Where does the music end and the listenig begin?

Musical jiggsaw-puzzles at Kamfest 2016

Our perception of reality is a highly individual matter: every day our mind is occupied by trying to create coherence between an unimaginable amount of fragments brought to us through our different senses. It is a bit like a game: you’re given certain pieces but how you combine them is up to you.

Art and music reflects this essential fact that we humans are not sharing one reality but rather perceiving myriads of different possibilities of reality, all interlaced and happening at the same time. We are all aware that two people might experience the same piece of music or art in entirely different ways. The music or the art work is the same and yet the experience differs.

The continued construction of our separate realities is a game which every human being plays continuously, whether we are aware of it or not but once we are aware of it it is possible to use it consciously. Within the world of music this sense of the possibility that lies in co-creation with the listener is more present in particular composers and their works than in others.

bent-sorensen

At the Kamfest 2016, the annual chamber music festival in Trondheim, Norway, the Danish composer Bent Sørensen is this year´s “composer in residence” and brings to the festival his unique flavour of musical landscapes. I first encountered his music several years ago when, as a Master student at the Norwegian Conservatory of Music, Bent Sørensen was one of the three composers around whose works I centred my thesis. That knowledge was deepened when, in 2007, Sørensen was composer in residence at Festspillene in Bergen where I was able to attend the performance of several of his works and was also able to conduct an interview with him.

Searching for the familiar un-known

From my very first encounter with his music, Sørensen’s works always held a strange and unique fascination. Perhaps it had to do with a lifelong love for jigsaw puzzles; as a child jigsaw puzzles held an endless fascination for a mind who was constantly looking for patterns. Or maybe it was the other way around: maybe the hour-long searching for pieces that would fit each other was the activity which triggered a lifelong fascination for pattern-seeking.

puslenoter

The search for patterns and form can be conducted both visually but also aurally and musically. When listening to music we are essentially listening for form. The listening mind is forever searching for an underlying pattern, something which will make what we hear “logical” and “understandable”. This is however not a logic and understanding based so much on intellectual concepts as it is based on a sense of relationships, and acute sense that some parts are closer connected than others and that the entire piece therefore consists of a sort of pattern which is graspable if we are able to conceive it.

The Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim made a rather famous and much quoted comment of Sørensen’s music that “it reminds me of something I have never heard before” pinpointing this strange feeling of familiarity coupled with the sense of something unknown which the music of Sørensen triggers.

The music is all texture and movement, fragments and whispers which give rise to slips of memory. Unexpected qualities of sound (in several of his pieces musicians are asked to sing or hum while playing their instruments) and tempos which plays with our ability of perception and where fast moving sonic structures tricks the mind into a perception of larger, slower moving fields of sound, like millions of small rivulets of current creating the larger swellings of a river.

deserted-church

Listen to the piece The Deserted Churchyards where two lines of texture move together, one from above and one from below , crossing and departing- shimmering facets and velvety lines entwining and dancing, and where the glockenspiel also triggers the pictures of church bells swallowed slowly by an ever encroaching sea line (especially if you stay on to the end of the piece). 

The deserted Churchyards performed by Esbjerg ensemble conducted by Jules van Hessen

Another hot tip is the CD Birds and Bells with Oslo Sinfonietta, Christian Lindberg and Christian Eggen playing music of Sørensen for those who wish to submerge deeper into his music.

The Jigsaw puzzle that never stops

In one of the concerts in Bergen, which was given the title “Songs in rings of bells,” ten of Sørensen´s compositions were organized into a sequence where the different individual works were fused into each other in a long cycle. Some of the works were solo pieces, others were written for chamber ensemble.

According to Sørensen the challenge in organizing the concert laid in discovering the coherence and connection between pieces which were composed at different times but which still held the same subconscious element of connection, something, he stated, which had always been there.

In a way a composer´s entire output of works might be likened to the pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle where each individual work relates to one piece of the puzzle, excavated with enduring and painstaking integrity from the composers unique musical landscape. In the concert in Bergen the fusing of the different pieces woke to life this sense of unfolding of a landscape which continued outside of its borders.

This hints to one of the most fascinating aspects of music: As an ever reflecting living prism, music changes and is affected by the setting in which it is presented. As humans we are multi-sensorial creatures: unless we actively shut off our senses, isolating only one at a time, our senses will forever fill out and enrich each other and our experiences. The same piece of music experienced on a train late at night with headphones or in a fully packed concert Hall during a festival are two entirely different experiences no matter if the music is the same. A person in love and a person with a dental appointment will probably colour their experience of the same piece of music quite differently. A piece of music, however well we might know it, is forever growing, sprouting new limbs, whispering in new voices and our possibility for experiencing it in new ways are endless.

The multiple realities of art and of humans

Just as all of our senses are engaged to a certain degree in every art- experiences we encounter, listening and perceiving art is also a highly co-creative experience.

My father worked, among other things, as a scenographer at the theatre, providing the visual parts and settings of the performance. His main creed was always that the less visual cues you give the audience, the greater liberty you are granting to their imagination and co-creation of the experience. Theatre, as well as music is a co-op: it demands the active co-operation of everyone involved and that includes the audience/listeners.

svart-teater

From the rehearsal of the theatre performance Måne over gjøglarvogna, one of the first performances in Norway where black light theatre was used, a form of theatre introduced in Norway by my father Karel Hlavaty. This performance was created in cooperation between my father and my mother, Nina Martins

The only reason why it is possible for a scenographer to depend on the co-creation of the audience or for a composer to depend on the aural jigsaw puzzle-skills of his audience is the knowledge that this is a central part of the human mind: the ability and fascination for filling out the picture, for joining the dots.

JSBachIn the suites for solo cello by Johan Sebastian Bach the cellist has four strings, four fingers and a bow at his or her disposal. Only two strings can be played simultaneously and therefore the possibilities for creating harmony and chords (three or more notes played simultaneously) is limited. How then is it possible to create the impression of more than one voice moving along?

The solution is to involve the listener as a co-creator: in his music Bach often implies harmony by having the cellist move between fragments of two or more voices. In the listener’s mind the fragments merge into two or three separate voices being played simultaneously and thus harmony is created. One way this is done is through arpeggios or broken chords, where the notes of the chord are played after one another but where the listener combines them in his head. Here is an example from the Allemande of the second Suite in d-minor.

Seen in a time perspective the notes are played after one another in succession along a horizontal timeline, the hallmark of melody, but in the mind of the listener harmony (the stacking of notes vertically) is nevertheless created.

Most of us are highly unaware of all the amazing processes happening inside ourselves when we are conceiving art; of how many amazing sensorial connections that are being made and contributing to our overall experience. If we were aware of this we might perhaps place less of an emphasis on the opinion of others to tell us how to think and feel about what we have just experienced and simply be present in the unique jigsaw puzzle-games of our amazing minds.

george_crumb_agnus_dei_detail

A detail from one of the beautiful scripts of American composer George Crumb

Maybe we should all be more in awe over our own creative ability when encountering music or art, an ability without which would render music and art as barren constructions and not as the amazing playgrounds for the mind that they are.

 

 

 

 

An artistic meeting beyond time

Last Tuesday, the 5 of January the great composer, conductor and pianist Pierre Boulez passed into eternity. As a lifetime explorer of new musical dimensions he has, for me, been a great source of inspiration. The following is an imagined meeting which I personally would have loved to witness and a small tribute to the great and timeless minds of three immaculate artists who, in my view, share the common feature of fearless exploration into Art: Pierre Boulez, Pablo Picasso and Johann Sebastian Bach.

So what if it were possible to create a quiet place beyond the limits of time and allow these three to meet for an amiable chat concerning life and art? To erase the years between them and let them meet as equals, each formed by his own time but also at the same time combined in their mutual love of Art and their own work. What if it were possible to let them meet on neutral ground in a half-fictional setting but at the same time partly real?

The setting of this experience owes its imagery to the books of Lawrence Durrel “The Alexandria Quartet” and Keith Miller “The Book on Fire”. Other sources of inspiration used are: http://www.baroquemusic.org/bqxjsbach.html, an interview with Pierre Boulez by the Magazine Musikblätter (Interview: Wolfgang Schaufler, Transcript: Christopher Roth, Baden-Baden; December 2010) © Universal Edition and a lifetime of quotes, tidbits and remembrances from books, articles and half-heard stories.

Please bear in mind that this is meant as a purely fictional meandering and respectful hommage to three men who have and will continue to have a profound impact on music and art everywhere.

An imagined meeting. Pablo Picasso, Pierre Boulez and johann Sebastian Bach

AlexandriaPablo Picasso, Pierre Boulez and Johann Sebastian Bach are meeting over a pair of Havana cigars and cognac on the terrace of a bar overlooking the harbour in Alexandria. The sky is tall and bright and the three gentlemen are immaculately dressed in white linen suits. Bach has lifted off his wig and placed it on the chair beside him, fanning himself lightly with Boulez´ Panama hat. Picasso squints eagerly into the sun while his hand moves ceaselessly over the drawing pad on his lap. When Boulez urges him to take a short break he excuses himself saying that as he has vowed never to write a diary (to the relief of many of the husbands of his previous mistresses) his pictures will be his only memoires and the pages of his life’s Journal, and this occasion certainly merits to be remembered.

As three friends of old, connected through their creative ideas and passion for their work there is little need to discuss seemingly irrelevant facts like differences in age and language. Instead the conversation invariably turns towards familiar elements like work and life.

Since neither of the three has ever been burdened with unnecessary shyness the conversation flows freely and amiably.

Bach, having finally obtained a position at the Thomas school in Leipzig shares his joy over the new possibilities such a position offers with his friends and the conversation turns towards the subject of artistic freedom.

Boulez: I believe I have finally begun my quest towards my own freedom, friends. I feel as if I have been confined to the crudest building blocks by a hoarding older brother for many years and now he has left home and all of a sudden I found the door to his room ajar and sneaked in and upturned the box under his bed and got creatively drunk on the riches I discovered there!

In many ways you know, Arnold was like a bigger brother to me in creative spirit. Coming home with his bag stuffed full of a strange new language and impressing everyone at the family reunions. I was impressed as well, I admit it. And I learned a lot but at the same time my thoughts were inevitably straying towards the eternal Cain-motif. I needed more, I needed to break free and conquer my own land, my own language, a language with infinitely more freedom than his. And so I began to assemble the blocks in an entirely different way and according to a completely new system, my system.

My system would be a system in which freedom was essential like the totem of the entire country, a freedom like the empty workshop of a mason where only the hammer lies resting on the bench, waiting.

Picasso: But there is always freedom! How else could you create if you have not freedom? If you be a true man your work is bound to be your own and therefore, of course, free.picasso portrett

Bach: But the system is the essence here, Pablo! After all, what is structure and system but a blueprint that shows us the inner structures of existence, no less. No structure, no creation. Of course like all things containing great power it must be mastered…

Picasso: Like with any woman or any blank canvas..

Bach: Never the less it can be mastered but it takes time and hard work, it does not simply fall into one’s lap. Then of course you have to endure the experience of having your beautiful structure completely disintegrated by a third rate musician who cannot even be bothered to play the correct rhythmical ornamentation.

Picasso: For me the system comes with the gut-impulse. I always paint objects as I think them, not as I see them, therefore any system inherent in my thoughts invariably shows itself in my work, I cannot put it there intentionally in order for the art to emerge within it.

As for your talk about Cain-motifs, Pierre: in my opinion every creation starts with destruction. You have to rid yourself of or deliberately destroy any previous notion of what you think you know about something when attempting to describe it. How else can you gain access to its essence, and once you’ve found that: how else can you make an accurate description of it?

Boulez: I believe that is something I can relate to. What finally gave me my stand against my Viennese brothers: I needed to be allowed to describe, to be a painter! You really cannot just be constructive all the time; you have to be descriptive, as well!

Picasso: Perhaps you would like a canvas? But of course when describing something the real question is always “who are you describing for?”

I have been describing the world to so many people and in such an amount of different languages but it was not until I finally started describing it to myself that it really got interesting.

Bach: By “yourself”, you mean the divine core of your own self?

JSBach

Picasso: If there ever is or was a divinity he lives within the perfectly painted line of a woman´s back.. (Smiles)

Bach: Personally I would say that I have never doubted his presence in my music.

After all, gentlemen, did not the great Luther himself one state that it is “when music is sharpened and polished by Art that one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect wisdom of God in his wonderful work of harmony”

But the problem as I see it seems to be that in order to make a living and to be able to live with yourself while making it, your descriptions needs to be accessible to others as well as to yourself.

Unless of course you are very wealthy and may do as you please.

God knows I tried in my youth, my head bursting with the new ideas from the evening songs, with the new possibilities! All of these new ideas literally pouring from my fingertips! And what do they say?? “Surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation”. (Mumbles and reaches for his glass) As if three months is such an enormous amount of lost time…

Boulez: In that case I am thankful for our differences in time. At least I had the fortune of being born into a world where creating your own language can be seen as a valid line of work. Although of course merely trying to oppose old structures can easily get you artistically dismissed as an attention-hungry musician.

No, the skill that must be “mastered” has for me always been the skill of balance, the delicate balance between constructivism on the one hand and spontaneity on the other. For me, these are the two elements of a true musician.

Bach: Hah! Spontaneity! a lost art in deed. You know, there were times when I felt myself suffocating underneath all of these innumerable careful souls. People who lived by rules, never venturing outside of what they had been taught were possible. Especially the organ builders! At times I would give them all a good fright just to get back into a happy mood. Pulling out all the stops on the organ and letting the instrument make its loudest sound ever always made them all go quite white. I used to say that I needed to hear whether the organ had a good lung (chuckles) Ah, but that sound, gentlemen, what an experience!

You know, Pierre, I quite envy you your enormous palette of sound. What I could have done with such a palette…

Picasso: It is still just a palette. What use is a palette without the ability to wield the brush? Not that you of all people lack that ability, my friend. (smiles and places his hand briefly on Bach´s shoulder) My point is only that the wielding, or maybe more accurately the will to wield is infinitely more important that what you happen to be wielding at the moment.

Boulez: I must certainly say that your palette has changed considerably during your lifetime, Pablo. But at the same time your brush stays true.

(softly, far away the call from the surrounding muezzins starts weaving random harmonies through the afternoon air)Vindussprosser

Will you listen to that! You know, in spite of all this talk of brushes and personal ways of wielding them; sitting here with this magnificent view I am very glad that we decided to meet here as this journey has given me the possibility to enrich my pallet with new sounds and impulses, to absorb this culture and all of its lovely sounds and to take it all back with me to replenish my “brush”. I almost feel like a thief, hoarding riches into the purse of my imagination..

Bach: I was doing the same! There are some very interesting harmonic progressions happening here (pulls out a feather pen and ink bottle and starts jotting down a figured bass on the napkin)

Picasso: And of course you know, my friends, bad artists copy but good artists steal.