Ordeal by Fire

“MAX MSP sounds shite”, says composer Morten Olsen in the café next to the Royal Danish Academy of Music. I can’t believe my ears. Surely this is blackest heresy in this land of lavish laptop music making where use of sophisticated software such as MAX is almost holy law. I look round nervously for IRCAM secret agents, then listen to what he has to say about the role of technology in composition. As it turns out, he has a lot of very interesting things to say about music in general.

Locals deep in conversation (above) at handy café The Munchies” next to the Academy. Something tells me they’re not discussing the pros and cons of MAX MSP patches.

As well he might. Morten Olsen began his musical life in electronic-jazz fusion, writing for and leading an electric jazz quintet. Not satisfied with co-founding Denmark’s premier new music ensemble Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, he decided to learn double bass and quickly became one of the best around, playing with the ensemble, at the same time honing his formidable compositional skills by writing for the deadline-driven world of film.

Morten Olsen, composer, is not to be confused with legendary Danish football star and current coach for the Danish men’s soccer team, Morten Per Olsen (left), who most definitely does not write music in a modernist style, as far as I know.

Alongside composition, he also is a mean electric guitarist and sound engineer, always anxious to maintain the integrity of recorded instrumental colour and its mix, approaching recording with a composer’s ears. Good news for me as I’ll be in the studio with him next week recording one of the pieces I’ve written during my DIVA residency.

He produced Dygong‘s last album and described how he  chose extremely close vocal mic placement to imply an internal emotional dimension in Simon Løffler‘s beautiful vocal piece “Graduale”.

Morten clearly  flourishes without the assistance of MAX. He has serious compositional chops, not to mention ears when it comes to instrumental ensemble writing as his fantastic CD “In a Silent Way” demonstrates, beautifully performed by the Esbjerg Ensemble under the razor-eared direction of the UK’s very own Chris Austin.

Rigorous internal structures propel the musical narrative in ever-convincing arcs. Shimmering ensemble textures, rich in overtones, balance with wind solos filled with Stravinskyan verve, and highly coloured percussive sections nod to Morten’s jazz-fusion history.

Members of the Esbjerg Ensemble (left) in a characteristically stylish Danish ensemble portrait composition

Sonorous, lyrical, delicate, mysterious and at times passionate, almost violent in gesture, this is rich stuff. Musician’s music one would actually want to play (as opposed to the conceptual shite, to borrow’s Morten’s no-nonsense terminology, that can proliferate in a new music player’s pending tray).

One of the most effective procrastination techniques on receiving contemporary music cello parts through the post over the years, involves popping the bubble wrap on the A3 envelope, obeying the advice I once saw on a greetings card:

“Therapy is expensive. Popping bubble wrap is much cheaper”.

IMG_0804Although completed back in 1999, Morten’s solo cello piece Jernbyrd (literally, “Firebird”) has yet to be played for reasons which will soon become apparent. After seeing the piece and giving it careful thought, I’ve committed to the year-long process of learning it.

A vague iPhone impression (left) of the clouds of notes that comprise “Jernbyrd”.

Here’s what he has to say about the piece in his own English words:

“As late as in the year 1215, it was decided by the 4th synod in the Lutheran church under Pope Innocens III, that no clergyman should be allowed to participate in liturgy in connection to fire ordeal and other forms of proof of God.”

Alec Guiness as Pope Innocence III in Zeffirelli’s biopic of St. Francis of Assissi, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972)

“As a consequence of this decision comes Valdemars Jernbyrdsforordning, a directive from the Danish king. This puts an end to the phenomenon in Denmark. Jernbyrd is a method where those accused of a crime – by God’s intervention of course – proves his innocence by carrying a piece of red hot iron with his bare hands. The wounds of the innocent will heal, the guilty persons not.”

NB: Wiki warns that Pope Innocence III is not to be confused with Antipope Innocence II.

“To fully understand this, it is important to know that the burden of proof in medieval law is opposite. It is the duty of the accused to prove his innocence, no matter how absurd or unfounded it might be. One must imagine that the consequences of Jernbyd must be devastating for the wrongly accused, no matter the outcome.”

Trial by Fire, a Northern Virginian 5 piece rock band that have absolutely nothing to do with this post other than their uncanny ability to dominate google searches for nice fire ordeal imagery. I dare you to listen to their demos. 

(Morten continues:) “From a 20/21 century point of view, it seems completely absurd that such a thing could be forced on another person, even though it seems that for instance certain parts of the media seems to work under similar conditions…  In this piece it is the cello player that has to undergo the ordeal. There is, however the big difference that the musician is doing it by free will and will not suffer any serious harm by it.”  (NB. I hope).

Ordeal by fire: as proof of innocence this elegant medieval lady has to clasp a red-hot piece of iron without burning herself. Why she also seems to be clasping a severed head is beyond me. Perhaps its circumstantial evidence. Frankly, I’d prefer the cello ordeal option any day.

One of the reasons cellists have to date declined the offer of Ordeal by Morten is that it contains twelve A3 pages of non-stop semi-quavers at crotchet 120 across the entire range of the instrument, including the rarely-used extremities of the lower 2 strings. The music often divides into 3 voices which need to be clearly delineated. Whilst everything is theoretically playable, it requires great stamina and technical virtuosity to work, not to mention several hundred hours of unpaid practice time.

I’ve decided to treat the process as a kind of cellistic super-fitness regime as counter-weight to my cabaret shenanigans, and have already begun my daily “Mortens” to get in shape for the premiere on May 4th 2013 in Copenhagen.

A bit like the yoga which I’ve re-taken up at Copenhagen’s wonderful Hamsa Yoga studios by the lakes in hip Nørrebro, home to the most beautiful blonde bendy people I’ve ever seen, dedicatees of the Anusara style of yoga: “a school of hatha yoga, which unifies a life-affirming Shiva-Shakti Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness with Universal Principles of Alignment.” 

If only cello practice made me look like her…

Lovely stuff, although their tendency for occasional “Kumbaya”-style group chanting with guru guitar accompaniment inspires a deep primal need within me for acts of supreme evil.

Speaking of beautiful blonde people, I’ve run out of space to tell you about composer Ylva Lund Bergner‘s fabulous debut concert more than a week ago. So until I do in the next episode, here’s her piccy (not so unlike yoga-features above).

Also to come are tales of the astonishing feats of Copenhagen’s advanced composition students in sushi restaurants, Parsifal with Danish subtitles and sightings of Queen Margrethe.

Stay tuned for Z-Blog….