In the Decaying Gardens
Bent Sørensen on his Violin Concerto Sterbende Giirten
by Bent Sørensen
One gray and rainy spring day in 1992 ,1 found myself in an old, overgrown garden. The house with the garden had long since been abandoned. In the dense undergrowth and vines, I could make out the contours of the framework that once controlled this refined piece of garden culture. The encounter with the overgrown garden left me in the same mood you can get into when looking at time-worn photos of unknown people long since departed. This strange mood was the initial inspiration for my violin concerto.
Besides my immediate fascination with the tone of decay, and my confrontation with the cracking abilities of time, I experienced the garden as a parallel to some essential qualities of my own music. The part about fixed contours holding together a dissolved, decayed interior is, of course, impossible to transfer directly to music. Nevertheless, it's here that I see the parallel.
In the early bars of the concerto, the long, simple melodies are essentially in complete unison, with a clear and distinct direction, but the individual notes and melodic lines are crackled by glissandi, interferences, held notes, echoes, etc., in order for the simple, clear melody to end up as a hetero-phonic line or polyphonic mass. The major movements and the skeleton remain intact and still maintain clarity, even though affected by the obscuring details.
I had an illuminating experience a few years ago when listening to my chamber ensemble piece, Shadowland, played at double speed on a tape recorder. In the same way high speed will make the cuts between the separate frames of a movie film disappear,
Shadowland's murky micro-world was completely smoothed out and siphoned into the fixed contours of the piece, which now seemed even more fixed and were all you could hear. Listening to Shadowland at double speed convinced me that the contours were correctly cut, but that, by the same token, they couldn't do without the slow unclarity that's become an important element of my music.
A small melody emerged. I worked on it, wrote it down, and filed it away as the first trace of my violin concerto. Later, it became the first melodic sentence of the solo violin part
I know that parts of the music world condemn any glorification of "unclarity" as heretical, nor do I myself much care for overly well-groomed and "clear" gardens either; with the fertile, unkempt and preferably somewhat decaying plantlife within fixed architectural frames, you create the most beautiful and enlightening of gardens. Clarity should be created within the firmness of contours, whether you're dealing with music or gardening arts.
All this business about gardens in relation to my violin concerto might not have had such significance for me had I not, during the summer of 1991, in the midst of working on my large solo, choral and orchestral work, The Echoing Garden, moved to a house in the country with a garden where even the contours were hard to spot.
I've said enough about gardens now; at least enough to give an idea of how the violin concerto got the last word of its title. The first word -Sterbende - is so much harder to account for directly, that I'll choose not to.
The first real sketch for Sterbende Giirten (Decaying Gardens) actually came six months earlier than my experience with the garden. In the fall of 1991, while working on The Echoing Garden, a small melody emerged. I continued working on it, wrote it down, and filed it away in a drawer as the first trace of my violin concerto. Later, as I began the actual work of the concerto, it became the first melodic sentence of the solo violin part. The melody, which is simple and instantly tonal, derives from a melodic structure I had also worked with in The Echoing Garden, in which the individual melodic intervals keep on reflecting inward in almost fractal patterns. As previously indicated, the melody becomes the common thread around which the orchestra spins a veil, off which it forms shadows and echoes. The music is quite dense. Mostly it moves in the higher registers, from where it takes sudden plunges into the depths, a chaotic world ruled by lions' roars, double-bass pizzicati and their ilk.
The second part of the first movement opens with a quite hushed cadence reminiscent more of an echo-choral of distant melodies. I personally have a feeling that it "takes place at night," based on the near complete silence out here in the country where I live.
I often work best at night myself, and as often as not it's on the edge of silence that my fascination is awakened for real: when the birds waken, first one, suddenly: two, suddenly: silence, three, many, silence, one, suddenly: many and chaos, etc. I couldn't transfer this awakening of birds to my Sterbende Garten - and there was no reason to, either - but it's one of the reasons for the oblique, strongly distorted and static bird whistling that appears and overlies the cadence of the solo violin. The movement, like the birds, ends in a chaotic bustle of notes with stippling waves.
I'd been working on Sterbende Garten for almost six months and had actually written only the first half of the first movement when, in the fall of 1992,1 left for a study period in Venice. I brought with me scattered sketches and ideas for what would become the second movement of the concerto, which would come close to resembling a classical (crackled) romance with can-tabile melodies and small, simple choral fragments almost drowning in their own echoes.
It was on one of my many walks through this city, Venice - in a both wonderful and somewhat disquieting way the epitome of decay within fixed borders - that I got the idea of creating the framework of the movement in the form of a simple barcarole. I don't think I heard a single barcarole sung in Venice, but - particularly in the evening - you can constantly hear the slow-rocking rhythm a-la Barcarole in the water.
The music of the second movement is tender. The solo violin is in charge, with romance-like melodies - again controlled by a "choral series" in which the individual third always functions as dominant to the following third, which again is dominant to the one following, which creates a perpetual wandering from tonic to new tonic, etc.
Venice and its barcaroles still grip my fascination. In the piece on which Fm currently working, my fourth string quartet, the melancholy but strangely desperate barcarole of the violin concerto has become an ominous, quarter-note distorted "Lugubre Gondola.1'
The second and final movement of the violin concerto are played attacca via the frenzied accelerando of a few measures. Here, I must point to a work out of history that's been a direct inspiration for this transition, namely, Schumann's Violin Concerto, a wonderfully peculiar and unduly overlooked masterpiece.
The final movement is an estam-pida, a conclusion almost like a "medieval dance" with simple and sometimes static rhythmic patterns. It's a type of movement that has followed me - and haunted me - nearly throughout reproduction, since the time I heard a lone, busking violinist in front of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam playing an intense, inexplicable devil's dance. It's an aggressive sound inspired by folk music full of drone notes and sliding interferences that Fm still searching for, and which more and more has become "my own" imaginary sound. For how else to explain all the things I remember from back then played on a single violin - unless it really was the devil playing that day in Amsterdam?
Another inspiration for the movement were the lightning-quick bats that I sometimes glimpse across my yard in the evening and at night, a nocturnal dance with the density of a scream!
Translated by Glen Garner