On the balance between shattered mirrors and arch-formed sound mosaics
Under the name Frisk Frugt, multi-instrumentalist and composer Anders Lauge Meldgaard (born 1980) has put together three albums. Det Store Kødhoved (CD-R, 2004), Guldtrompeten (2006) and Dansktoppen møder Burkina Faso i det himmelblå rum hvor solen bor, suite (2010). These three albums are characterised by a stylistic and aesthetic heterogeneity. On Det Store Kødhoved and Guldtrompeten, a lack of cohesion is characteristic of a very versatile musical material and this seems to be the desired effect for an Avant-gardist experimenting with forms and expressions. It is curious, provocative and charmingly incomplete. On Dansktoppen møder Burkina Faso i det himmelblå rum hvor solen bor, suite Meldgaard draws more on his experience from the Danish experimental jazz and rock scene, merging it with inspiration from a northwest African musical tradition. The silhouette of a composer with an international perspective, one who walks his own path and trusts his own intuition, seems to outline a figure able to withstand the changes of time. Such a figure could suggest what, perhaps too ambitiously, might be termed a composer of globalisation: A traveller in sounds and sound signifiers in the age of globalisation - an acounaut1.
On the fourth album, Den Europæiske Spejlbue, inspirations from African music have been replaced by a more inquisitive look at the European musical tradition. Over the last decade Meldgaard has shown a profound desire to travel: He has toured in Japan, The United States, Great Britain, travelled around in Burkina Faso and Mali where he took lessons with the master kora player Toumani Diabaté. He has toured with the Japanese drummer Senju Muneomi and with the Hungarian musician and composer Lukas Ligeti – son of György Ligeti. Just home from a three-week trip to China with his art collective Yoyooyoy, Rasmus Graff and Claus Haxholm, Meldgaard shares his considerations regarding the composing of Den Europæiske Spejlbue (DES). The interview takes off with the theme of the both elegant and quite indecipherable album title.
What does Den Europæiske Spejlbue mean?
Trying to translate this Danish title into English seems completely nonsensical. As is always the problem with translations, meanings and nuances are lost. A quick word-to-word translation illuminates that the word ‘europæisk’ means European and spejlbue is a combination of the two words spejl and bue, individually they would be translated into mirror and arch. The result is ‘The European Mirror Arch’ - though this translation possibly lacks the slightly poetic and semantic playfulness that the word composition brings about in Danish. Nevertheless, let us examine which references the title offers as a framework for Meldgaard’s new music.
Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen used to have a mirror cabinet, full of mirrors that would distort and deform objects brought in front of them. Typing spejlbue on google.dk brings forth a car dealer’s web page. A picture is shown of a bent metal frame, used to keep a wing-mirror fixed onto the side of an automobile. The picture shows an elegant and small periscope, like the ones you can use to look around corners without being detected. Obviously, Meldgaard’s use of the word spejlbue does not refer to any kind of already existing object, but must be understood figuratively as a metaphor, but a metaphor for what? ”You can hear it on the album”, Meldgaard claims with a sly smile, and elaborates that this metaphor probably should be understood in several ways. We examine a couple of possibilities.
One is that the title is inspired by the designation of a specific musical form, an arch form. A simple explanation of what an arch form is can be plainly illustrated by the musical sequence of A-B-C-D-C-B-A. This musical sequence moves as an upward curve towards a climactic point, a mirroring point (D in this case), then the curve descends bringing the music back to its starting point. An arch form is thereby a kind of musical structure, which in the case of DES, extends over an hour of music (59 minutes). Meldgaard emphasises that the arch form does not manifest itself in a rigid and consistent way on DES - it is primarily for inspiration. Moreover, the arch form manifests itself indirectly, in how the musical themes and motifs are being treated and processed, by repeatedly being related to a desired overall musical form. The small melodic motifs and themes the music consists of, continuously relate to each other and thus repeatedly send out small threads or ‘arches’ in different directions, to other parts of the album, as on-going thematic and motivic musical comments.
The metaphor spejlbue can thus illustrate that small melodic motifs and themes are being mirrored, inverted, reflected etc, in the musical material, across the arched form, consequently contributing to the shaping of the overall musical form of the album. Unfortunately no scores are published, so we must use our ears in order to perceive Meldgaard’s way of using the arch form.
So, the title makes a reference to a certain musical form. What interpretations can be made in connection to the apparently cultural and geographical ties this spejlbue has to the continent of Europe? What makes it ‘European’?
To Meldgaard, the title plays with a reference to the previous Frisk Frugt album, ”Dansktoppen møder Burkina Faso”, in the sense that the compositional process of the new album is based on a reflection on the previous process. The compositional and aesthetic starting point, on the previous album, was inspired by the foreign and the exotic – by the outward journey. This time the starting point is more the opposite – inspiration is drawn from the intimate and homely. ‘The European’ thus mirrors ‘the African’ but is a reflection that should be conceived as very open to interpretation, Meldgaard explains: ”It is just one element in the concept of the album and other ideas can arise around it. DES is not a musical or thematic continuation of the previous album.”
The title Den Europæiske Spejlbue hence refers to a compositional method that connects the thematic and motivic treatments with a certain understanding of form, an arch form, which Meldgaard has taken from a European musical tradition. Thereby he shows historical affiliations to this tradition, while consciously emphasising that the connection is a matter of interpretation, and a matter of reflecting on the modern compositional process. In Meldgaard’s production, a shift is thereby experienced towards a more conscious use of European-minded artistic discussions. Discussions that thematise the synthetic opposite the natural, the mechanical opposite the organic, chance opposite control. As a recipient, I experience that Meldgaard, on DES, has an ambition to keep a voluminous artistic curiosity in balance, without allowing himself to be derailed by the avant-garde tradition of radicalism and rupture. It is a humble way of dealing with the possibilities inherent in the musical material, and a sensitive way of embracing a wide range of artistic and compositional themes.
With this album, you can let your ears and thought-constructions swim in a sea of details, let your ears be filled with beautiful illustrations from a musical coral reef, while an organ grinder, as a historian of the unconscious, can be heard playing far away on the beach.
Do the birds sing along?
The conversation turns to the question of how Meldgaard finds his musical building blocks. There are twelve tracks, or collages, on DES. Many of the melodic motifs used, remind me of birdsong. The French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) integrated birdsong directly into his works, so it seems obvious to ask Meldgaard if he has collected his motifs from any place specific? Maybe, from nature surrounding us?
Anders Lauge Meldgaard [ALM]: "There may be a parallel between having some little fragment of melody as a kind of analogy for birdsong, but nothing has been directly translated, like Messiaen who listened to the birds and wrote it down. My way of working is not as concrete. I have been fascinated by the idea of having a little motif that you can toss and turn, letting it emerge in another instrument, another place. Like having small distinguishing marks or small ‘emblems’ that can appear and rotate, change colour, return and be different. I think that is very fascinating and you may well say this has something to do with nature, that things echo each other. If you stroll in the woods or something, a bird sings over here and suddenly the same song comes from over there [Meldgaard points in the other direction] and perhaps again somewhere else later."
"But," Meldgaard continues, "that was also a method I used on the Burkina Faso album – that things emerge from different places. I also think it is about the process of experimenting with some melodies you are especially fond of in a certain period, and then testing them, in different musical contexts. You study how they behave and function within different parts of the music."
Whilst I might (mis)interpret birdsong into several of the melodic motifs, it seems that several mechanical birds are singing in this music, and the mechanical birds’ beautiful song is reminiscent of natural birdsong. Writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) used the encounter between art and nature as a theme in his fairytale The Nightingale from 1843 and this exact theme seems very present on DES. The conversation moves towards how Meldgaard has produced and arranged the new album.
The fantasy orchestra: The duality between the completely synthetic and the wildly natural
When Meldgaard was interviewed by the British music magazine, The Quietus, in 2012, he said: ”I have the idea that you can explore the whole universe without leaving your living room - it's just a matter of imagination” (and perhaps an internet connection?). A composition thus commences in the imagination, whereby a vivid imagination becomes the most important foundation for a composer – as I interpret Meldgaard.
The production of DES has been based on what Meldgaard quite pedagogically has named ‘a fantasy orchestra’. ‘Orchestra’ is a strong word, because although Frisk Frugt is currently touring with a twelve-piece band (Frisk Frugt & The Splendours of Love Orchestra), the sheer volume of the recording material makes it impossible to convert it into a concert format. ‘Orchestra’ is also misleading, since the recordings of real musicians never involved them actually playing together. But, the term is meaningful in the sense of a simulation of an orchestra, a kind of virtual musical ensemble. On DES, an exciting compositional strategy seems absolutely central to the artistic expression: the attempt to link a simple, Danish-language songwriting (as part of a European melodic harmonic tradition) to, on most tracks, a complex use of an avant-gardistic collage technique. I ask Meldgaard whether a combination of simple songwriting and the collage technique has contributed to the development of the imaginary ‘fantasy orchestra’?
ALM: "I wanted to compose the music very thoroughly this time, make it more organised and not so ‘jammed’. On the previous album, it was more about doing it all myself, with various synthetic sounds and keyboards, samplers, etc. I was able to record myself playing every instrument. On the new album the attempt has been to make some arrangements that could go beyond my own limitations. Try to slow down and actually write music for a flute and then find someone who could play it."
Bjarke Porsmose [BP]: "So you have given up playing most of the instruments on this album?"
ALM: "Yes, in some ways, because I have been more engaged in writing the music, in experimenting with that part of the process. I made different arrangements for the songs to find out how a song would behave under certain circumstances. I’ve spent a long time trying things out.”
Twelve musicians have been recorded playing the acoustic instruments (bassoon, trombone, flute, violin, tuba, oboe, percussion, vocals). Some recordings have been manipulated, others have been dubbed, some have been made into samples etc. In several cases, Meldgaard has added synthetic sound characteristics to these recordings. All instruments are recorded layer upon layer, and both the acoustic and synthetic tracks have been further manipulated, edited and continuously processed in the computer with Meldgaard recording additional sounds from his homebuilt instruments - including a flute organ and a midi-controlled harpsichord. Is there a specific reason why these exact instruments appear on the album?
ALM: "The reason why it’s these instruments is also part of why I call it a fantasy orchestra. It is obviously not Frisk Frugt with a sinfonietta. It is a fantasy orchestra because it is created in a studio. I wanted to build something up that was in between two worlds. Try to find a result that could be called a fantasy orchestra, because it can only exist as a fantasy and not in reality. Something within that field of tension between the completely synthetic and wildly natural. But it actually is not two very different worlds, today the border between them is extremely fluid."
It can be difficult to differentiate between the synthetic and acoustic instruments on the album: the two sonic aesthetics flow together and one must surrender to an ‘opaque’ experience of sounds. Meldgaard speaks of two worlds that meet, whereby an intended musical ‘confrontation’ between the acoustic and the more artificial timbres is emphasised. No news in that, in principle, but Meldgaard is able to ‘manage’ this confrontation in an interesting way it seems e.g. by manipulating sampled instruments that are or sound acoustic, enabling himself to control them electronically, by running them through a midi-harpsichord. Somehow this seems to strongly affect my musical perception in a strange way.
An element of sonic opacity is thus present in the music and often escorted by a portion of something slightly uncontrollable, a kind of madness. An, at times, almost comic madness that constantly seems to interact and relate to the order and harmony that is continuously trying to establish itself in the aesthetic tension between the synthetic and the organic. Madness is present in the foundation of several of the songs. There are elements of chance music and rhythmic sequences with no fixed structure, entering as earthquakes in the songs’ foundation. Meldgaard explains that the album also contains elements of generative music.
ALM: "Some of the textures are made with different kinds of computer equipment. My brother [Kristian Lauge Meldgaard] and I have made a little piece of software, which is used in the very first song, a small generative computer program. It is a development of John Conway’s mathematical system called ‘Game of Life’. We have converted this into a small ‘grid’ that consists of a lot of cells, and each cell contains a sound. The system is generative because some simple rules decide whether a cell is either alive or dead. It also looks beautiful. We call our program ‘Cellular Sounds’ and stuff like that is used on the album. There are also generative systems on some of the other songs, but made in other ways, more with midi-controllers etc. For example in ‘Solhyldest 2. Del’, the texture is a generative system running as a kind of background carpet to the song."
BP: ”Chance and generative elements are integrated into the music to create musical background carpets? Is this supposed to make the listener feel insecure and to dissolve the forms?”
ALM: "I think many of the forms are complex in some way. I've experimented a lot with the forms. Many of the songs are reasonably simple - melodically, harmonically, etc. - but one of the ideas was to explore how to dissolve a very simple song and then reassemble it again in new ways. Sometimes the song is audible, but camouflaged. Generally it’s about ‘crossing the path’ of the song by playing around with the arrangements, trying to reach a form where the song is more freely expressed."
The synthetic and the organic aesthetics operate as contrasts being moulded together as the result of some kind of imagined power struggle in the music. Another contrast is the composed opposite the improvised, Meldgaard notes. The idea that fixed motifs are continuously exposed to improvisation, helps maintain an important duality that creates suspense and propulsion, he remarks. It would be problematic to claim that improvisation equals the organic and composition equals the artificial, we agree. These different elements could rather be seen as different ‘positions’ in a power struggle, making the music into a sonic battleground of the imagination.
Travelling to the past to get to the future
The last topic is the lyrics. They are based on a kind of 'vitalism' (which Meldgaard has been told it might be called). But why this form of lyricism? Do certain thoughts or ideas underpin the lyrics on DES?
ALM: "The idea is that a new positive development could come from returning to a more naturalistic point of view. It is, for example, very exciting to think about how it was before Christianity made its entrance in Europe and how it would be today, without its huge influence on European culture. I wanted to work with lyrics that, in one way or another, could point to something more fundamental, almost as a kind of earth religion. Where one would celebrate the sun and celebrate the birds. It was a conscious decision to sing about this, since I am of the opinion that some hidden treasures may lie kept in these things. Some very simple and powerful information, I think can be useful in rethinking, or can at least contribute to, the shaping of a good future. You travel to the past, to before many things began, making it possible to enter the future in a better way, or to achieve a better future."
BP: "So your lyrics are based on assumptions of something ‘pre-modern’, you want to bring into the present, in an attempt to use these assumptions to perceive the world today in a new way?"
ALM: "The idea behind it is that it can help shaping a better future perhaps. Better to say how could it be, looking forward. It is not a political statement, it’s more like an idea. It's a way to say something, a way to perceive the world, a focus that emphasises a particular type of perspective."
Meldgaard doesn’t propose how this type of perspective should be realised, so it remains a matter of interpretation, which perceptions Meldgaard wants to pass on. Interpretations of music are, as in so many other relationships of human communication and interaction, problematic to encapsulate with words. In ‘Fuglens Flugt’ Meldgaard sings something, in Danish, like: "One who catches the bird does not capture the bird's flight" and "One who catches the bird, does not catch the fragrance of the flower". Meldgaard’s rewriting of the Danish concrete poet Vagn Steen's lines illustrates this problem: In the attempt to seize one thing another is lost. When attention is directed towards one point, others step out of sight. Thus, this is also the case in this interview.
With an intuition, sometimes bordering the calculated, Anders Lauge Meldgaard has composed an hour of music that is extremely complex, but not incomprehensible. He seems focused on communicating and maintaining a musical equilibrium despite integrating a large number of artistic techniques and aesthetic elements and contrasts. Individually, most of us seek to achieve balance in our ‘Game of Life’, in the ‘game’ where everything can disappear at short notice and most of it has already vanished into the lost world of the past before any of us got the chance to be acquainted with it. Meldgaard has succeeded in the acrobatic act of maintaining an artistic balance, in a musical borderland that very easily could have left his music alienating or ‘just’ radical and avant-garde - as a mirror of meaning, shattered into countless pieces. Instead, as a musical glazier, he gathers fragments of fragile, broken reflections into an arch-formed sound mosaic. Den Europæiske Spejlbue becomes a musical Mecca for interpretations that, at the same time, wish to instill meaning and positivity into the realisation apparatus of its audience. It's an album this recipient can return to for years to come, feel enriched by and in good company. Thanks for the conversation!
- 1. The term acounaut is a combination of the greek word for ’hearing a sound’ akoē and nautēs, the word for ’skipper’. A proper thanks to cand.theol., Ph.D., Uffe Holmsgaard Eriksen for helping with the Greek words.