Amfion pro musica classica

Reportage: Pulsar, Copenhagen

pulsar1 pulsar2

One might call it Danomania

Recent years have seen a real surge in contemporary music hailing from the straights of Denmark. In Finland, contemporary music festivals Musica nova and Viitasaari Time of Music have recently programmed major works of Hans Abrahamsen, flying in original performers such as Barbara Hannigan and ensemble reserche to give impressive performances of Let Me Tell You and Schnee. Last winter, Avanti! -quartet presented an entire portrait concert of Simon Steen-Andersen, whose music theatre work Staged Night was put on later the same year.

It’s not necessary for me to list the merits and prizes that Abrahamsen and Steen-Andersen have received internationally. Their success is in their approach to music, that has a freshness commanding respect across aesthetics and genres. And if anything, it’s becoming a broken record for anyone that hasn’t spent their life in a barrel for the past five years.

At their alma mater, the Royal Danish Academy of Music (RDAM) in Copenhagen, the work continues to give contemporary composers and musicians of the future a head-start in their careers. Their most visible manifestation of this is Pulsar. A ten-day festival, currently under way until 18th March in Copenhagen, devoted to the music of the 19 composition students at the Academy.

The festival is also largely produced by the students themselves. The chamber concerts each have a production team of 3-4 composition students, working alongside the facilities staff, the students of music technology to operate the electroacoustic works and the library, which produces the sheet music. The artistic director, and professor of composition Nils Rosing-Schow admits that concert production is a pedagogical element, giving the students a dip into the realities of professional musicianship. Group-working and collegial learning is also an integral part of the way the department works, says Rosing-Schow.

The festival is unusually expansive this year, due to a newly-formed collaboration with the Danish Radio (DR) Symphony Orchestra.

They have a close affiliation with the Academy. Many of its members are alumni, and the Academy building housed the Danish National Radio until 2006, when the new concert hall opened in DR Byen, just outside of the centre. The Academy building is itself an architectural wonder from the 1930’s-40’s, beautifully renovated in the functionalist style conceived by Vilhelm Lauritzen. The students have in it, and especially in the main hall, an excellent instrument for the betterment of their work.

Pulsar has also invited colleagues from Aarhus Royal Academy of Music to present a concert of their works as well as the Shanghainese chamber group, Ensemble Les Amis, performing new Chinese works alongside student commissions later in the week.

“Everything will be performed” Rosing-Schow comments the selection process. At least one piece by each composition student is included in the programme, and many have several. Every two years the Academy organises workshops with the leading Danish orchestras from Aalborg to Odense. This practical knowledge is apparent in the first concert I had the chance to see.

On Thursday night, the DR Symphony Orchestra presented no fewer than three world premieres commissioned from Academy students.

Alongside these were featured key works by two Danish composers-in-residence, Poul Ruders and Christian Winther Christensen (The Finnish contemporary music aficionados will remember both from last year’s Musica nova festival in Helsinki). Two resident composers. Perhaps this is to mirror the principle at the RDAM that each composition student receives tutelage from two teachers, no exceptions. Whether this is the reason or not, the works in the four concerts I heard exhibited a multitude of musical attitudes.

Portraying the slow and vulgar swaying of an obese dancer, the opening work Burlesque (2016, wp) by Martin Stauning meanders through with a melodic line based on clusters and the swaying caused thereof. This was especially effective when a stretched process brought the line to its highest register, scored for trumpets and high strings. The ensuing longing echoed Romantic gestures, which the composer owns to. Nielsen? Yes. Strauss? Yes. Dowland? Obviously. Everything is somehow stale, albeit extremely well crafted and orchestrated. Incidentally, Stauning also owns the Applause performed as the third movement by the audience, the conductor and the bowing composer.

Christensen’s Chromatische Weltmusik (2013, Dp) received today its long-awaited Danish premiere, as the original scheduled for 2013 had to be cancelled due to Cyclone Christian. The lagging work is a tour-de-force in sonic exploration in the fields of quotation, by-products of suonare, or instrumental sounding, and almost slap-stick-like humour. Why lagging? The computer-game term fits nicely in my mind to describe the formal elements – listening to this work is on occasion like watching a ‘loading’ –bar or a tilting computer program. In music this means the ear may focus on the sound removed from the ‘where-it’s-going’-factor. Occasionally until desperation, undoubtedly to the composer’s intent. The prize for hanging around is substantial though – fully blown organ-chords are far too far and few between.

A performance of this fragmented work requires a mastery of the extended techniques of one’s instrument, apparent in the work of the virtuoso soloists, accordionist Bjarke Morgensen, accordion and cellist Og Toke Møldrup, as well as of the orchestra. A painful amount of the work hangs on pedantic subtleties of extended techniques. The wet acoustics of the hall only slightly counteracted this work.

The subtitle (ohne fremde Elemente) implies Christensen’s interest in integrating foreign elements until they lose their foreignness – the piece is based on a Schubert lied from Winterreise. The soloists performed a version of it as an encore to cathartic effect.

Another take on the question of whether music should be on its way somewhere, Tundra (1990), by the established Poul Ruders, presents a single impressionistic, gestural sweep living in the moment. This is in strong counterpoint with the other works, accentuating their fragmentarity on the other hand but also their originality and risk.

The originality of Ground Moves (2016, wp) by the British James Black lies in the discovery of that which is in between stasis and process. Maybe it’s a moving stasis? Like a planet moving in space. One is never sure which way to read it, which in turn made me cease to try. This enabled me to focus on the fine details in the orchestral colours, the fundamental difference in timbre between a bassoon fortissimo on a low Bb or C (curiously, one rattles, one does not), or the interferences of the clarinet trio in the third movement Isotope. Shame that Black doesn’t utilise the fantastic window that is created from a careful build-up right at the end of the piece. It’s instead claimed by the piece that follows.

The chaotic, aggressive and ear-piercing world that prodigious Aya Yoshida’s work Double-face (2015, wp) inhabits seemed to juice the orchestra from their very last forte. Yoshida speaks of first releasing the energy imminent in the 100-piece band and then controlling it. Not even in the specialist hands of conductor Brad Lubmann, who’s focus and attention in the other pieces of the concert is worthy of praise, did Yoshida’s music gain a centre. However, the gestures are very courageous and the music spurts out strong, though directionless fangs.

Segue to the late-night concert in the chamber-music hall; another acoustic wonder coated in fine wood with glorious wave-like forms lining the wall. I’m falling in love with this building.

The Swedish composer Niklas Ottander’s Piano Quartet (2015), played by students of the Academy to a packed hall, explores the worlds in between sound and silence and the extremes of register within the string family. Basing the harmony on a low E-pedal on a scordatura cello-string, which created slow glissandi and microtones when bowed, Ottander finds sonic parallels with the prepared piano. The piece remains an etude: the impressions, however beautiful, do not conjure coherence.

Marcus Lease’s eccentric text-ljud work for 4-channel diffused tape An Intense Marble Pink or: The Breakup (2015) treats interwoven speech of a man and a woman dealing with a breakup. The story is juxtaposed with coarse-transmitted Nasa-recordings of space travel. A striking detail is its inbuilt measuring of piece-time. At regular intervals, a nondescript news-reader voice reads out the temporal position in form of a mathematical formula. An enticing element.

The least original of the works in the concert, Xavier Bonfill’s The Taking (after The Kiss) (2015) completely subdues the marimba-soloist’s efforts with a dense and seemingly random texture of processed marimba-sounds. Interesting to note though, that the electronic part was diffused entirely from the back of the hall, implying a battle-like situation between the live and the electronic. Hans Peter Stubbe Teglbjærg’s Aulodian Reed (2016, wp) work suffers from similar stagnation and saturation. The spectrum of multiphonics, whenever audible, beautifully and carefully outed by oboist Veronica Isabelle Stubberud, were somewhat unfortunately covered by the electronic part, which was striving to co-exist and perhaps even mix with the oboe sound.

Two pianists, the Polish Daniel Uzniak and Dominik Wizjan, like characters in a silent movie, alternate in performing Christensen’s very peculiar and very dry miniatures for heavily prepared piano and maybe the quietest electronics I’ve ever heard. In the 5 Piano preludes (2013/15) the small genelec placed ‘the wrong way round’ behind the piano diffused Bach’s C-minor prelude and other key repertoire that the pianist mimed playing – or rather, brought out the finger-against-key sounds, making a splendid charade of pianism. The work, along with professor Stubbe Tegljæerg’s was perhaps slightly out of place in a concert focused on young composition students.

In accordance to the theme of this year’s Pulsar festival, ‘Metro’, the CV’s and programme notes of the composers and their pieces took the form of small video clips, filmed in the Copenhagen metro stations. The composers had to explain the essentials of their work during the time it takes to travel one station-span. The Chinese composer Yiqing Zhu declares his interest in the work of the spectral composers, and the spectral treatment of diverse folk musics. Zhu wants control over his music, but this doesn’t prevent Echoes from the Execution Ground (2015, wp), premiered by the RDAM Sinfonietta on Friday, to breathe freely. The unabashed melancholy and fragility of the music shuns at the thought of structural shackles. The RDAM Sinfonietta spoke in a refined and very musical language under the baton of Jean Thorel.

The two other student works by Arvid Hansell and Esben Nordborg Møller, take their impulses from the percussion section with a prominent part for triangle in the first and bongo’s on the latter. A good rapport and close collaboration with the musicians was apparent in all pieces. The convincing ensemble texture is generally well crafted but generic on occasion. There are some very personal voices budding in these pieces.

The beautifully steady and crystal clear sound of oboist Eva Steinaa was in close dialogue with both the accompanying sinfonietta as well as the warm concert hall itself. Ruders gives initially a lot of space in the first movement of his Oboe Concerto (1998) for the ethereal but precise high register to speak, bringing the the ensemble more actively in in the later movements, along with more exploration in the soloist’s lower register. The harsh, unyielding final movement breaks away from the clarity of the first two.

The final work, the quietly stuttering exhalation of Sextet (2010/14), is Christensen’s sonic experimentations in miniature form. A teaser.

The final concert I had the chance to see was above all a showcase of the vulgar, the uncompromising and the personal. An army of students, aided by professor Stubbe Teglbjærg, were in charge of putting together this challenging array of both acoustic and electroacoustic pieces.

Coming back from the centre, where I had ventured into the gorgeous Royal Library to start on this piece of writing earlier the same day, I stumbled on a performance by composer and contrabassist Bára Gísladóttir. The nebulous Icelander took to the metro station just outside the Academy, assistants holding long strands of black cloth, into which she spiralled while playing from the score arranged in a circle on the ground. The cloth eventually covered a part of the strings, muting the sound, and distorting it for great visual and sonic effect.

Her performance in the evening was an interweaving of spoken text in Italian, and crude scratching and rubbing sounds produced with sticks and super-balls on the instrument body as well as coming from the tape part. The sounds seemed to be vomited onto the audience, primitively, as a spontaneous outcry. The smoothness at any given moment was delightful happenstance.

Equally unprompted was James Black’s happening-like trio Karate Documents. Black on carophone (a trombone slider equipped with a saxophone mouthpiece) and saxophone was joined by Gísladóttir and Polish clarinettist Iga Kurec, who – wonderfully out of the blue and very much in-your-face – burst into into Polish folk-song. This was enhanced by the performers sitting right at the first row of the audience. The folk-song held the improvisatory elements together in a highly original manner, the melody appearing among the cloud of strange instruments and foreign elements, finishing with a shrill cloud of sopranino recorders. Not the subtlest of pieces, but painfully honest. And very laid back as well, there was no pressure, no need to understand the possible allusions or meanings behind the cryptic subtitles. And if this piece has an affinity with surrealism (which I think it does), they were probably cooked up randomly over a few drinks anyway, freeing the mind for free association.

Both Mads Emil Dreyer’s Lys and Xavier Bonfill’s 28×28 integrated visual elements into their music. Dreyer’s work (Danish for light) for electric guitar and electronics lulled the room into a slowly pulsating ambient atmosphere conjured by a heavily reverberated and sustained guitar line, performed from the back of the hall by the composer himself. On the stage in front a dozen light bulbs were placed, which ebbed and flowed into light and gloom along with the swells of the background. A restful peak.

Bonfill’s 28×28 (2016, wp) for for septet, electronics and a table of domino players was decidedly one of the most complicated pieces in terms of setup of the festival so far. The piece constituted of 28 fragments of music of 28 seconds each – a long time to be listening to music in 2016, but too long to not reply to a Whatsapp message, states the composer.

The work was performed twice, at the start and at the end of the concert. The fragments are ordered anew for each performance according to the development of a simple domino game played on centre stage, the game filmed for the audience to see. The game master prompts the fragment numbers – played as matching domino cards onto the table by the four players – to the performer of the electronic part, who in turn speaks them into the headphones of the performers. In addition, the performers follow a click track, which aid in timing the whole with the constantly advancing electronic part.

Some of the fragments are distinct and memorisable between the two performances that this piece received tonight, such as percussion solos with one foot in contemporary dance music. Others segue well into each other, but the real genius is in how the electronic part – itself also produced live before the audience – welded both performances seamlessly together in a manner distinct to each. As the cherry on top, a graphic score of sorts was drawn onto the screen as a by-product of the game. Very clever.

Now I must admit I’m a little worried. Here I am, writing a piece on Pulsar as a member of press, well aware of the proper code of conduct that must ensue. Therefore, it may not be wholly unproblematic that instead of merely observing Bonhill’s work, I actually affected the course which it took. On the other hand, if a piece involves audience participation, surely the fact that the music critic – as a member of the audience – participates in the piece is kosher. I’ll let you be the judge of my conduct, dear reader.

Another matter altogether may be the fact that I won the second domino game. Je ne regrette rien.

— Lauri Supponen, Helsinki 15.3.2016 (contact: lasuppon(a)

Pulsar 2016 ‘Metro-‘

9th-18th March, Copenhagen (DK)

♦ Thursday 10th March 2016

‘DR Symfoniorkestret’

Konservatoriets Koncertsal (Julius Thomsens Gade 1)

Free entrance

DR Symfoni Orkestret
Brad Lubman, conductor
*Bjarke Mogensen, accordion
*Toke Møldrup, cello

Martin Stauning: Burlesque (Ouverture-Dance-Applause) (2016, wp)
Christian W. Christensen: Chromatische Weltmusik* (2013, Dp)
Poul Ruders: Tundra (1990)
James Black: Ground moves (2015, wp)
Aya Yoshida: Double-face (2015, wp)


‘Prepared Piano & Electronics’

Studiescenen, Rosenørns Allé

Free entrance

Students of the RDAM
Producers: Hans Peter Stubbe Teglbjærg, Lasse Winterbottom and Jens Peter Møller
Sound: Heini Ragnarsson, Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir and Weronika Wierzba

Niklas Ottander: Piano Quartet (2015)
Marcus Lease: An Intense Marble Pink or: The Breakup (2015)
Xavier Bonfill: The Taking (after The Kiss) (2015)
Christian W. Christensen: Piano preludes (2013/15)
Hans Peter S. Teglbjærg: Aulodian Reed (2015, wp)


♦ Friday 11th March 2016

’DKDM Sinfonietta’

Konservatoriets Koncertsal (Julius Thomsens Gade 1)

Free entrance

RDAM Sinfonietta
Jean Thorel, conductor
*Eva Steinaa, oboe

Yiqing Zhu: Echoes from the Execution Ground (2015, wp)
Poul Ruders: Oboe Concerto* (1998)
Esben Nordborg Møller: Surface – resurface (2015, wp)
Arvid Hansell: Present, the End, and then the next Place (2015, wp)
Christian W. Christensen: Sextet (2010/14)


‘Electronic Lounge’

Studiescenen, Rosenørns Allé

Free entrance

Students of the RDAM
Producers: Niklas Ottander, Marcus Lease & Mads Emil Dreyer
Sound: Heini Ragnarsson, Gediminas Sudnikavicius and Weronika Wierzba

Xavier Bonfill: 28×28 (2016, wp)
Bára Gísladóttir: Rooftops of Milan (2015)
Mads Emil Dreyer: Lys (2015, wp)
James Black: Karate Documents (I Løg – II Can vei la lauzeta mover­ – III Postcard from Lemmingland) (2016, wp)
Xavier Bonfill: 28×28 (2016)


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