Works for Sinfonietta
Works for Sinfonietta
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Recluse or cosmopolitan?
Like a great many Danish composers, Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm was born between 1930 and 1950 - a loner, almost a recluse, who only writes the music he needs to write. No regular salaried job, no pandering to easy listening with cute arrangements, none of the usual income from teaching. Nordstraøm writes music as he thinks music should be written, and that's that! And no loner is like any otheacr loner.
A text that never begins or ends. A piece of music that doesn't have anywhere to go. A painting without colours, or with plenty of colours, that isn't supposed to represent anything in particular. Or you can hold both your arms out in front of you in a curve as you sink to your knees or spin around, for then you can give whoever is watching your movements a feeling that isn't actually contained in what you are doing.
You make an impression with the expression you use. But is that what you want? A composer is an Earwicker or an earwig, and as such what the composer does is natural in the sense that an earwig, like a person who systematizes sound, is a creature of nature. But the way you express yourself has a close or less close connection with others, and along with these others you are subject to an ungraspable set of rules that is called culture. Art is created in many cultures, and art was once part of culture - now it's an art to sustain a culture. Nature has often made people create themselves and create art; art on the other hand will never become natural. All the same - blackbirds whistle Grieg and maybe Nordstrøm.
All this art that is so inconceivable is, as they say, a way of explaining the world - or interpreting it - and since art often seems to be incomprehensible, that increases the confusion of anyone who wants to understand the world and its inconceivability. Art is so close to conjuring. Now you see it, now you don't: the art of a second. Music is gone the very moment it is played: it is flushed like a river through our ears and may leave an impression of sorrow and joy going hand in hand, or a wet spot in an eye after striking an ear.
Ah, Riverrun - run, little river - flow, my tears - we want so much to be impressed. Once a song was a bearer of knowledge, so you only had to be born in Australia and you would never get lost in nature or culture. You could sing your way along; but what was the destination for one man was the starting-point for another. The idea that a song or a melody could carry so much meaning that you could find water in the desert - maybe a running river - by knowing the song, or find your way across thousands of miles by singing it, must be a compelling one for the composers of our age.
Our age, when very few people can sing a song with even a minimum of meaning, is even less capable of grasping when a musical statement actually says something, what it says, and whether it says it in a credible way. Music runs like a river, sighs like the wind and changes shape like a cloud. Yet a cloud is always a cloud, even if it changes shape and colour; but is music always music if it doesn't look like music? Why altocumulus and not bassocumulus, why coronary thrombosis and not trombonary choruses? Heart rhymes with apart as moon rhymes with June, but systole doesn't rhyme with quintole - the heart has a pulse that we think is regular and constant - two hearts beating\, you can say, and already you're talking in four-four, while if you say \\nothing but heartache\\ you're already in five-eight. Or else you have five pulses where there used to be four, and then you can feel a certain sense of insecurity because the snare drum can't come in on two and four any more. And maybe that's just fine if you dare think about it; but not many people do any more.
And for that reason if no other, you have to write a text that never ...
Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm has his places from which he draws sustenance again and again, and on this CD there is music that exemplifies two of the possibilities Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm has of being inspired. He can for example go out of his door or in through his door. If he goes out he stands in the middle of the landscape, in the middle of a forest, and why not set this forest to music? He can look up at the sky: it's autumn and there are clouds in the sky - why not set these clouds to music?
If he goes in through his door he quickly comes to one of his bookshelves - on that bookshelf there are books, books, books. If he takes a book down from the shelf and reads it he can be sure that ideas for music will arise in his mind when it's Finnegans Wake he leafs through. Or a book about songlines that criss-cross Australia, about which Bruce Chatwin tried to enlighten us in his book Songlines.
But can we who listen hear with certainty whether it is forests, clouds or books we hear in the music?
If we can see the difference between a cloud and a forest, or the tree and the book that a tree can become, should we be able to hear with the same certainty whether it is a cloud or a forest? What if I imagine clouds when I hear forests, or see an aborigine before me when the principal character is an Irish publican?
If you expect that just because a composer was inspired by an impression he had, then the result should sound as you imagine you yourself would have heard the same event, then you limit your impressive scope. If a horse appears in a piece of music, must it then necessarily sound like galloping?
When, at one point in In the Woods, a situation arises where trombone, piano, marimba, high wind instruments and drums get rather dramatic in expression, must we absolutely imagine ourselves in a forest with squirrels quarreling, or what the Walt Disney empire has over time filled our heads with as what happens in a forest?
Or must we hear it as pure artistry, where virtuoso musicians create a (brief) state that is unlike anything but itself - and with sound combinations that only exist right here at this point in this exact piece of music?
As listeners to music we must agree with the composer when he writes in the programme note that if you want to experience what happens in the woods, there is no better place to do so than in the woods; but does that mean that it is meaningless to write a piece of music that claims to be \\In the Woods\\?
Anyone who can hear, and here that means anyone who is attentive to the sounds with which one is surrounded, knows after all that the world sounds different depending on whether you are at sea, in the city, in the mountains or in the woods. The world sounds different when it rains from when it is foggy. The world sounds different in summer and winter, in the morning and in the evening.
In a forest the forest sounds different depending on whether you're in the shade or in a place where sun shines; at night it again sounds quite, quite different. The title In the Woods is therefore in a way an imprecise title, and then again ... We just have to remember all the aspects.
What a piece of music called In the Woods can do in reality is try to specify what characteristics the sound has in a forest - for example the strange echo you hear in the woods, or the odd phenomenon that there is a quite distinctive spatiality in the sound in a forest - even though the sound of a space is normally something we experience when we are in an indoor space.
A piece of music also creates a space - besides the artificial space that arises when microphones attempt to capture sound in studios or concert halls - a state; and every musical statement in itself involves a gesture, a movement. The gesture that there would be in a piece of music called In the Woods would be different from the gesture that there would be in a piece of music called Nuages d'automne (Autumn Clouds). Note how our gesticulations are different depending on what we are talking about. The arm movements or the wrist gyrations that accompany the story of the deer you saw in the twilight in the forest are quite different from the arm movements that accompany the tale of how you were dazzled when the autumn cloud suddenly sailed away from the sun.
In the Woods must therefore be a violin concerto - with the sounds of wood and resin; and Nuages d'automne must be a trombone concerto with the sound of the wind.
Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm does not himself primarily call these works concertos - they were written respectively for violin and sinfonietta and for trombone and sinfonietta. Nor are the works concertante in the classical sense; but the two solo instruments are given a special weight in the score, and each is also in its own way the centre and focus of the music.
Nuages d'automne is a musical progression, says the composer himself in the preface - and you can hear that he himself is an old trombonist when he describes the trombone with these fond words: \\The trombone, this simple (but difficult) pure, beautiful-sounding, lyrical brass instrument.\\
Autumn clouds can be many things - dark and heavy, bright and light; but one thing is certain: they will be constantly changing! So the music must be too; but unlike the busy life of In the Woods, the events here take place most of the time in what is experienced as a calm tempo. The trombone is not as hot-blooded as the violin; there is gravity in the notes, and the surroundings are more homogeneous in a cloud than in a forest. The orchestra functions more often as sheets of sound, which does not mean however that the music is static. It is always on its way somewhere and in more than one tempo.
And then it is of course slightly amusing that when you go into the woods you can look up at the clouds and it sometimes happens that a cloud looks like a tree - or a whole forest - or that the next time the clouds may look like the sound of a piece of music - that the surrounding world has grown larger because it has taken on more meanings.
Are the sounds from the books on the shelf so very different?
In his book Songlines Bruce Chatwin says among other things: \\Before the whites came, no one was landless, since everyone inherited, as his or her private property, a stretch of the Ancestor's song and the stretch of country over which the song passed. A man's verses were his title deeds to territory. He could lend them to others. He could borrow other verses in return. The one thing he couldn't do was sell or get rid of them.\\
When a composer reads that the infinitely ancient knowledge and handed-down experience of the indigenous population of Australia are like a collective song - like a shared layer of memory that is gathered in a tradition of songs or something these aboriginals call songs, and which we don't yet have words for - then we can well understand that he hears music in his head. But once more we in the western cultural tradition must question the authenticity of these tones/sounds - this music in the head of Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm. They are his sounds; but he is willing to lend them out.
Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm himself says of the work that apart from its point of departure it has nothing remotely to do with Australian music, but if you look at the score it does at some points look like the paintings the Aborigines have surprised the world with: a welter of dots, lines and circles, all of which mean something in particular.
So what is it that makes the music sound the way it does? A brief account would go something like this: \\After a short, fast, dramatic introduction - flying in over the huge country - the music becomes completely static for a long time. We are now quite alone in Australia, and the same landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. After we have been in that landscape for a long time we begin to notice the myriad variations - the throng of paths, lines, songlines, melodies and possibilities. First slowly, tentatively, but a little later somewhat quicker, rejoicing, until our landscape is as full of activities and sounds as this ensemble of musicians who are playing the landscape into being can possibly make it. After a short climax, we now sit back calmly - perhaps serenely - in the baking sun\\.
What makes the music sound as it does here is the impulse from a book. An inspiration which for a period made Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm live his way into a universe he imagined on the basis of a writer's words. His empathy takes on form in a musical progression that may or may not be accurate in relation to its point of departure; but which no matter what has become Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm's personal version of the sound of Australia's infinitely many songlines.
And the opportunity for insight into another human being's way of experiencing is an offer one has to accept!
If you have read this far it was probably while the music was playing - that is, either you didn't listen to the music or else you did not concentrate on what you were reading. How many people read the liner notes before listening to the music? Isn't it the case that you put the CD in the player, listen with increasing distraction for 1 minutes - and then reach for an explanation?
That explanation doesn't exist - you can hear or you can't: in the spirit of Hamlet you could say \\To hear or not to hear\\.
(Was Joyce a reincarnation of Shakespeare, and is Hans-Henrik Nordstrøm an incarnation of John Dowland? Yes, I say, and like Stephen Dedalus, refer the reader to the concept of atavism.)
Jesper Lützhøft, 2007\\\