19.03.18
Bent Sørensen. © Lars Skaaning

New optimism in a universe of beautiful decay

Interview with Bent Sørensen

Although Bent Sørensen finds beauty in decay, he admits his music may be pointing in a new, less fatalistic direction. In April he will receive the 2018 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

There is much that is meticulous about Bent Sørensen’s music. But it would appear his work schedule is similarly pristine. ‘I have a deadline the day after tomorrow, which I will fulfill,’ says the composer on a Tuesday morning at Café Overfor, in the shadow of the Royal Danish Academy of Music where he was once a professor.

The new piece is a commission from the Danish String Quartet and accordionist Andreas Borregaard. ‘I want to meet the deadline and I’m so busy right now that I use every minute,’ says Sørensen. ‘Maybe I’ll finish tomorrow or maybe the day after. But I know exactly how to end it. It’s the time I’m struggling with, not the music.’ And the title? ‘It’s called Dances and Disappearance.’ There is a pause. ‘Is that a bad title? You’re English, so you can say if you think it’s ridiculous.’

That’s impossible, of course. As always with Sørensen’s works, the title and the music are connected as if by an umbilical cord, the former feeding the latter. ‘I get the title, and I don’t change it,’ he reveals later in our conversation; ‘in the title there is always the signature of what the piece is about.’ In that sense, Dances and Disappearance could hardly be more clear-cut. If Sørensen has a day and a half to commit his musical ‘disappearance’ to paper, nobody should risk disrupting the process now.

A tale of two cities
The subject of titles brings us to two recent large-scale works. In November, Sørensen was in Manhattan to hear the premiere of his first work for the New York Philharmonic, Evening Land – ‘a city piece’, in his own words. Two days earlier, his triple concerto L’isola della Città (‘The Island in the City’) was revealed as the latest winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Sørensen’s face even made an appearance on Times Square’s big screens to mark the announcement.

‘I was just very surprised, and I remember not being allowed to tell anyone,’ he says now, four months on. In April Sørensen will travel to the University of Louisville in Kentucky to collect the award and take part in seminars and master-classes. The only task remaining after that is the efficient disposal of the $100,000 prize money. ‘Katrine [Gislinge, Sørensen’s wife] and I have been looking for a workspace away from our apartment. We have found a place very close to us where we could put a piano, and the Award gives us the chance to buy it. When there are two of you working at home and both making music, it’s difficult. It will be nice for one of us to be able to work somewhere else.’

There’s neat symbolism in the idea that Sørensen’s new refuge in the city will come courtesy of a work that reflects precisely that sentiment. L’isola della Città was first performed by Trio con Brio and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in January 2016. It has since been heard in Trondheim and will soon be played in Odense. Sørensen’s voice is consistent enough to ensure that new creations from him don’t generally throw up stylistic or architectural surprises. But the degree of refinement, distillation and control on display in this piece is breathtaking. It signals an advancing of his handling of the orchestra and some new thinking in its reconciliation of a triple concerto’s strange, unnatural configuration.

Does it feel like a work of particular significance to the composer himself? ‘I can’t say it’s more significant than the other big pieces around it – the clarinet concerto, MignonEvening Land. It’s just me. At the same time it’s clearly very, very different from those other pieces. I suppose you’re never objective enough to look at your own music in that way.’ When he speaks of ‘difference’, is he talking in terms of form and configuration, or something more abstract? ‘That’s important: you have to be in your own music all the time. So you change the triple concerto format to fit your own voice, rather than changing your voice to fit a triple concerto. I certainly did not think about addressing concerto form somehow. I used the same orchestration as Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, but that was more about making something new from established ingredients.’

He refers, once more, to the process of finding a title and letting it shape the piece. ‘When I had a visual picture of an island in the middle of a city, and transferred it to a musical picture, then it was really just a matter of sitting down and writing. That’s why my titles always come as small miracles, in a way.’ There is plenty more information on the genesis of the piece online, including a YouTube interview with Sørensen that digs further into that title. What interests me is the concerto’s final gesture: a consonant triad in G minor that suggests reconciliation between the trio and the orchestra – and, by association, the start of something rather than the end of something.

A new optimism
So, I ask, is that form of pregnant and valedictory optimism, which we can detect in a handful of recent works from Sørensen’s pen, the sign of a new, less fragile and less fatalistic phase in his music? ‘People will always want to define you and your work,’ he responds. ‘I once wrote a piece called Funeral Procession. The combination of that title and its very soft music became my signature for a lot of people. Then there was the talk of decay and so on, but I always thought of decay as a very beautiful thing. I wasn’t depressed when I wrote those pieces. I never felt like a composer of Gothic, churchyard Romanticism. I never felt like that at all.’

Can he trace any shifts in his outlook or voice in the last decade, however small? ‘Recently people have said my music has changed completely, but it hasn’t really. It’s just that some things point upwards, as you say. It might be true that my music became different and started to point in a different direction after I met Katrine [the two married in 2016]. But that’s not something I control.’

One tangible effect on Sørensen’s work prompted by Gislinge is the number of piano-focused scores she has drawn from him in the last few years (some recent examples, which certainly don’t disprove the optimism theory, can be found on a Dacapo recording released later this month). Has the close proximity of another musician in his life affected his musical outlook? ‘I think we inspire each other because we both work very hard, and that gives us sort of a kick. Of course Katrine also inspires me because she’s my wife and I love her. I don’t work with her because of that. I work with her because I think she’s an amazing pianist. The process of writing for her is no different to that of writing for anyone else. That doesn’t mean the music won’t become different instinctively.’

Personal impulses have always shaped Sørensen’s works, another process revealed by his titles. He has spoken about the connection between Evening Land and the dusk of his father-in-law Frederik Gislinge’s life, in 2017. He concedes that as in that piece – specifically the valedictory oboe solo – there are numerous personal messages in his scores. ‘The inner soul of the music is the same, but you get a light from something personal,’ he says. ‘I am not someone who can separate life and art.’

‘I always thought of decay as a very beautiful thing. I wasn’t depressed when I wrote those pieces. I never felt like a composer of Gothic, churchyard Romanticism.’

The act of writing
We don’t get many personal or narrative clues from the title of Sørensen’s next major orchestral work, Second Symphony. He has been working on the score, commissioned by the Gothenburg and Danish National Symphony Orchestras and the Oslo Philharmonic, for some years on and off. ‘Symphony is more a title than an explanation of the genre,’ he explains. ‘I’m thinking of it in the same way as I did First Symphony, which was very much a Nordic landscape. It’s connected to the fact that the symphony is something very Nordic. I think of Per Nørgård and Allan Pettersson, Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen. There aren’t many symphonies by Italians.’

Some of the initial sketches for the work, says Sørensen, became Evening Land. ‘There are some similar processes. Evening Land is written in a way that it could be a 40-minute symphony, but it just isn’t.’ He admits that ‘to write those big orchestral pages [by hand] is a struggle, but I don’t feel the stress anymore. I only say yes to something if I feel I can write it tomorrow.’ Does he suffer from block? ‘Yes, always. And it’s terrible. But I know the situation. I know whether or not it’s a commission I have to give up on.’

Perhaps the fear of getting stuck is negated by the knowledge that such obstacles are part of the process. ‘It’s difficult to describe, but you sit down and work on something, and you know it’s really bad. But then a tiny detail will change it from the worst piece in the world to the best piece in the world, and that allows you to continue. In some ways there should be a lack of control; it’s a difficult balance because structure and method tend to make your music bigger than you thought it would be. The happiness comes when you feel that the raw materials suddenly have a way of fitting together within that structure.’

Writing by hand helps Sørensen to digest those materials. ‘It relaxes you,’ he says. ‘You look at your material as if from other eyes and you see how it could be better. And I can’t hear my music if I can’t see it.’ It is also a way of making progress while inspiration is slow. ‘A student came to me for advice recently; he had been asked to write a choral piece but had no idea where to start. I told him to do two things. First, read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, because that novel is so endless that somewhere along the line you will start to think of other things. Second, go to the library, borrow some Ockeghem choral music and just copy it down. It will get some notes moving on the page and it will be boring enough to get you thinking about your own music.’

Crescendo or diminuendo?
Certain Sørensen students appear to have picked up on his music’s essence of distillation – its sparse, windblown textures. His talk of the Nordic symphony leads to a discussion of those northern composers who distilled their material to such an extent that it evaporated altogether, leaving only silence.

Do we hear the legacy of that now, in young Danish composers whose scores make such little noise? ‘There is a certain fear for young composers, but that’s the way they find their voice. You avoid any kind of melody, any kind of tonality, any kind of pitch. You’re left with just noise, and then even the noise disappears and you have silence. It’s almost a yogic process, getting the clean white paper you need to write on.’

What does he say to the suggestion that his own music is becoming quieter? ‘I actually think the opposite. My music from the last century is often pianissimo and at high registers. I think more and more I am finding the low register and fortissimo chords. Perhaps I am afraid of my music disappearing. I often get a terrible sorrow after it is played, especially after the best performances. I think, “why can’t I keep this? Why can’t I own it?”’

Ownership is one thing, permanence another. The Grawemeyer Award will go some way to bestowing the latter upon L’isola della Città. Coming so quickly after Hans Abrahamsen’s receipt of the same accolade two years ago, it has yet again underlined Denmark’s international prowess when it comes to writing music. ‘I can’t say anything about us having the best composers; that’s not what I’m meant to say. All I can say is that it’s great to get the prize,’ says Sørensen, slightly uncomfortably. But an alternative view is that Denmark’s free education system ensures the best talent meets the best tuition. ‘That’s true,’ he admits. ‘It’s not a matter of whether your father has a lot of money, it’s a matter of talent. I hope that will continue.’

Which raises the issue of cuts to the education budget at a time when the Danish government has unveiled a strategy for chasing Nobel prizes – ironic, given the Grawemeyer has been referred to as a ‘Nobel for composers’. ‘Denmark is a country that lives off its education,’ says Sørensen. ‘We don’t have gold or oil or coal mines, but we have a lot of hard-working people and we have a lot of intelligence. Cutting education is the worst thing you can do to a society; it is destroying the future. It is cutting down the tree you are sitting in.’

Further reading:

L’isola della città
Bent Sørensen’s long-awaited new Triple Concerto is heard at last, but does it tell us anything new about the composer, Andrew Mellor asks in his review of the world premiere, 24.01.2016

Beyond the downward droops
Bent Sørensen has long been described as a composer of death and decline. Maybe that is just because we’re echoing already established interpretations, Andrew Mellor writes, 11.10.2016