In Search of a Phantom
Nature as Stimulus in the Music of the North
by Wolfgang Sandner
In his "Rede in Alban Bergs Landschaft" (A Talk in Alban Berg's Countryside) Harald Kaufmann, founder of the Institut fur Wertungsforschung in Graz, describes the difficulties that have become a permanent counterpoint between music and nature. Alban Berg, like Gustav Mahler, Karl Kraus or August Strind-berg, not only admired nature in the form of an untouched countryside, that is, as the opposite of the cursed world of the big city. He believed in protecting nature, in keeping haste, manufacturing, business, social and intellectual misery out of it, with passionate fervor, almost as if the preservation of isolated nature from human deceit were a creative duty.
Nature was almost seductively woven into even the Wunderhorn romanticism of Mahler's early symphonies: with quotes from German folk songs, a posthorn solo, Landler and Bohemian clarinet "Jauchzern." In a similar manner the quote, which allows music from a vanished period to be heard, determines Alban Berg's works from the early orchestra pieces, op. 6 up through the late violin concerto, in which the melody of a folk song from Carinthia breathes from afar, summarizing all of the composer's experience of nature in a resounding allegory of death. This nature has nothing more in common with naive idyll and rustic "Biederkeit" (honest respectability). The artist either freezes this nature into memorable signals or he allows the rampaging, unfathomably driving force of nature to become so overpowering that man perishes from it. Thus the countryside loses that quality ascribed to it by local history and folk literature: its "Gemutlichkeit." It has become a mystery.
But even in the respect of representing extremely fragmented moods and events in nature, music is at a disadvantage when compared to the other arts, for example, painting and literature. What music could achieve and what was practiced from the mid-eighteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century was confined to exercises in gestic and mimetical assimilation.
Under these cicumstances, no musician can be blamed for being suspicious of this imitation of nature in music, that which lies beyond the possibilities of composition, the "as if" -quality of it. Nonetheless composers are indeed striving - with differing methods and results - to find a creative way of converting nature into sound.
But here we encounter a double dilemma. Because by reciting analogies which view sparkling waves of sound as being roughly illustrative of a sunny day, the naivety of the mimetic procedure is reduplicated. Nature is transformed into the cliche of a certain sound - let's say as a handed-down educational experience to which ordinary feelings become attached - and put back into language: The sunny day is embedded in a silky, muted string choir from which a hermeneutical example is again apparent: third-hand mimesis, the cliche of the sunny day in threefold exposition.
On the other hand the subtle interpretation of an overtone series, for example, as a symbol of nature or a composed dynamic, the stormy increase in tension of ever-accumulating material -these could easily invite reproach for drifting into the nebulousness of culturally critical poetry that cannot withstand objective analysis. This approach has appropriately been made about Adorno's comments on Sibelius and his attacks on jazz (gloss, annotations, sarcastic comments, ed .).
When speaking of Jean Sibelius, some comments on his specific situation are necessary which explain many of his attitudes towards musical material as well. Certainly for Sibelius, a contemporary of Alban Berg's and Gustav Mahler's, the confrontation with the Middle-European cultural atmosphere had a decisive effect. Yet his origins on the political periphery of Europe, particulary in a country in a phase of national consciousness after centuries of foreign rule, remained more directly meaningful.
Ultimately he came out of a social situation, a milieu, in which genuine finnishness became an amalgam for nature and culture, moreover in an almost archaic concept of culture and nature. Nature was understood as that part of the world in which occurrence and regular manifestation were independent of human interference. So that knowledge about nature was only imaginable from the empirical viewpoint of an autonomously functioning nature. On the other hand, culture referred precisely to those environmentally-generated properties such as language, art or craft.
Even though the ideas of Theodor W. Adorno and Rene Leibowitz haunt the history of the reception of and theoretical confrontation with the works of Jean Sibelius, Sibelius was anything but a naive artist. That he had consciously come to terms with the aesthetic problems of his times is proved by the few works that have survived from the beginning of his composing career.
With just such a composer as Sibelius, who would rather see his pieces going up in the smoke of an autocafe than to present them to the critical public, it would be better not to overvalue the compositional beginnings.
Nevertheless, it seems remarkable that three stylistic features that pervade his later works are so early apparent: the more or less subtle artistic representation of natural sounds, stimulation from folklore into a complete compositional concept.
This begins with a relatively ineffectual pizzicato piece for violin and violoncello with the title Waterdrops from 1875, and continues through the sonata in five movements for violin and piano with its characteristic imitation of birdsong in the violin harmonics, a piece that apparently stems from between 1881 and 1883. Features of the early Sibelius style can also be found in other works, for example in the violin sonata in F major from 1886 with the pentatonic ductus of its main theme and references to folkloristic influences like the broken chords in the right hand of the piano accompaniment. These appear to be a type of stylized writing for kantele, a zitherlike stringed instrument in Finnish folk music.
Or in the piano suite Florestan, a work directly inspired by Schumann's Kreisleriana. As with Schumann, two different musical characters are determined by harmonic contrasts in G minor and B-flat major, and each movement is headed by a programmatic idea. These being no more trivial in effect than similar models in Schumann or Richard Strauss.
Regarding the broken form in which sounds from nature and associations with features of the countryside recur as memorable quotes in the works of Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler, one ascertains with Sibelius as well that the conversion of elements of folklore and the moods of nature are more subtly achieved than his aesthetic opponents would ever have conceded.
However, Sibelius's personal attitude towards an essentially more intact nature than Berg or Mahler had known is certainly the more unexpected. Sibelius's brother-in-law, Arvid Jarne-felt, described the composer as practically a "creature of nature," who soaked in everything. Even the smell of the earth on a spring day inspired him to open up new worlds of sound. However, Sibelius's aesthetic sensitivity shunned naive mimitic transference. As with the romantic viewpoint, the natural event is to some extent projected onto personified elements: on figures like the forest god Tapio in the Finnish national epic Kalevala, on the antique ocean spirits, the Oceanids, on characters from sagas such as the heroes Lemminkainen and Vainamoinen or the swan that guards Tuoneio, the realm of the dead. Sibelius discovers in them catalyzers for the metamorphosis of nature into art.
A glance at the tone poem Tapiola op. 112 from 1925, Sibelius's last composition for large orchestra, may make this clear. The work crowns his series of symphonic poems and like the other compositions, it shows a relationship to this genre in the 19th century, at the same time developing a wholly personal style. One in which landscape painting and the moods of nature are mingled - remarkably reminiscent of Beethoven's Pastorale - with folk song elements and mythological motives.
Formally, this work in one movement is related to a first movement sonata form. The exposition introduces three themes, the first of which is well known as a forest theme, and dominates the course of the composition in continually varied form. The variation principle was certainly also inspired by the preoccupation with Kalevala as a theme with variations in a large-scale ritual of evocation.
If one wished - here, as well as in all of Jean Sibelius' works - one could speak of a "developing variation" , very mush in the sense of Arnold Schoen-berg's analyses of Brahms. This formal feature in Brahms led Schoenberg, who even imitated it in his compositions, to speak of Brahms as being progressive, a word which - after once being set free in the world - had a rather suggestive effect on the exegetes of the Brahmsian cosmos.
This so highly valued principle of Schoenberg's of incessantly generating new material from well-known tonal relationships, often without even bothering about a memorable melodic motive, dominated Jean Sibelius more than almost any other composer. Especially in the symphonic poems and the symphonies, Sibelius breaks with the traditional scheme to develop a technique for symphonic construction that shows no respect for pre-existing architecture, but rather follows the driving power behind the motivic thought.
It is one of the ironies of modern music annals that precisely Schoen-berg's school declined to recognize how closely Sibelius's symphonic technique resembles Arnold Schoenberg's method of variative composition.
However, the fact that many middle-Europeans neither wish to acknowledge the specific features of compositional technique in Scandinavian music, nor are they able to judge the sociocultural background of these works accurately - as in their relationship to nature. However, this does not mean that one can dispense with these features - either as a Scandinavian or Middle-European - in an analytical examination. Even more general comparative cultural criticism should be concerned with this, the Scandinavian relationship to nature. The solution was delivered by the Finnish national poet, Aleksis Kivi. He said: "I want to be a son of the forest." But forest for the Finns is hardly like a German forest as described by Elias Canetti, with tree-tops as bold as cathedrals, a powerful army of marching trees to be admired without being consumed.
The Finnish forest is not only the source of national riches - forty percent of exports come from forests, one tenth of the population owes its daily bread to the trees. The Finnish forest is literally a living space, a refugie in the truest sense of the word. During the Civil War of 1918 and the Second World War, not a few deserters retreated into the forests, where they formed a sort of army of civil disobedients that soon became known by its nickname: the Pine Cone Brigade.
If we look at Norway, Edvard Grieg left the city in order to compose in beautiful natural surroundings. He sought stimulus from nature, and he sought silence. And there are certain links between the Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen and his great predecessor, Grieg. One is Norwegian folk music, the other is the Norwegian natural environment. As Harald Herresthal writes in Nordic Sounds No 2/1993: "For Both Grieg and Thoresen the sounds of nature are signs that speak. Nature has a sign language without grammar or dictionary that can be understood by the member of the audience who experiences nature vicariously through the composer's music."
In the music of the Denmark's Carl Nielsen, the folk music as well as nature descriptions are obvious. And Nielsen's successor, Per Norgard, takes over the interest for the special Nordic landscape; in his violin concerto Helle Nacht, we see a synthesis of folk music and nature in the composer's use of preexisting material: the Danish song En yndig ogfrydefuld sommertid (A Lovely and Joyful Summertime), the quasi-pentatonic Scotch tune Loch Lomond, and the Gregorian melody Te lucis ante terminum. In Per Norgard's Fourth Symphony, nature is also (via the Swiss writer Adolf Wolfli) in front of the sound picture as something crucial.
For other Danish composers, such as Hans Abrahamsen, Mogens Winkel Holm, Ib Nørholm and Bent Soren-sen, nature descriptions in their work titles are a clue to their interest in writing the spunds of nature into tlieir music.
Whenever one looks and listens in Scandinavia in general, one notices quite quickly how much the nature of nature has imprinted itself on the nature of humankind; how the radical drinking bouts tried to banish the gathering night from the afternoon, the euphoria of clinking glasses heralding the death of winter.
[See also some of the titles of works performed at this festival: Stj0rnur (Kristian Blak), Frosty Autumn Night (Edvard Nyholm Debess), Nightfall (Svend Nielsen), Gardens (Arne Mell-nas), Nottin (Atli Heimir Sveinsson), Garden of Chimes, (Rolf Martinsson), Flowerfall (Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen), Sterbende Garten (Bent Sørensen), ed.]
The sounds of nature are the models of art; the oldest song, the rustling of the wind in the trees. And even silence, the wind that does not blow, is perceptible. Toivo Laakso says: "The wind is a poet who makes a fair copy of the world; now he rests and lets life settle like dust." Something of this mood can also be felt in the music of Eino-juhani Rautavaara, who today is counted among the most accomplished composers of his country in the post-Sibelius generation.
Compositionally he began as a neo-classicist, but he turned to serialism towards the end of the 1950s. Later he criticized the new romanticism even of his Finnish colleagues, although he considered himself a post-modern composer: "The romanticists have no coordinates. Chronologically they belong to yesterday and possibly the future, but not to today. Spatially they are sometimes effective there, and other times there, but never here."
From 1970 onwards, his work could be characterized by the same idea as that which marks Alfred Schnittke's oeuvre: polystylistic. Thus we discover an entire arsenal of different techniques in Rautavaara's most popular work, the Cantus arcticus: the relationship between tape and orchestra, aleatoric counterpoint influencing the structure of the work along with modal melodies and mediant-based harmonies. The piece, which was dedicated to the former Finnish president Urho Kekkonen, and written for the Arctic University at Oulu in 1972, bears the subtitle Concerto for Birds and Orchestra: bird calls are recorded on the accompanying tape.
The programmatical places of the individual movements - Swamp, Melancholy, Migrating Swans - function as a distant hommage to the Swan of Tuonaia by Jean Sibelius. The work, which begins with the charming remark, "Think of autumn and of Tchaikovsky," unquestionably represents a highly subtle crossing of natural phenomena (bird calls) with artistic descriptions of nature and commentary. This is done with less hypertrophy, or if one wishes, pretentiousness, than in the corresponding works by Messiaen, who believed he had discovered the compositional key to the technical conversation of natural sounds. However, one can theorize that the piece, even without the tape accompaniment of bird calls, and without knowing the programmatical background, is on the highest plane of musical innovation and makes a unified effect.
Even if one could not always point an analytical finger at concrete material in tones, the pieces possess an immanent quality; the works of Einojuhani Rautavaara, like those of many Scandinavian artists, reflect the conditions of the region - if only in the form of a beam of rays broken down by a prism - the isolation from the continent, the wide spaces and the climatic conditions for life. Man's creations seem more paltry there when compared to nature's creations. The artists regard what they do - like the poet Risto Ahtl - as leaving behind tiny traces of civilization in the realm of the heathen pine forests. And occasionally they can even feel how their character has been formed by nature: What is a diamond? A piece of coal that has been powerfully compressed for a long time.
This is exactly the effect of the musical works by a composer viewed as an outsider even in the solitude of the Nordic world of sound such as Jon Leifs from Iceland. His tone poem Gey sir, op. 51 seems like the musical conversion of that natural event so characteristic of his homeland: static parallel sounds over a carpet of strings from which single tones and tone groups apparently formed at random rise up in eruptions.
Leifs' supposed naivete as an auto-didact is to some extent transcended by the forcefulness of the sonic event. One type of intellectual pendant to Geysir is represented in Karl Birger Blomdahl's orchestra work, Forma territonans. It is a piece free from fashionable waves and avant-garde pressure in its musical language, yet it reflects its author's experience with serial techniques, electronic music and musique concrete. Blomciahl wrote, Forma ferritonas in 1961 for the opening of a steel-works.
However, even without knowing the background of the work, that it uses the atomic number and weight of the chemical symbol for iron as the structurizing principle of the composition, climaxing in a final dance symbolizing the working sphere of a rolling-mill - even then, the density of the musical texture and the never brutish-sounding quality of his narrow-spaced intervalic patterns are impressive.
Whoever begins searching for the specific qualities of Nordic music will inevitably run into the improvisations of a Norwegian who has developed into one of Europe's leading jazz musicians of the last 25 years: the saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Garbarek has played with musicians from many different cultural backgrounds and converted their influences into sounds that are barely suggestive of their sources. Nonetheless, there is one quality in his music that could - at least vaguely - be characterized as "Nordic." This saxophonist apparently possesses one of the primary attributes of many Scandinavians: He can wait - for the short, exuberant summer as well as the clear winter, for the bright days of inspiration and the long nights of lying fallow and gathering strength, for communication with friends who have a longer distance to cover than on the well-trafficked European mainland, and for foreign culture, which more rarely finds its way here.
The intersection of extremes in nature in the north, from a waiting standstill to a sudden explosion, finds expression as Nordic art in Jan Garbarek's recording oil Took Up the Runes. The archaic, primitive rune-melodies from Norway literally explode into Jan Garbarek's hymnal saxophone phrases and in kaleidoscope-like arrangements for an illustrious African-Brazilian-Laplancl-Norwegian-German guild of musicians. Apparently Garbarek, who seems so gentle in person, has taken the Danish painter Asger Jorn's warning to heart: "Nordic art is dangerous. It compresses its entire power within us." It seems as if only he who can use his instrument as a vent for pressure from time to time can avoid the danger of a self-destructive explosion.
The pendant to this is to be silent. Garbarek says: "As soon as one has created silence and left some space, then plays again and again falls silent, then the others have to listen to what is happening. Musical silence is an invitation for other interpreters to make their own contributions to the sonic event. Rests in sound challenge us to listen to one another."
And that is the effect of many pieces by Jan Garbarek: they often seem to be apotheoses of silence. In her poems, the Finnish lyricist Eeva-Liisa Manner is concerned with the same, apparently typical Nordic phenomenon of happily experienced silence: "Silent as a Host of light on a tray of resting wind."
Wolfgang Sandner holds a doctorate in musicology and has worked in the record industry and music publishing. Since 1981 ha has been music editor of the influential newspaper 'Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeituna'.