Let the Bells Peal- The Musical Idiom of Anders Hultqvist

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| DMT Årgang 69 (1994-1995) nr. 01 - side 28-31

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'The profuse spectrum of overtones of the metal bell shines like a rainbow high over the strings' heavy prime tones that lie deep in the lower resonances. The bells peal from on high.'


by Björn Billing

We will be considering Time and the silent lamentations, the rose and the invocation. We'll be listening to the clear peal of bells and the vegetative melancholy of the strings, and we'll be confronted with the interplay between the brutal and the sensual.

These symbols or themes will serve as points of departure for the following reflections on, ox:proposal for, an exploration of Anders Hultqvist's musical idiom, a foray which takes us both eastwards and back in time to Bach, the Middle Ages, and to the musical theory of antiquity. And we will be knocking at the door of T.S. Eliot's literary universe as well.

To approach Anders Hultqvist's music is to approach Time itself. Such a claim may seem banal, since of course all composers are sculptors or architects in Time and Space. But some to a higher degree than others are conscious of, or explicitly concerned with, the vexing problems of Time's dimensions, how various concepts of Time relate to each other, how the chronometer's time and psychological time can be manifested and contrasted in sonorous music.

It can be said that all composers work in Time, while some also work with, and perhaps, against Time. In any case, Hultqvist (b. 1955) belongs to the latter category. The traces of his studies and reflections about the Time phenomenon are seldom directly perceptible in his works but must be sought with subtler hermeneutical instruments.

Time speaks to us through the clock, and by means of the clock we speak to each other about Time. The Swedish word 'klocka' has a fortuitous double meaning: the clock which measures out Time and the pealing cone of metal, the bell.

The latter contains the former: the pealing bell is 'mensura' and 'musica' in one. In poems such as Poe's The Bells, Goethe's Die wandelnde Glocke, Schiller's Lied von der Glocke, it is plain how strong a symbol the bell is, what diametrically opposite signals it can send, indeed, what Time itself can send. In music, in Hultqvist's music in particular, the pealing of bells plays a crucial role, the significance of which first reveals itself in relation to the other elements, in fact, to all the other elements. The musical sign is created out of the diversity of the other signs, to put it in structuralist terms. Interpreting the significance of the bells is a way of uncovering and interpreting the other elements. And its opposite, the dying antipodal of the pealing of the bells: can that be the song that spins its melodic thread in unpredictable directions, for an indefinite space of time? It could very well be so.

'Disparities on Equalities'

The pealing sound is the bell, hovering freely in the fateful air. Song is the touch of the string on bow - a voice, a painful friction. The first are the individual points, the latter a line which ties them together. Both play contrapunctally as both vertical synchronic time and horizontal dia-chronic time. And between them a defined space with infinite possibilities for creating music which, according to Hultqvist's own definition - presumably borrowed from Gregory Bateson -is "a hierarchical structure of disparities on equalities."

The ring of the bell and the song of the bow, point and line, opposite poles certainly, but not mutually repellant. It's rather like seeing two aspects of the same temporal phenomenon. Two aspects in one: the ringing and the song in an acoustic space, putting time in relief. In Hultqvist's music they have different psychological and purely metaphorical - but complimentary dialectical - modes.

The song of the strings distends its vocal lines in vegetative, heavy arabesques, lines that strive to be nature, earth. These distended, expressive line patterns strive to suspend the moment. They bear potential within themselves, the yet-to-be. It's as if the bow's intimate contact with the string will preserve forever a last iota of nature against the erosion of history. The bow's song becomes a metaphor for creation, or better, a metaphor for the beauty of the created, an innocent breach in the consciousness of entropy whose dividedness triumphs in step with the ephemeral existence of the created. A sentimental desire, a hopeless vision. In Hultqvist's music, therefore, the strings often have a pronounced elegiac ring which, when it comes down to it, is not as simple as it sounds. Alongside the signature of 'melankoli' is also 'beatitudo', the archetypal mixture of pain and joy of the forbidden sight Eurydice confronts in the underworld.

The bell, on the other hand, is withdrawn from the possibility of creation. The voice of the bow is always open. Time is open to choice - myriads of possible modes of articulation surround every moment. Even the most dramatic choice - to be or not to be - is always an option. The voice of the bow need not hold its breath forever in order to be present. It can rest in its own created condition. It's another story for the ring of the bell, which is determined from the first moment. It can only ring out in agreement with its own fixed rules. Its ontological movements resemble the bow's mirror image: the bell is present and past, the here-and-now and the have-been.

The clock does not preserve time; it divides it up. It measures it out. For Hultqvist, the pealing of bells represents the antipodal to the strings' concrete aspirations. Through the instrumentation of his music - crotales, cymbals, gongs, harps, bells, vibraphones, celestas and pianos - they already form the Elysian mechanics stretching out towards the holy spaces of the Gothic arches. Aland of 'musica mundana', in the words of Boethius. For the pure metal of the bell is not meant for the human hands of ordinary mortals in the way that the violin and bow of perishable wood arc. The bell does not even come into direct contact with the hand, but another piece of metal has to play a mediating role. It is not a part of the lower regions of 'musica instru-mentalis' where the violin is the Devil's most dangerous tool of seduction. The metaphor can be made sharper still: the profuse spectrum of overtones of the metal bell shines like a rainbow high over the strings' heay prime tones that lie deep in the lower resonances. The bells peal from on high.

A Janus Face

Like the strings' melancholy song, the divine chiming of the bells also has a Janus face. That turned towards the cosmic dimensions, civilization and rationality which the bell can be said to symbolize - we need but consider the ceremonial status of church bells throughout Christian history and the chronometer's sway over our everyday lives - and that turned towards the sullied, childlike reference to the products of humanity, of the created nature. The scholastics' 'Natura naturata.'

The ambiguous use of metaphor -the strings' song and the bells' pealing as its antithesis or mirror image - is not at all far removed from the actual music (which, of course, is never particularity concrete). One possible line of interpretation through the labyrinth of metaphors is to take Hultqvist at his word when he says that "music can at best be a metaphor for the metapho-rized in general." Nor is the tendency towards the archaic in my speculations grabbed totally out of the blue.

Hultqvist gazes out time and again past the horizons of history in a bid to test the preliminary postures of his own role as an artist, both as a Nordic and a carrier of a tradition. Among modern poets like Gunnar Ekelof, Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson and Arild Nyqvist we find the literary sources in which Hultqvist has found inspiration. His interest in the 13th century poet Giacomo da Lentini, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare and John Donne testify to his search through history. Hultqvist's soundings in both the time dimension and in cultural history reveal his closer affinity with the more nearly contemporary writer, T.S. Eliot.

Eliot's work has marked Hultqvist's artistic development in a variety of ways, ranging from the purely superficial to the ethereal spheres of his music. The poet's presence is pronounced in the long piece Urban Rituals and the Strange Attractor (1993) for instruments, computer and tape. In it Eliot's own voice is heard in cuttings and slightly modified form. Hultqvist's A Moment in the Rose Garden (1987-89) for soprano, mezzosoprano and chamber ensemble is a musical rendition of Eliot's Burnt Norton from Four Quartets. And so is the orchestral piece Time and the Bell (1988) and Safirer i dy (1988) for brass orchestra. The author's close association with music is no secret. For example, the title of his major work, Four Quartets, refers to the string quartet form, and literary theorists have tried to decipher a structural relationship between these poems and Beethoven's and Bartok's later quartets. Music is present explicitly or implicitly in the major part of Eliot's writings. He himself considers the relationship - especially when it comes to metrics, scansion and intonation - in his famous essay The Music of Poetry. And his assured command of musicial elements should be apparent to anyone who has heard Eliot recite his own works. In this Eliot was somewhat indebted to his friend and colleague, Ezra Pound.

Dialogue With Time

In his own neo-Olympic and, at the same time almost Cabalistically informed way, Eliot carried on a dialogue with times past, as well as with Time, continually coming towards us only to move away from us again. A critical and constructive dialogue, not only with history - via references to myth, the Middle Ages and antiquity - but also, and perhaps most significantly, a dialogue with Time and about Time as an ontological and existential category. But neither in Hultqvist nor in Eliot do the archaic overtones have a regressive tendency, or anything even reminiscent of romantic, nostalgic escapism or the dream of the Cathedral's or the Parthenon's eternal cosmology.

"Consider the future and the past with an equal mind," writes Eliot in Four Quartets. Seek the uncompro-mised focus of art and being in the eternal now, or in Eliot's words: "The still point of the turning world." One point of cieparture is movement. To read Eliot's poetry is to open a series of Chinese boxes containing counterpointed levels of meaning in which a steadily growing complexity generates a steadily more pure and immediate experience. We must not stretch the analogy between Eliot and Hultqvist further than it will bear, however. But both the theme and the thematic direction of the two artists' various projects seem to be similar. By taking note of Hultqvist's reasoning throughout his researches into natural phenomena such as chaos and fractals, and his aesthetic references to writers and philosophers and so on, one discovers some interesting relationships, indicating that the supposed relationship to Eliot cannot be rejected out of hand.

A renewed, or perhaps even a new point of deparmre: Hultqvist is seeking the key to escape from the traps of post-serialism and the vulgar eclecticism of post-modernist music. Such a point of departure should open up more than ephemeral speculations and trends without, however, ending in fundamentalist and authoritarian standpoints. In Hultqvist's own words: "Avoid the stylistic figure and go to the core of the matter, into the musical sign itself, and by this means strive to be lifted to a higher level." It's tempting to add the words of Eliot: "To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern." {FourQuartets.) So much for visions. Let's hear what the music has to say.

The double concerto, Incantatio (Variations on a variation, 1992) for violin, cello and orchestra unites the results of his researches with the thematic, the artistic and the mystic through movement, the ritualistic. The piece is informed by a wide variety of sources - a cymbal clash lasting five or six minutes, and a recording of Glenn Gould playing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations No. 25. The latter is the tragic and stately variation in minor which, with its straying chromatics and nomadic modulations, forms the antipodal to the transparent Goldberg theme.

Typical Fractal Pattern

The cymbal clash has undergone a spectral analysis which reveals the spectrum of the partial tones and their dynamic relationships. The Bach recording also is analyzed by computer, employing such techniques as phase space delineation and Poincare cross-sections. Hultqvist provides a simplified explanation of the terminology: "A dynamic event - for example, music or ripples on the surface of water - can be delineated in a so-called phase space, which provides a picture of the changes in dynamics and shows the events as a kind of string. The Poincare cross-section cuts through all these stings, something like the way a knife cuts a slice of bread. Or better: the strings are cut in the way you would slice a bundle of yarn, and afterwards examine the cross-section of the sliced bundle. A characteristic fractal pattern emerges, which is also the case for many natural phenomena. You realize that nature organizes itself in a special way. There is a sort of order in chaos."

The technical details at this rudimentary stage are of less interest, and the step to the aesthetic choices is great. Hultqvist, however, thought it interesting that he could find remarkable statistical equalities between the cymbal clash and Bach - yet another confirmation of how natural Bach's composition technique was. The relationships and connections between the two clash sources led to their forming the starting point for Incantatio, in so far as they play with and against each other in order to bring forth the dramaturgy the composer always strives for: the contrast and tension between the brutal and the sensual.

It must be emphasized that both sound sources are material, or materia, which is entirely different than 'theme1, in classical terms. Consequently, the clash of the cymbals cannot be heard (as cymbal clashes). The Goldberg Variations, though, make themselves apparent first and foremost by means of their pronounced chromatics and the hop in scale by a sixth.

In the score, the Incantations title is explained by an item in the English etymological dictionary. "Incantation", from incantare (See ENCHANT), a formula, said or sung, supposed to add force to magical ceremonies, a charm."

Let us first recapitulate: the ringing of bells as markers of time, the melancholy lamentation of the strings as the preserver of voice. Where is the signature of movement? The shamanistic pulsing of the drums? No, that would be too obvious. We often run into ritual as a category in Hultqvist's other musical conceptions, and when it comes to Incantatio, the possibilities for interpretation are legion.

Repetition's Role

The rhythmic-repetitive is, of course, by definition a central element in the archetypal invocation and ritual. The word crit' goes via the Latin 'ritus' back to the Greek 'arithmos', which means number. Ritual, rhythm and number are of one and the same substance. Repetition also plays a vital role in Incantatio, for example, the strings' even sixths (measure 46ff, 268ff and elsewhere). More important, though, are the circulating moments. We find them amid the bell clangs - celeste, harps, chimes, gongs, tubular bells and vibraphone (measure 86ff) - but also in the other groups of instruments centered around the symetrical, chromatic figure derived from the Goldberg Variations, for example, D-E-flat-D-C-sharp (measure 109 ff).

We come across a dramatic variant in the final section: a chromatically descending sequence of six tones in various rhythmatizations stacked on top of each other. The sequence is repeated cyclically again and again with minor variations of register. The orchestra virtually rotates, pulled down towards the bottom of an imaginary all-embracing maelstrom.

Here we encounter the 17th and 18th century rhetorical tradition -which also applied in Bach's day -known as 'circulatio' and 'katabasis'. We are confronting the inevitable fate of having to descend into the flames of Hell. Or perhaps to go down to Hades on a more hopeful errand? To demonstrate the power of beautiful song and the light? The descending chromatic sequence ends in fact with an opening, a glimpse of the light.

Bells Signal Perpeti

The harp - or rather the lyre - comes to the fore. And naturally, this perpeti can be signaled in only one way: with bells. Possibly it is an announcement that the downward pull of gravity has already been overcome, since from this turning point (measure 478) the register is entirely 'de coeli', and the texture is being thinned out, dissolving into nothing. 'Katabasis' turned into 'anabasis', ascent.

According to the classical scheme of things, a descent-metamorphosis-ascent has taken place. The Orphic interpretation of this ritual indicates the fate of the artist as such, the descent into the subliminal darkness of his own creativity - a darkness that sharpens the senses - in order to return, transformed. Seen in this light, the creative process can be compared to an initiation, a rebirth in metaphorical terms. Art sets the stage for metabolism, the point at which reason and mystery merge.

Incantatio ends (with bells, celeste, harps and harmonics by the solo strings) by rising into steadily lighter atmospheres. Fragments remain. Reminiscences. Now and then randomness peaks through as when the setting sun creates a virtually still uproar of colored glass beads. As in two of Hultqvist's other works, Time and the Bell and When Roses Break, the ending remains open. Nothing is definitive - the music is not over, merely silent.

Everything revolves to be illuminated from new vantages. The question arises: being or nothingness? The music has stepped into the silence and is born again to be resurrected as its identical self, and yet somehow different. The peculiar convolutions of time move not only within the works but between them. It's as if the works speak to each other, invoking one another...

"It is not to ring the bell backward Nor is it an incantation To summon the spectre of a Rose." T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Bjorn Billing is a Swedish musicologist. Fie is co-editor of the new music magazine 'Nutida Musik' (Contemporary Music).

Årgang 69/1994-1995, nr. 01