Nørgård and others
Anders Beyer, ed. The Music of Per Nørgård. Fourteen Interpretative Essays. Contributors: Julian Anderson, Anders Beyer, Jens Brincker, Jean Christensen, Jens E. Christensen, Hans Gefors, Ivan Hansen, Jørgen I. Jensen, Stephen Johnson, Erling Kullberg, Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen, Karl Aage Rasmussen, Poul Ruders and Per Nørgård (Aldershot Scolar Press, 1996). 304 pp. + sampler CD.
Erik Christensen. The Musical Timespace. A Theory of Music Listening. (Aalborg University Press, 1996). 2 vols: I, Text, 174 pp; II, Notation Examples & Graphs, 67 pp.
Two important books with a Danish pedigree have appeared within the past few months. For this American reader, both books cast new light on aspects of contemporary Danish musical life and thought.
The volume entitled The Music of Per Nørgård: Fourteen Interpretative Essays makes for especially worthwhile reading, if only for its comprehensive look at a major musical figure of our century. On my side of the Atlantic, unfortunately, very few musi-cians are able to associate Nørgård's name with specific compositions (much less a characteristic body of work, or a unique stylistic profile). But this particular volume will go a long way towards making the image much more concrete.
A number of the essays prepare one for Nørgård's work quite beautifully: Hans Gefors' introduction to the Scandinavian stylistic context provides a fine overview, and the cogent explanations of the 'infinity series' offered by Karl Aage Rasmussen and Erling Kullberg are especially welcome. (In fact, I have never had the infinity series delineated so clearly before this.) In addition, I found the tributes offered by fellow composers Rasmussen and Poul Ruders quite moving - perhaps because I've known them and have admired their works, or perhaps because I simply believe that the most perceptive insights often come from one composer to another. Nørgård's own childhood reminiscences are very touching, and -coming at the end of the volume - most revealing.
Best of all, the many references to actual Nørgård pieces provide a treasure-trove of wonderful source material - captured not only on the printed page, in the form of illustrative score examples, but also on a compact disc recording enclosed with the book. The recording contains over seventy minutes' worth of music for a wide range of instrumentation (piano solo, cello solo, orchestra, percussion ensemble, chorus, and organ), almost all of it directly related to significant passages of text. Needless to say, the music on disc makes a stunning impact, thanks not only to the composer but also to the brilliant level of the performances.
In certain respects, however, the book may present a few difficulties. The present ordering of essays is frankly problematical. Since most North Americans will approach this as an introduction to the music of Nørgård, the opening entry by Jørgen I. Jensen could prove baffling. (In his focus on a stylistic change well into the composer's mid-career, Jensen assumes that the reader already knows a substantial body of earlier work; moreover, in this translation, his essay presents the most difficult reading challenges of the entire volume.)
I would urge a Nørgård-neophyte reader to forget about Jensen at first, and begin with the Gefors article on 'Nordic melody,' followed by the splendid essay by Anders Beyer which (true to its title) paints a moving 'portrait' and articulates the characteristics of the composer's style most succinctly. The reader could then move on to the essays specifically concerned with the infinity series - and then directly to the compact disc recording! Only after hearing the CD would I dip into the other essays, which focus on instrumentation, larger cultural contexts and cosmic issues, and which presume greater intimacy with the music itself.
One could quibble with other details. Cross-references of the recorded examples and appropriate book pages would have been helpful additions to the CD booklet (to save one from thumbing through the index too many times), and fully translated texts of the recorded vocal music would have carried a special relevancy; unfortunately, neither were provided. Passing references to other leading European avant-gardists, such as Scelsi or Murail, will be of little use to many American readers, since those figures are rarely encountered here. (Obviously the transatlantic culture gap is even wider than imagined! And it's equally severe in the other direction: some of Nørgård's most distinctive traits are shared by the American composer Robert Erickson, and I daresay very few Europeans know of his work.)
I also located a few errors - or puzzling ambivalences - here and there. (For example, shouldn't the second note of Example 4, page 68, be A? Should the key signature of the Jerusalem example on page 96 be one sharp or two - and if two, why the need for the added C-sharps?) But these are minor points indeed. The Music of Per Nørgård: Fourteen Interpretative Essays is a valuable and most enlightening book, richly deserving a place on every university, conservatory or library shelf.
The subject of Erik Christensen's weighty treatise The Musical Timespace is much more diffuse - and simultaneously more immediate - than any single composer. In this case, Christensen sets out to discuss and analyze nothing less than the entire process by which we listen to music. Ambitious books of this sort are more likely to disappoint the reader whenever they fall short of reaching their goal; surprisingly, the disappointments are relatively few in number here.
This might seem at first glance to be a book exclusively about new music and nothing else. As the author states early on, his approach was initially motivated by a desire to reconcile traditional theory with the act of hearing - or aurally 'analyzing' - contemporary music. Certainly music of the twentieth century is a predominating focus of his text; listeners have more difficulty in making coherent aural sense of this century's music than any other, and any attempt to re-organize our sense impressions to achieve greater clarity is welcome!
On the other hand, Christensen defines what he regards as the five critical listening dimensions (musical space, timbre, intensity, movement and pulse) - so broadly that they encompass the totality of our musical experience, not just twentieth century art music but the widest possible stylistic range - past and present, Western and global alike.
Drawing upon research in acoustics and perception/cognition theory, Christensen initially relates the act of music listening to that of hearing as a means of survival in a natural environment. He places particular emphasis on the special 'space' which music creates for the listener, wisely noting that virtually all our metaphors for musical relationships - high or low sounds, thick or thin textures, lines, blocks - are spatial. Christensen also deals at length with the resulting phenomenon of musical time. (As he describes it, the musical experience uniquely creates three kinds of temporal experience: movement, pulse, and the time of 'being.')
The arguments are clearly and convincingly laid out, and illustrated by an exhaustive storehouse of musical examples. There are so many, in fact, that the majority have spilled over into a second volume. A number of different formats are used in the presentation of these examples. The most interesting, for me, are the descriptive running-commentary of excerpts intended to be read while one listens to recordings. (The commentaries are timed by the second; in order to facilitate this exercise precisely, specific commercial recordings are suggested.)
Christensen also resorts to a variety of diagrammatic symbols to illustrate similar points: his own uniquely designed charts, and -where appropriate (that is, when the music represents a written rather than oral/ improvisatory tradition) - the original staff notation. I refer to this practice as 'resorting to...' simply because, given the author's initial argument about the primacy of the ear and the apparatus of listening, I would imagine that any written diagram amounts to a partial admission of defeat.
On the other hand, it's sound pedadogical strategy to engage as many senses as possible. Incidentally, the musical examples are fascinating in their own right, and include Ives, Schoenberg, Reich, Ligeti, Pink Floyd, Coleman Hawkins and Beethoven; these and other examples are listed in the thorough, complete list of scores and recordings located at the back of Book I.
There's a fine working bibliography as well (although I was surprised at the absence of the excellent - and somewhat related - book Sonic Design by Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot). Ironically, The Musical Timespace is not for the casual reader - even though the casual reader, or average untrained concertgoer, should ideally be the greatest beneficiary of its suggestions. The book demands concentration and serious dedication. It will, however, compensate the effort with ample rewards.
Elliott Schwartz is an American composer. He has written many reviews of the European musical scene for Perspectives of New Music, and is also co-author (with Daniel Godfrey) of Music since 1945: Issues, Materials and Literature.
Performances of his works during the past year have included New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Minneapolis, Brussels, Barcelona, Copenhagen and London.