That is how you buy sofas, choose wall colours, decide on how to dress for the day.
But when you turn your back on your lover forever, when you come out of the closet, jump off a cliff, declare your love for the first time, say a final farewell, take the other path, turn away, say yes to having a child – when you make that kind of decision, which actually means something, then there are no ‘pros’ and ‘cons’.
No, with that kind of decision there’s the sound of Songs of Doubt: the sound of sick longing and uncomprehending wisdom.
“how does it feel to look down the endless black water of the lake”
“In doubt the torment arises when each of two opposite possibilities with greater or lesser force draws the mind in its own direction” – this quote too is from a dictionary, where it is one of many examples illustrating the entry ‘Doubt’.
The title of the work is Songs of Doubt and it has the subtitle Prospect / Retrospect: View/view back, Forward perspective/rear-view mirror. The music literally looks forward and backward. As in the work Me Quitte from 2014, Rønsholdt works with letting the performers sing the music backwards. This sound effect is not achieved by means of electronics and recordings, but simply by having the phonetic transcription of the text sung backward so that the singers perform this text as it would sound as if it was on an old reel-to-reel tape played backwards. In the score, clear grey triangles mark when the music sounds forward and when it sounds backward. This effect can do strange things to your perception of time, for music – like time – moves in one direction only (or at least that is how we perceive it) and that is forward. Life, time, cannot be run backward, nor can music. Even though it sounds backward it is on the way forward, and perhaps it is we and our ears that are the mirror of time and make the music sound inverted and the water run upwards.
“you thought you hoped you’re lost”
Songs of Doubt was written for choir, male vocal soloist and the electronic instrument known as the ondes Martenot, which was invented in the 1920s and produces an electronic note that can both be precise like that of the later synthesizers, or glissando like that of the theremin, another early electronic instrument. The sound can be close to that of the human voice, and along the way in Songs of Doubt the instrument seeps through the choral sounds and the voice of the soloist. At other times it has its own voice booming amidst the vocal sounds. When an ondes Martenot is the only instrument among human voices it extends the voices into an electronic space, and when at the same time, as in Songs of Doubt, it is used to sound ‘backward’ with the voices, the instrument functions as an extension and an elaboration of the expression and the musical material.
“forest of brightness and the faces of fallen”
Rønsholdt trained with among others Helmut Oehring in Berlin and Bent Sørensen and Karl Aage Rasmussen in Aarhus, where he himself also teaches at the Royal Academy of Music. One must always be careful about tracing lines back to teachers and institutions when one is describing an artist, but the background in the Danish composing environment, which has never been afraid of simplicity, and the cultivation of the German experimental environment have perhaps helped to leave the marks of an undaunted experimentation and a search for the personal idiom that are characteristic of Rønsholdt’s creative efforts. This applies equally when the path pushes the envelope of the emotive, as in the work Me Quitte from 2014, which is based on, or bores its way into, a French chanson, and approaches the limits of the private as in the visual side of the performances of Songs of Doubt, which consists exclusively of shots of the composer himself. By displaying our most banal emotions and by turning the focus on himself in other roles than that of the composer (singer, model, performer) he pulls the rug from under his audience. He gives us no chance to remain in our ‘professional’ role as audience. Disturbingly, we are forced to be present as human beings.
Another element that makes Rønsholdt’s works surprising is his insistence on the sensual, the sensory and the sensitive; these are not three words that normally take pride of place when one is describing new composition music, but they are quite indispensable when one is speaking of Rønsholdt. The music and the visuals in his works are never mawkish. For that they are simply too fragile and strange. But they engage with breathing, moaning, panting, skin and the delectable quite without irony and without raised eyebrows.
“I can hear you right near by”
Niels Rønsholdt’s music is the princess’s pea which, through all the layers of caresses, silk, velvet, breath, sensual touches, overwhelming chords and soft rhythms, ensures that we wake up from the listening experience with black and blue marks on the soul.
“don't look back”
In Songs of Doubt there are certainly an ‘I’ and a ‘You’. But who they are, what relationship they have to each other or when, is not evident. Nor is there an unambiguous timeline (of course) – but perhaps a succession of nows? However, the cycle ends with the song The Wind, which includes the line “Don’t look back/If you turn you might fall” which suggests that a decision has been made and a direction (forward?) has been laid down. On the other hand, in this sentence there are also reminiscences of the myth of Orpheus, the singer who fetched his beloved Eurydice from the underworld, and who did in fact turn around, only – through that action – to send her back again. It is not a given that he/she/we have the strength of spirit not to look back. Just one more time.
The last line fits so well with the very first line of the work: “The moment you fall ...” So the endless ring of doubt and great decisions comes full circle: “If you turn you might fall ... The moment you fall ...” We never escape from the doubt, from the uncertainty of not knowing what would have happened is we had not said yes/said no.
“back and forth in vain”
The music on this CD refuses to be pigeonholed. The soundscape is distinctive, because it is a mixture of classical choir, amplified solo voice and electronic sounds. Although the listener may along the way be reminded auditively of the B-side of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’, gospel hymns, the early operas of Philip Glass, blues, Gregorian chant, hangover groans and the singing of angels, Songs of Doubt is undoubtedly entirely its own, purely Rønsholdt-like song cycle, and it makes no sense to compare it to other expressions of contemporary music. It is shamelessly original.
Trine Boje Mortensen is the Promotion Manager at Edition Wilhelm Hansen and a music journalist specializing in contemporary music.