Rock gods, Xenakis and the Danish Interior

Off my face on premium Afghan sensei I gasped as the curtains went up on the opening of Wayne McGregor’s award winning ballet, Chroma. What lithe, contained, muscular lyricism! The colours! The lights! The technical flawlessness, strength and sheer stamina of the Danish Royal Ballet, whirling their way through sustained passages of virtuoso acrobatics! The edgy architectural spaces created by ensemble groupings! The gorgeousness of the dancers themselves in tiny little slips designed by Moritz Junge!

And the music! The music! In hallucinogenic bliss I listened to my own cello solo soaring over the sleek designed space of the new Royal Theatre.

My own cello solo… This must be serious shit, I thought admiringly of the enormous Christiania spliff handed to me minutes before.

But wait a second. That WAS me playing cello over the sound system. Suddenly it all came flooding back….

It’s the mid-naughties in an underground Soho London car park converted into secret album launch location for one of the world’s loudest rock duos, the White Stripes. Jack and Meg White stand on a stage a few feet away from me making an indescribable amount of noise mere minutes after our own hugely amplified ensemble has finished thrashing out Joby Talbot‘s new album Aluminum, his inspired arrangement of White Stripes numbers brilliantly orchestrated by Chris Austin.

NB Both Chris Austin and the White Stripes have synchronistically come up in previous posts. It’s a bit weird.

It’s an AMAZING album. There’s nothing like it. Especially in combo with Wayne McGregor’s virile, haunting, rhapsodic athleticism.

Composer Joby Talbot “at work”, enjoying a stylish, sharp-suited photo opportunity.

It’s not often that choreographers get it right with music. In my experience, dancers often see music and musicians as a mere commodity to be switched on and off as required, and repeated exactly the same way each time. There’s many a story of warring conductors and ballet masters.

In one true account from Dutch National Ballet, the infuriated conductor de jour (who shall remain nameless), provoked beyond endurance, finally lost the plot and deliberately slowed the orchestra tempo in a live performance until a carefully balanced pas de deux collapsed under the strain and the prima ballerina got dropped by her exhausted partner.

The notion that music is a living, breathing organism like dance itself is often misunderstood by those making movement.


Choreographer Wayne McGregor (right). He’s really really tall in real life.

But not Wayne McGregor. He and Joby make a perfect combo in Chroma, the rock urgency of the music driving the dance energy over the cliff onto the delighted audience beneath.


The Balanchine Stravinsky combo has to be one of the greatest ballet/music understandings of all time. George’s Apollo, to Igor’s Apollon Musagete (1927) is the closest thing to musical counterpoint I have ever seen in dance. It must have helped that Mr. B (as his dancers called him) was a mean pianist.

I asked Wayne McGregor in the first of three intervals that night how he put together one of my favourite music videos of all time, Radiohead’s marvellous single, Lotus Flower. Every single move is choreographed, he said, each move demonstrated to Thom Yorke, who copied on the spot, brilliantly. He is a seriously talented dancer. 

Not to mention HUGE rock star. And painter.

Thom Yorke’s extraordinary performance in Radiohead’s Lotus Flower video (right). If you haven’t yet seen it, for god’s sake repair this glaring lacuna in your cultural lexicon right now.

I was lucky enough to spend a day  with Radiohead a couple of years back, playing in a string 4tet on their In Rainbows album. Instead of spending their rock millions on leopardskin yachts and gold-plated bedframes graced with cocaine-dusted porn stars, Radiohead bought up a fabulous converted farmhouse somewhere in the Oxfordshire countryside, and filled it with Nasa-level recording equipment and dedicated engineers to match. They are serious about making new music.

Radiohead (left). Angsty Thom Yorke aside, off-duty they don’t look or behave like rock stars, but nice middle class blokes from Abingdon in cord trousers with small children. Which they are.

That day they were experimenting recording with analogue, then playing it back at different speeds. You can hear it (and us) on the song Nude. I asked them how they agree on stuff. “Easy”, said former viola player now rock god guitarist Johnny Greenwood, “We just tell each other when it’s shit, and it doesn’t go in the album”.

Anyway, back to the Royal Theatre.

I remember little about the following 3 ballets with the sole exception of the astonishingly high tech lighting design in Tina Tarpgaard’s ballet “Dew”. Using heat sensors, dancers created trippy light patterns around their bodies, which then appeared to flow independently around them.


Social inhibitions skunked WAYYY out the window, I asked (perhaps unimaginatively) the expensive, chunky but lonely-looking businessman next to me who and what he was.

“I am Igor”, he said.  “I work for the Russians.”

Futuristic “video scenography” by Jonas Jongejan in Tina Tarpgaard’s ballet “Dew”. I can’t help noticing this dancer’s remarkable resemblance to UK composer Tansy Davies (below).

Mysteriously, Russia showed up at the post show bash, which hinged around an emotional address to the assembled dancers, choreographers, designers and production team from the Artistic Director of the Danish Royal Ballet, Nicolaj Hübbe, who congratulated them on their mammoth achievement in bringing off four brand new ballets in one night.

It’s been a tough year for the House which has recently experienced highly controversial mass firings of dancers and House personnel under recession’s ruthless scythe.

Danish Ballet artistic Director Nicolaj Hübbe (clothed), former principal dancer of New York City Ballet, and recently star of a huge (well, huge in Denmark) cocaine scandal.

Note Euro-style lack of socks.

The politics between the 3 houses – opera, ballet and theatre –  and their independent administration boards are truly amongst the most blood curdling I’ve ever heard in the arts world.

To add mud to the mire, the Ballet has been at the centre of a media frenzied cocaine scandal, too pointless to explain here. (You can click on the link instead if so moved).

Big deal. Show me ice-free ballet companies. Alas, it’s not just the pirouettes that keeps them that thin…

Frankly speaking, a line or two may have assisted matters at an Athelas New Music Festival gig the other night, aptly titled “Tour de force med Jack String Quartet“. World leaders in virtuosic contemporary string playing techniques, this all male American 4tet take no prisoners when it comes to making really really nasty noises for incredibly long periods of time.

Members of the Jack Quartet with their Quentin Tarantino attitude to contemporary string playing.

Shrieking and scraping their way through every variant of crush tone, pressure glissando, micro-tonal scream and multiphonic howl, these boys are fearless about trashing their instruments in inventive new ways, assisted by a battery of taped-up bows, super sticky rosin, and uncompromising scores by Jexper Holmen, Allain Gaussin, Joël-François Durand, Simon Steen-Anderson and Xenakis.

Tracey Ullman trying to improve her understanding of classical music under Hugh Grant’s corrupt guidance, c/o Woody Allen, whilst answering her cell during a flute recital. Hugh should have taken her to the Jack 4tet gig.

Note the nun not noticing.

For context, read on.

Sitting through this concert reminded me of a montage sequence in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks (2000) where newly made cookie millionairess Tracey Ullman, playing Allen’s wife, tries to lift herself out of trailer trash taste under the guidance of debonair art dealer villain, Hugh Grant, who’s after the cash.

They sit through a Bach cello recital, Greek mask tragedy, Canadian contemporary dance and some mind bogglingly dreadful experimental opera. It was the latter that sprung to mind on this occasion, Tracy Ullman nervously twiddling her gold Versace bag whilst trying to appreciate high art.

Sexy Simon Steen-Anderson (right), composer, with typically cutting edge Danish designer promo pic. 

Highly respected in Danish new music circles, Simon Steen-Anderson had written a new piece for the festival. “Obstruction Study” is a film/recording of the quartet playing Schumann’s otherwise exquisite op.41.

Each player and instrument was wired up with rubber tubing to large milk cartons which were dragged up and down wooden boards with each bow movement, the resultant scraping and glugging amplified over the top of phased Schumann.

Daguerrotype of Robert Schumann (1850), senza rubber tubing and milk cartons. Perhaps they might have cheered him up.

It was apparent that the Jacks can play classical rep extremely well, with the same manic attention to detail as the new stuff.

I got really really upset. I love that Schumann quartet. If this was Steen-Anderson’s cry of protest against bourgeois romanticism and outmoded forms of music making, how I wish he’d chosen a different piece to massacre. Alongside the great 19th century master of radical harmony, Anderson’s point (whatever it was) seems frankly infantile.

Oops. There goes my career in Denmark. 

Having played countless pieces of new music stuffed with the same litany of contemporary string techniques demonstrated in the course of this tortuous evening, it was interesting to sit back and observe from the other side of the music stand.

It’s very hard to hear this kind of rep clearly after 20 minutes, let alone a couple of hours, and confirms my belief that contemporary classical music needs very careful programming so that the ear has time to recover.  A late Feldman palette cleanser, for example, would have done the trick. Such concerts should be shorter, rather than longer, to give the listener a chance to take in so much complex information.

Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001).

LOOK at that face! “Lived-in” doesn’t begin to cover the force of nature that this man clearly was. He must have been a complete ANIMAL in bed. 

That said, my battered brain and ears were still able to appreciate the raw, virile brilliance of Xenakis fabulous Tetras (1983). Just WHY is this music so good? Containing many of the (so-called) extended techniques displayed already in the evening, the music itself is class leagues away. Highly coloured textures alternate with obsessive rhythmic statements over a huge dynamic and expressive range within a tight structural schema.

The Jack Quartet NAILED this tremendous piece HARD against the wall. They are truly one of the world’s great new music string quartets, easily up there with the Hard Hittis (Arditti 4tet).

But boy, that gig was a tough one… 

Classic interior by Danish master, Hammershøj, 1864 – 1916.

Forgive the abrupt non sequitur, but too many posts have gone by without mention of my favorite Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøj, who was recently the focus of an unforgettably fabulous exhibition at the Danish National Art Gallery in Copenhagen. His thing is rooms. Frugal, abstemious, Lutheran Danish rooms illuminated by pale Nordic light that glances off the wooden floored interior still so beloved by his countrymen.

Almost invariably he includes a mysterious female figure in black with her back to the viewer. These scenes have always made a tremendous impression on me, and it was amazing to see exhibition room after room filled with these quiet rooms.


Natura Morta, oil on canvas, 1956, private collection. Giorgio Morandi

The space may seem empty at first glance, but on closer inspection is shimmering with light and energy, a quivering life force belied by the absence of material things, almost multi-dimensional with its invisible force field, observed by a motionless, column-like figure. It reminds me of the transcendental still lifes of Morandi, where simple kitchen vessels become suspended in space and time, transformed into something other than themselves, transcending material existence.

My experience of Denmark has frequently been of these two worlds side by side. On the surface, hip cafés, sharp design, beautiful blonde children in bike trailers pushed by healthy young anti-capitalists with asymmetric haircuts, a love of multi media art forms, collaboration, cheese and tiny bathrooms.

Yet underneath, there exists a great longing for transcendence, fuelled in part by the country’s literal lack of light in the long winter months, expressed by the great Danish artists and thinkers; Inger Christensen, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Kierkegård, Per Nørgård, Hammershøj.

There is definitely more to Denmark than crush tone multiphonics.
Stay tuned for the next episode of Z Blog.
The Scarlet Beast tours Denmark…