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Works for guitar

Poul Ruders

Works for guitar

Jesper Sivebæk, Ensemble Fyn, Kiki Brandt
Poul Ruders' (b. 1949) music is characterized by a pronounced will to expression. It is stylistically varied and typically has a wide expressive register. Ruders' artistic development has taken him in various stylistic directions, as can be more than glimpsed in the works represented on this CD: three works for solo guitar, one for voice with guitar accompaniment and two for ensemble. The works on the CD range in time from 1973 to 1996.
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Total runtime: 
58 min.


Poul Ruders' music is characterized by a pronounced will to expression. It is stylistically varied and typically has a wide expressive register. Ruders' artistic development has taken him in various stylistic directions, as can be more than glimpsed in the works represented on this CD: three works for solo guitar, one for voice with guitar accompaniment and two for ensemble. The works on the CD range in time from 1973 to 1996.

It was hearing Krzysztof Penderecki's neo-Expressionist modernism, especially the work Threnos from 1960, that started the young Poul Ruders off as a composer. His debut, the piano work Three Letters from the Unknown Soldier (1967), shows the Polish inspiration as clearly as could be desired, but the style was soon superseded by inspiration from other sources.

At the end of the 1960s Danish music was undergoing an interesting post--Serialist development characterized by concepts like ‘New Simplicity', ‘stylistic pluralism' etc. At the beginning of the 1970s Ruders received marked impulses from the distinctive ‘quotation' style of his contemporary Karl Aage Rasmussen, often described as ‘music on music', and from Peter Maxwell Davies' music theatre works. The latter's use of pre-Classical music provided particular inspiration for a special ‘medieval style' from Ruders, the most spectacular result of which was the pastiche work Medieval Variations from 1974, a piece of burlesque medieval Verfremdung midway between composition and arrangement. Just as pivotal, but for other reasons, is the piano sonata with which Ruders started off the decade: the Dante Sonata (1970), whose style and content point forward towards the later ‘abstract dramas' for orchestra, for example Thus Saw St. John (1984). The guitar piece Jargon from 1973 works with quotations like the music of Karl Aage Rasmussen, while Pestilence Songs (1975), Rondeau (1976) and Diferencias (1980) in various ways adapt historical music from the Renaissance, Middle Ages and Baroque respectively.

The years 1970-80 were Ruders' apprentice years. The first mature works were written around 1980: the chamber concerto for nine instruments Four Compositions (1980), and the wonderful neo-Baroque Violin Concerto no. 1 (1981), are both showpiece examples of Ruders' characteristic ‘unpredictability', as the chamber concerto is dominated by a kind of abstract expressionism, while the violin concerto is permeated by a transparent, sunny neo-Classicism. These were followed in 1982 by the masterpiece Manhattan Abstraction for large orchestra, a work with which Ruders definitively made his mark on musical history.

Since 1974 Ruders has worked with his own distinctive invention; the change-ringing technique. He got the idea while reading the Lord Peter Wimsey novel The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, in which the English bellringers' ‘change-ringing' plays a crucial role for the plot. It turned out that the change-ringing tables - when they were used to regulate the constantly varying repetition patterns of musical motifs of a few notes - were very well suited to creating long musical sequences in which impulses from minimalism also appear. However, Ruders' minimalism is dramatic, indeed aggressive, and thus different in nature from American minimalism. The constantly shifting order of the change-ringing tables and the composer's often ingenious manipulations with his diatonic material also recall serialism. This is particularly the case in works where -Ruders uses more abstract tonal material of the type known from serial music - although he would not dream of composing with actual twelve-tone rows. On the other hand his long series of ‘motoric' chamber music pieces for various ensembles, for example Wind-Drumming, Cha Cha Cha, Alarm, Break-Dance, Regime and Tattoo for Three are characterized by a certain minimalistic panache.

As for expression, in Ruders' own words this is visually associative music\. -Ruders often speaks of his works as\\acoustical canvases\\ or \\abstract dramas\\. Music and image are inextricably bound up in his musical world.

In the works of the 1980s a more homogeneous Ruders style emerged. Ruders looked inward for more personal music of a neo-Expressionist / neo-Romantic stamp. The first work that unequivocally demonstrated this orientation was the outward-looking ‘Gothic' orchestral piece Thus Saw St. John (1984). The score begins with a ‘programme' along Berlioz-Strauss lines in the form of an extended quotation from the Revelation of St. John. The work moreover stands out for its virtuoso treatment of the orchestra, which bears comparison with Strauss. Similar ‘Gothic' inspiration lay behind Corpus Cum Figuris (1984) and Nightshade (1987). Related to these works too is the grandly conceived Drama Trilogy (1987-88), three solo concertos including the cello concerto Polydrama, which is one of the finest examples of the neo-Expressionist style, and the symphony Himmelhoch jauchzend - zum Tode betrübt in four movements, which was premiered to great attention by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London in the autumn of 1990.

Ruders' supreme mastery of the orchestra has brought him respect at home and abroad, as can be seen from the commissions from ensembles and concert institutions like the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble InterContemporain, the BBC, Speculum Musicae (New York), the Riverside Symphony Orchestra (New York), the Royal Danish Theatre, the Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. In 1996 Ruders was the first Danish composer to have a work played on the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall. The work was Concerto in Pieces, a series of variations on a theme by Purcell which is a dazzlingly composed counterpart to Benjamin Britten's then 50-year-old The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

After 1990 the compositional high points have been the masterly Violin Concerto no. 2 (1991), The Sun Trilogy (1992-95), Symphony no. 2 (Symphony and Transformation, 1996), Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean for accordion and string quartet (2004) and two operas: the science-fiction-like The Handmaid's Tale which was sensationally premiered at the Royal Danish Theatre in the spring of 2000, and the grotesque Kafka's Trial, which was written for the opening of the new Opera in 2005. From these years too come the guitar works Psalmodies Suite in three movements (1990) and Chaconne (1996).

Symphony and Transformation is surely the major work of the 1990s. In this ingeniously composed work Ruders demonstrates with great compositional consistency the possibilities of the new composition technique of the decade, ‘minimorphosis'. With the minimorphosis technique Ruders further developed his change-ringing technique so that the smallest components of the music (the motifs or ‘the bells'), which are regulated by tables of numbers, now modulate constantly. As a result, the motifs and the music as such are plunged into endless transformations (hence the name of the symphony). With minimorphosis the change-ringing has assumed new, fantastic dimensions.

The works

Psalmodies Suite

The three guitar pieces that make up Psalmodies Suite are also included in Psalmodies for guitar and nine instruments, which is a chamber concerto or concert suite in eleven movements.

The word ‘psalmodies' goes back to the ancient Greek psalmoidia, which means ‘song to harp accompaniment', but is also related to psallein ‘to play on strings with the fingers' - as on a guitar. In the preface to the score the composer emphasizes that his work, despite the connection of the title with the word psalter, has no specific religious content or aim.



Chaconne for solo guitar was composed in 1996 as a kind of appendix to the more extensive work Etude & Ricercare from 1994, and is dedicated to David and Becky Starobin. The former gave the piece its first performance in a concert at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen in the summer of 1997.

The Chaconne is based on a six-bar theme which is repeated in various forms a number of times. The minimorphosis technique is used, and each of the bars of the theme forms one ‘bell'. The form is duple. In the second part, from bar 42 (midway through), the ‘bells' are played ‘back-to-front'.

Besides the bell ostinato one hears a freely treated bass ostinato which played from the beginning consists of the notes A - d - E - A - d and a chord (Bb7/F ). These notes are used repeatedly throughout the composition. Several times they appear automatically, but mostly they are placed in bars where they fit in harmonically.


This piece for solo guitar has been pieced together of fragments from the ‘workaday language' of music and was therefore given the title Jargon. With the collage-like juxtapositions of only partly recognizable quotations from entertainment music, Ruders wanted to create a kind of ‘stream of consciousness' in the listener's mind. He has also compared Jargon to a Cubist portrait \\where the nose is at the back of the neck and the eyes are down on the chin\\. The quotations form a 15-minute chain of snapshots where the introductory C major chord functions as an often-repeated signal. After many notes, Jargon ends with a sortie in the form of a small Parisian waltz that is as charming as it is unexpected.

Pestilence Songs

These six songs were composed in 1974 to stanzas from the English Renaissance poet Thomas Nashe's A Litany in Time of Plague, about the ravages of the plague in London. According to the composer, Pestilence Songs is a pastiche work, a kind of melodrama that combines such strange bedfellows as Renaissance music and cabaret.

The songs are pastiches in a Dowland-like Elizabethan style with added, more modern dissonances. They are linked together by a short refrain in the singing voice on the words Lord, have mercy on us!, which also conclude the composition.

Strength stoops and Wit with his wantonness have expressionistic features (in the former song we hear a humorous quotation of Big Ben in London). Beauty is and Rich men are beautiful stylistic exercises, while the final song - surprisingly - introduces a cabaret-like French chanson. Song no. 1, Adieu, farewell, is particularly interesting because of the way its simple, pastiche-like material is treated. The singer repeats the same four notes with unaltered rhythm, while the chords of the guitar change places and order in a way that Ruders systematized in later works with his so-called change-ringing technique (explained above, pp. 5 and 6). The guitar's low E string is tuned down to D to allow the playing of the many low D's of the accompaniment.


Diferencias on a Beloved Tune by J. S. Bach is the full title of the eight-minute sinfonietta piece. Diferencias is a Spanish word that means ‘variations'. And variations are what the relatively simple work's accentuations, displacements and varying instrumental colourings offer.

The theme chosen is a four-bar passage of J.S. Bach's well known hymn setting Jesu bleibet meine Freude, which ends Cantata no. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. The piece is therefore both ‘music on music', ‘decomposition' and neo-Classical. The score begins with 4 words in English that come from the composer John Cage:

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry

followed by another American's, the poet Edwin Morgan's 14 variations on Cage's 14 words, which begin as follows:

I have to say poetry and is that nothing and I am saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it


and end:

Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it

Morgan goes through the permutations of Cage's words by changing their order 14 times - and that too is exactly how Ruders has composed his piece. Diferencias consists of (not 14, but) a long succession of variations - or rather permutations - of the (again not 14, but) 12 small motifs into which Ruders divides Bach's theme. The theme and its first five permutations are played by the pianist, who with the pedal firmly depressed throughout the piece repeats the constantly varied Bach melody in the right hand. Only with the introduction of the chorale Jesu bleibet meine Freude shortly before the end the pianist uses both hands.

Gradually the other instruments enter, first the bell sounds of the vibraphone, then the woodwinds (flute and clarinet), the strings (violin and cello) and finally the guitar. At the beginning the instruments are content to double the notes of the piano in turn, but gradually their independence is increased.


This work for seven musicians and conductor is based on a medieval rondeau (a kind of dance song). It is a typical example of the medieval style that Ruders cultivated in the 1970s.

The group of instruments is particularly variegated and comprises:

Piccolo and alto flute, plus melodica
Clarinet and bass clarinet, plus melodica
Violin and mandolin
Electric guitar
Percussion: Bells, glockenspiel, cymbales antiques and tuned gongs.
3 congas, large tom-tom, steel drum, large oil drum, football whistle, rattle, vibraphone and grandfather clock (or metronome)
Grand piano and harpsichord

The text of the old rondeau is printed in the score with a remark that the fragments that the musicians sing in the course of the piece, incidentally to great comic effect, are to be pronounced in modern French. All the musicians, but especially the percussionist, sing from a shared part that is placed on a stave in the middle of the score. However, the song is cut to pieces and therefore becomes mostly incomprehensible.

Rondeau is a straightforward piece of grotesquerie played out in an almost constant fortissimo. The articulation instructions are Noisy & Brutal, Mechanical. After the presentation in the ad libitum beginning of the medieval melody, the piece flies off into what is technically a cantus firmus treatment, although the melody is to a great extent decomposed and is constantly interrupted by ‘skewed' pauses.

Per Erland Rasmussen, 2008

Release date: 
August 2008
Cat. No.: 
Jewel Case
Track count: 


Recorded in the Concert Hall at the Carl Nielsen Academy of Music Odense in February and May 2007
and January and February 2008
Recording producers: Erik Kaltoft (Rondeau and Diferencias) and Torben Sminge
Sound engineers: Branko Djordjevic (Rondeau) and Torben Sminge

Cover image: Denise Burt
Graphic Design:

Publishers: Edition Wilhelm Hansen AS, , except for Rondeau (Engstrøm & Sødring) and for Pestilence Songs, last movement: Music by Gaston Claret (SACEM), arranged by Poul Ruders, copyright © 1932, 1974 by Editions Salabert, Paris. For Scandinavia and Finland: Edition Wilhelm Hansen AS, Copenhagen; for the rest of the world: Universal/MGB Music Publishing.

This CD has been recorded in cooperation with the Carl Nielsen Academy of Music Odense