This Thursday, we will play the world premieres of four new orchestral works by danish composers, next to Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aeriality” with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra at the Pulsar Festival. For my own preparation and to get some insight into the composers minds, I had a written conversation with the 3 younger composers about their works and the inspirations behind them.
Bára Gísladóttir – “VAPE”
Bara, the title of your piece is “VAPE”. What is the relation between the title and the work – what was the idea behind the piece?
The piece is inspired by the Tokyo subway sarin attacks committed by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995. Five terrorists boarded one subway each, carrying plastic bags with sarin. Sarin is a transparent liquid that can easily evaporate into vapour, hence the title “VAPE”. To perform the attacks, the five men dropped the sarin-filled bags on the subway floors and poked them with the tips of their umbrellas, making way for the material to sneak into the atmosphere with terrifying consequences. In the piece, the instruments are divided into five groups, as representatives of each attack, describing the circumstances, atmosphere, both literally and figuratively, as well as as the actual vaporisation.
Your piece is quite texture-based, with a lot of extended techniques, especially for the wind instruments. What is their role? To distort the pitches? To add a grainyness? Or to simply widen the sonic spectrum of the orchestral sound?
VAPE is built of textures of extended techniques. These techniques depict the atmosphere and events of the abovementioned terror-attacks, as well as serving as musical distortion and an extension to the orchestra’s sonic spectrum.
In terms of the harmony and the actual pitches, did you use any system or structures?
First I created series of varied pitch class sets. Then I drew the map of the attacked subway lines over the sets. I compressed the time of the attacks into the length of the piece, and went through the pitch class sets according to that.
There is a certain permanent state of fluidity in your piece, with lots of glissandi and harmonics. Was this in your mind when you wrote the piece?
The fluidity depicts both the liquid form of sarin, but perhaps more importantly, the floating blurriness of timelessness caused by traumatic events like this.
Who do you really admire as a composer ? Are there any people in particular that influenced you in your writing for orchestra?
I admire a lot of composers, and for the last years I’ve been a big Sciarrino fan. I’m not sure if I am influenced by him in the orchestra piece or not. I just wanted to depict the sarin-attacks with the sounds I felt would fit.
Is this your first work for orchestra?
This is my second orchestra piece. The prior one was Turn a Blind Eye commissioned by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, also written in 2016.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m working on a duo for double bass and harp for Ensemble Intercontemporain, as well as a piece for Klang festival to be played by Ensemble Adapter and myself on the double bass.
Mads Emil Dreyer – “KORTE DAGE. EVIG SNE.”
Mads, the title of your piece is “Korte Dage, Evig Sne” (Short Days, Eternal
Snow). What is the relation between the title and the work – and what was
the idea behind the piece?
The title “Korte dage, evig sne” (“Short Days, Eternal Show”) refers to the formal
structure of the piece. It consists of two different elements; one layer of various
kinds of string noises that ebb and flow throughout the piece, and then a layer of
winds and percussion that enters six times and adds a sense of direction to the
music. Despite its title the piece is not meant to be a representation of nature. I.e.,
I’m not trying to translate the sensation of snow into music. Rather, I think of the
title as a way of describing the process of the piece. It unfolds in a mechanical
way which is not that different from how nature sometimes behaves: Slow,
undeterred and, at times, clinical.
Every single part in your piece is written out, including all the 60 string
parts. What is the idea behind this textural super-polyphony?
I decided quite early on to work with some software tools for spectral analysis
that I’ve been using recently for other projects. Having this as a starting point
meant that the first part of the process centered around analyzing noise samples
on my computer and transforming these into primitive building blocks for the
string section. This process also led me to the overall principle of using the
orchestra completely divisi. Along the way, I’ve had this image of the orchestra
being a giant synthesizer and each player a knob that I could control in detail. I
don’t know if this comparison is still all that relevant, but the piece is, basically,
one long and slow process of harmonic colorization. And by working with the
orchestra like this, I made it possible for myself, at least in theory, to play around
with the mixing of each voice at the closest possible level. This is the idea behind
it, but to be honest, it is very much an experiment on my part. I’ve planned the
super-polyphony in a detailed manner, and I have a pretty clear idea of how I’d
like it to sound, but when you’re making a piece with close to 100 individual
parts, I guess you have to be open to some surprises in terms of how they will
actually blend together.
In terms of the harmony and the actual notes, did you use any system or
The overall pitch material is not derived from any system, but the way I use it is,
at least for the string section, very structured. I’ve made two tone rows that are
close to being similar, except one is a bit more chromatic than the other. As the
piece moves forward the percentages by which I distribute the two rows
between the players change. I start out by having, for instance, 75 % of the
strings playing row A and 25 % playing row B. As the piece progresses row A
decreases in number and row B increases, so that towards the end only 15 % of
the strings are playing row A and 85 % are playing row B. Beginning with the
fourth wind and percussion entrance I add to the harmony a low c in two octaves
(horn 3, tuba, cellos and basses, and eventually the contrabassoon), so, basically,
the whole harmony is gradually moving away from the more chromatic pitch set
towards a quite consonant Cmaj7chord (with added 6th and without the 5th).
For the winds and the percussion I use parts of the same pitch material, and
while they follow the same general principle of gradually leaving out more and
more of the chromaticism, they don’t follow a strict tone row structure like that
in the strings. Like I said, the low c’s are meant to recontextualize the overall
harmony, so getting these to sound out properly is crucial.
Also, for the strings, the development of the balance between air noises and
regular pitches is a central issue. Similar to how I planned the development of
the tone row-structures, the normal, full sounding pitches increase in number as
the piece moves forward, so the overall timbre goes from being whispery and
airy to being more sonorous.
The general form is very static, with some wave-like harmonic activity
over a Celeste ostinato. Is stasis what you had in mind?
To some degree yes. In a way the piece is completely anti-spectacular. At least it
looks like nothing is really happening, but there’s, in fact, a lot of micromovement
going on. The piece is centered around one development taking place
as a shift between two states, and what happens from the beginning to the end is
basically one long process of colorization. I completely agree that the form is
static and I think the piece will sound like it’s definitely not in a hurry to get
somewhere, but despite of this, the forward-moving narrative is really
important. There’s an overall development going from the more dissonant pitch
material and a dominating air noise timbre to a more consonant orchestra sound.
I think of it as a kind of eternity machine, which is seemingly going nowhere but
then nevertheless slowly moves forward and gradually changes its character
along the way. This is one aspect that I’m generally quite focused on – finding
ways to develop something that is seemingly at a standstill. I like how a piece can
simultaneously exist in both realms: as a kind of timeless vacuum where the
music “just is” and as a narrative with a linear, developmental form.
An orchestra is a medium with a big historic musical baggage. How do
you approach writing for an orchestra as a contemporary composer?
I’ve been thinking about this, of course, but it hasn’t invoked any feelings of
having to stay within any idiomatic boundaries or having to live up to certain
ways of how to write for the orchestra. I often think of tradition very much as a
vast archive of great pieces that you’re in constant dialogue with whether you’re
taking these as points of reference or consciously trying to go against them. It’s
easy to become envious of composers who lived in times when the medium was
new and unexplored, but you could also view this musical heritage as a lot of
work that has already been done and which leaves you free to do something else.
That’s quite a relief, actually. You’re not obliged to further establish the medium.
This has been taken care of already. If you want to experience how incredibly
rich and diverse an orchestra can sound there’s a long list of great composers
that have already written works that show this. For that reason, I think it’s okay
just to take the building blocks that you need for realizing your idea and strip
away all the ingredients that you don’t care for. This stance might sound
ignorant, but it has made it much easier for me to focus very narrowly on
realizing a musical idea, which initially wasn’t really tied to a specific medium. A
lot of my building blocks come from software analyses and like I said, during the
process of writing the piece I’ve regularly returned to the image of this big group
of musicians being a gigantic synthesizer. So the core of the musical idea wasn’t
actually born within the symphonic frame. Rather, a big part of the process has
more been that of translating this synthesizer idea and the knowledge derived
from the analyses into the orchestral format.
Is this your first work for orchestra?
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m finishing a piece for bowed crotales, light bulbs and live-electronics. In the
piece, I’m simultaneously recording and playing back the sound of the crotales
plus the noise that comes from the electricity passing through the light bulb
stands. I then filter the noise to get audible pitches that correspond to the
crotales and by transforming the audio signal from the crotales to MIDI and
using MIDI to control the light bulbs, I’m making a system where each of the 16
light bulbs correspond to each of the 16 crotales pitches. The overall idea is to
create a hyper-instrument of some sort that plays sound and light at the same
time. The tricky part, for me, is making the instrument stable enough so that
everything can be rendered 100 % live. This is what I’m working on these days.
The piece is to be premiered three days after the orchestra concert, so I’m in
quite a hurry.
Jeppe Ernst “MONUMENT”
Your work is called “Monument”. Why is that?
The title is thought as an overall title and can mean a lot of things. For me personally it symbolises a kind funeral monument in the sense that it for me is a kind of reflexion on some personal experiences I went through this last summer.
The first and fourth movement (Salme and Hymne) are related in the sense that they are both based on the same psalm and both have religious titles.
The second and third movement (Monodi and Serenade) are related in the sense that they are both dealing with the subjects of violence and desperation and both have secular titles. The two moments can as well be seen as a portrait of three persons: The second movement being a portrait of a woman and a man, and the third movement being a kind of self portrait.
Being a piece for symphony orchestra, female voice and video. The music for the orchestra is extremely simple. What is the role of the orchestra?
I don’t think of what I write as being simple or complicated. But for the second movement I have intended a specific kind of directness and simplicity in order to make the interaction between the strings and the female and male performer on the screen as clear as possible. The idea was that the string orchestra could symbolize the nerves that connects the two faces on the screen. The strings both creates actual sound and imitates sound by bowing above the strings for example, and this could for instance be seen as the words that are being said and not being said in this relation between two people.
In the third movement my intention was to make a love song as primitive and violent as possible. This idea was based on the personal experience that a gesture of love from one person to another, for the party receiving can be experienced as a gesture of violence. So in that sense you can imagine a beautiful and romantic piece of music beneath the music you will actually hear.
The First Movement (Salme) – is just for female voice. The text is from Jon Fosse’s “Stein til Stein”. Why did you choose this text? And what’s the role of this Psalm in your piece?
I chose this text partly to provoke myself and partly because I was looking for a text that was dealing with the funeral.
Where I see the second and third movement as dealing more with the human relation I see the first and fourth movement dealing more with a religious relation. The female voice in the first movement sings in the darkness and is therefor just a voice with no physical body. The conductor is in the fourth movement is standing on the podium conducting the psalm, he is purely physical body, but without a voice. The two are isolated from each other but are connected through the psalm.
Your piece is, in a way, conceptual. It doesn’t really require the performers to do much of what they would do, normally. Was your idea to purposely deconstruct the orchestra or the concert situation?
I hate anything that is related with conceptualism. I don’t think of what I do in anyway as being conceptual. I don’t want to deconstruct anything I just want to write music that means something to me.
Who are some of your musical heroes??
I have very few musical heroes, but one I could mention is the russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya.
My heroes are to be found else where I suppose, among the authors, the visual artists and film directors. Among the authors I could mention Pär Lagerkvist and Louis Ferdinand Celine, among visual artists Alberto Giacometti and Vilhelm Hammershøi, and among film directors Carl th. Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman.
What are you working on, at the moment?
I would prefer not to talk about my future plans.