Extended techniques

Ten composers, a sushi conveyor belt and an hour and a half to eat as much as possible. The Danish Royal Academy of Music’s advanced composition class were not daunted by this task, and are in the process of honing their techniques to cutting edge. Within minutes of the starter gun firing, this international group of eclectic composers had managed at least two clearings of empty sushi plate towers. It’s impressive.

“We’re just beginners”, humbly says Greek composer Christos Farmakis, writer of the dramatic Helix Lucorum for 4 cellos and accordion, a combo I haven’t encountered before, infused with wailing cello sirens and shimmering metallic harmonic clusters interlaced with accordion pedals and flourishes. “Every time we meet we aim to improve our skills at this thing. A lot can happen in an hour and a half.”

NAM JUNE PAIK  “TV Cello” 1967-1996. The ultimate multi-media instrument.

We’re at the twice-monthly post composer seminar noshup, hosted by composer/professor Niels Rosing Schow. I’ve just been playing a few contemporary cello numbers (Harvey, Pintscher, Finnissey, Saariaho) to spark question and answers about extended string playing techniques, about which the group are clearly old hands. We chat about/ I demonstrate subharmonics, multiphonics, half-finger pressure, excess bow pressure, jeté, richochet, and a host of the usual issues composers face when writing for strings in the 21st century. And how to notate it all so players don’t grumble too much.

This accomplished, we make a bolt for Miao Running Sushi.

Excerpt from one of Brian Ferneyhough’s string 4tets, the perfect extended string techniques composer seminar demo material. I didn’t use it on this occasion.

Danish-born but Australian-reared composer Benjamin de Murashin is self appointed leader of this intrepid group, calling for a Sushi break every 5 plate clearings. The rules at present are that no one must reach for the sushi train once Ben calls the break. He’s handed me a fiery cello/piano piece called Raga Time, which includes a section where the cello imitates a didgeridoo. His music is utterly unlike anything I’ve heard so far in Denmark as the mp3s on his website will show, and he shows real flair at orchestral writing.

Gunnar Karel Masson (below), winner of the best composer beard award so far during this residency.

Suddenly we notice Icelandic composer Gunnar Karel Masson sneaking a prawn cracker. It is the break. He has broken the rules. But then again, I suspect his music may do the same. I asked if he uses MAX MSP and it turns out he is using a lot of different software, including video. Later online listenings reveal highly coloured and sensitive works for piano, percussion, electronics and theatre. What’s impressive about this group (aside from their aplomb at eating vast amounts of dodgy oriental food in a very short space of time) is that they are from all over the world, writing in completely different styles, and yet very supportive of each other’s work.

This butch Carl Nielsen was last year’s Athelas Festival pin-up. I wore the T-shirt in the gym a couple of times and got a few sapphic glances. None of the current Danish Academy composition students write music like him.

I’m beginning to realise that there isn’t a Danish school of composition as such. Individuals are encouraged to work within their own language, and develop from that point. It creates a unique atmosphere of mutual support and conviviality, unlike the more factionalised UK composition students. It is exactly this that struck me when visiting Copenhagen with London Sinfonietta a couple of years back, playing the music of Christian Winther Christensen, Rune Glerup and Nicolai Worsaae Rasmussen. Their music doesn’t instantly make you think of Per Nørgård, or Hans Abrahamson, or Bent Sørensen or Carl Nielsen, even though these guys must be somewhere in the blood. It’s hard to trace contemporary Danish musical DNA. Everyone writes in their own way, even if they share the same teachers.

[singlepic id=169 w=320 h=240 float=right]By way of alleviating this rather composer-dominated post, I’ll share with you my typically Copenhagen-esque bathroom arrangement (right). My inability to remember to switch the shower-converter lever in the middle has led to daily left side drenchings whilst brushing my teeth. I now wonder if this is why so many Danes favour the asymetric haircut.

Nearly a fortnight ago, Ylva Lund Bergner, a student of composition in her home country Sweden, Italy and now at this same Academy in Denmark, presented a full evening’s debut programme of her music for voices, ensemble, solo instruments with live electronics, of which 5 were world premieres.

Generic live electronics gig imagery in lieu of actual photos. Camera clicks (quite rightly) were strictly banned during the show. 

The debut concert is a fantastic opportunity for students to produce their own concert: fix the musicians and conductor, arrange rehearsals, make the required funding applications, organise the technical aspects of the show and get an audience to come and support it. As far as I know we don’t have anything quite like it in the UK, probably because we don’t have the cash. It’s a really good idea and gives tangible experiential concert-making ballast before for setting sail into the uncertain waters of a composing career.

Niels Rosing-Schow, introduced above, explained that much of the music in the evening’s performance was to be part of Ylva’s forthcoming opera, with a libretto amalgamation of texts put together herself including the Danish writer Inger Christensen (about whom more later). The dramatic intensity of Ylva’s music, with its highly coloured vocal and instrumental writing certainly lends itself to the stage, with haunting sound scape continuums blended with seamless and highly sophisticated live electronics.

Illustration for Poe’s “Conqueror Worm”: “With its phantom chased for evermore/ by a crowd that seize it not.”

High points for me were her vocal ensemble pieces “Öken Ter Gan Osk” with electronics, and her setting of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Conqueror Worm”: sensuous close vocal harmony blended with mechanistic vowel and consonant chants alongside beautiful solo soprano Helene Lang (featured on Dygong‘s new album).

A delicately prepared piano. (Not Ylva’s version).

Also unforgettable was “Macronetes” for prepared piano in which pianists Neel Teilmann and Manuel Esperilla tortured the inside of a piano in elegant and inventive ways. Apparently the piano reserved for composers at the Academy is perfect for this. After many years of being comprehensively trashed, it has now developed rattling synchronicities of its own, incorporated into several new works by composers familiar with its quirks.

Ylva has a real gift for blending live electronics seamlessly with acoustic instruments and voices, and her extended sonic poems have a hallucinatory quality, dreamlike sound pictures from other dimensions, reminiscent not only of the existential characteristics of Inger Christensen‘s writing (about which, as I said, more in another post), but also the films of Ingmar Bergman. Ylva is Swedish, after all.

Scene from Ingmar Bergman’s master film, “The Seventh Seal” (1959) set in medieval times during the black death. Ylva’s music kept reminding me of it.

There was some fantastic accordion playing from Rasmus Schjærff Kjøller (try pronouncing THAT), often hard to tell apart from Ylva’s subtle electronic textures. We’re not so used to accordionists in UK new music. Usually they show up for isolated ensemble pieces every few years and bring their own sandwiches. But here in Denmark they proliferate with virtuosic abandon, thanks to accordion godfather genius Morgens Ellegaard who single handedly started an international school of excellence here at the Academy in the 50s, and whose students (and grand-students) now carry on the tradition all over the world.


On Morgens’ watch, many Danish composers wrote for the instrument, creating a completely new repertoire, including Edition . S very own Klaus Ib Jorgensen, whose outrageously virtuosic accordion pieces are now played world wide and considered staples of the solo rep. Any virtuoso accordion players out there not knowing Klaus’s stuff should seriously check it out.

As there were no photos from the concert I can’t show you the dancer’s Hat of Death. So you’ll have to make do with this one which isn’t half as scary.

Ylva’s concert ended with a very spooky number for electronics and dancer, dressed in nightmarish black garb and mask-like features under an enormous Hat of Death. Something tells me her opera is not going to be light entertainment. Unlike Parsifal Act II’s giant vagina at the Opera House last week. About which, more to follow shortly.

Stay tuned for Z-blog…