The Bridge

“This should sound like your wife screaming” was the composer’s first comment to the London Sinfonietta trombonist during rehearsals for his piece “Run” in the large dance rehearsal studio at the Royal Theatre in central Copenhagen.

“Ah yes!” he said as I whacked sfffffz hell out of my cello fingerboard with the wood of the bow. “A real catastrophe!” (He’d probably have been pleased to know that my brand new bow fell apart during the opening bars of a performance seminar I gave music students in Copenhagn a few days later).

Eyes twinkling with mischief, it is clear that Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (above) is no dry academic. He bursts with life, fun and music and looks at least 20 years younger than his 80 years. His secret, he tells me, is biking. Everyday, whatever the weather, he cycles the 8km from his home to and from Copenhagen.

If you mention his name to any music-loving Dane, their eyes go misty. The current generation of composers regard him with almost fanatical veneration, and see him as Denmark’s great leading musical light. In the same breath these same composers also summarily dismiss his contemporary Per Nørgård as being unimportant to them, which surprised me greatly. And seems a tad unfair to say the least.

At rehearsals in the Black Diamond. Photo by Sinfonietta’s fab new leader, also artistic director/leader of the Scottish Ensemble, star violinist Jonathan Morton.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b. 1932) has called himself a minor figure in Danish music – an outsider – but to those who know his stuff,  he is much more than that, an ‘established outsider’ and one of the few Danish composers to have received the Nordic Council’s Music Prize (in 1980 – for Symphony, Antiphony).

Until I spent some time in Copenhagen earlier this year, I’d never heard of Holmgreen, but had heard much music by fellow countrymen Nørgård, Poul Ruders and Hans Abrahamsen. An extensive internet search revealed nothing about performances of Holmgreen’s music in the UK other than occasional airings of his piece for cello and car horn “Plateaux pour deux” by cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, and the UK premiere of his work Incontri at the Proms this year.

But in the main, it has remained pretty much unknown in the UK, and I am intrigued to find out why.

Cover shot of Per Nørgård in glory days for Anders Beyer’s book on the composer. It’s no wonder a friend of mine used to have recurring dreams about being rescued by him. (Nørgård, that is, not Anders Beyer).

London Sinfonietta had been invited to take part in a full evening concert of his music at the fantastic new concert hall in the new extension to the Royal Library, or Black Diamond, as its known to the locals. This is cutting edge Danish design at its most inspired. It’s hard to say exactly what this fabulous building is for, other than an inspiring setting for overpriced coffee-and-cake rendezvous, but it really is spectacular. Every detail has been thought about, including the backstage area with its textured concrete and glass walls, and “shadow edges” along the stairwells to the dressing rooms. In good weather there are deckchairs outside looking over the water.

The Black Diamond, glittering by the waterfront.

Copenhageners complain about how it’s situated in no-mans land, away from bars and cafés and somewhat isolated. But for us Londoners who are used to travelling for hours a day on stuffy overcrowded tubes to get anywhere useful at all, the 10 minute bike-ride from the centre of town is a mere bagatelle.

I spose the closest we get to it in London is our South Bank centre. But there are no posters in the Black Diamond for Somalian poetry readings, Venezuelan orchestral workshops, Tower Hamlets choir presentations or pan-pipe* and rainstick creative writing afternoons.

Cutting edge Danish design inside the Black Diamond.

I’ll take a moment out to share with you a recent insane South Park double-episode called Pandemic in which Peruvian *pan-flute bands multiply to pandemic global levels and are forcibly ejected by the US military with disastrous results. It turns out that the pan-flute bands are the only things keeping an ancient Inca race of giant killer guinea pigs away…

Apparently Louis Andriessen spent 15 minutes at the end of a recent lecture on Berg talking about South Park, which he watches every night. As does Per Nørgård. So there.

So back to the London Sinfonietta’s Holmgreen immersion evening, comprised of several ensemble numbers plus heartbreakingly beautiful vocal pieces, including Song based on Dowland’s Lachrimae (on my Top-Faves-for-My-Funeral list) performed with spectacular purity and micro precise intonation by vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, all directed by their distinguished founder Paul Hillier, who knows Pelle’s work well.

Only a vocal group with honed Renaissance chops could pull off this music with its combo of extended vocal techniques and pure-voiced harmony. They really are a world-class group and well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

Theatre of Voices. Singing in this gig were sopranos Else Torp and Signe Asmussen, tenor Chris Watson and Jacob Bloch Jesperson, bass. That’s Paul Hillier in black, bottom right.

Vocal piece Song was then combined with the instrumental piece Play to produce the third completely different-sounding Company. Pelle told me he’d conceived the idea of combining the two pieces from the beginning. A cunning compositional plan, which worked.

The instrumental writing is full of typically Holmgreen-ian bangs, crunches, thwacks, jazz fall-off whoops, farty chords, repeated notey patterns and eccentric percussion kitchen freak-outs. Utterly original, the music is hard to describe, but I guess one could say that it embraces a kind of left-field minimalism. There are often very simple gestures, repeated multiple times, expressed with great clarity, and sometimes very beautiful harmonies that are rarely allowed to exist for long before being tripped up by eccentric blips of one kind or another.

He told me that the absurdism of Beckett, his “household god”, is behind this counterpoint between interfering textures, “a murmuring in the mud” (Beckett, How it Is), and how Beckett’s characters often talk at each other without listening.

Samuel Beckett. b 1906. What an INCREDIBLE face…

I’m reminded of Beckett’s use of one to three dots to delineate precise pauses in speech in some of his monologues, rather like musical notation. An example of this can be found in his virtuoso solo piece Not I in which only the actress’ mouth is illuminated, so that it appears to be suspended 8ft above the stage. The text is to be spoken as fast as possible, “at the speed of thought”, plus the dot-delineated micro pauses, a nightmarish stream of consciousness both profound and transient. It is also occasionally funny, as with Holmgreen.

Here’s foremost Beckett interpreter Billie Whitelaw’s version of the piece.

Hans Abrahamsen told me that the other two main musical figures of Pelle’s generation are Per Nørgård and Ib Nørholm (about whose music I know nothing, but who is considered one of Denmark’s greatest symphonists, alongside Carl Nielsen). They started off writing quite complex music, but then went to Germany, heard Boulez and Stockhausen, freaked out and subsequently reacted strongly against what they heard by creating the “New Simplicity”, still a going concern in Denmark. In Pelle’s case, scores were pared right down, earning him the minimalist badge, and in some cases were just simple Danish folk songs.

I can’t help feeling a little piqued thinking of what these relaxed Danes were up to compared to that intense decade in the 90s over here in which we all sweated blood over our New Complexitists: Ferneyhough, Barrett, Finnissy et al. Two sides of same coin innit.

Brian Ferneyhough. Not a New Simplicitist.

Hans Abrahamsen also followed this ideology (although he’s 20 years younger than the “grand old men of Danish music” trio) as you can hear in his wonderful ensemble piece Schnee (2006-8) (here it is on YouTube), inspired by Danish author Peter Høeg’s beautiful novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, hinging around native Greenlanders and their 23 words for snow. The icy sounds in this piece are wonderfully inventive, and without looking at a score, hard to figure out how they are produced.

Abrahamsen’s new piece for the Arditti (“Hard-hitti”) 4tet has its British premiere at the end of this month at the Wigmore hall alongside performances by the equally hardcore Jack Quartet. Apparently Irvin Arditti has complained because the piece is really difficult, even though Hans tells me it sounds simple. Quite an achievement with these boys… Bravo Hans.

Hans Abrahamsen. Complex Simplicitist.

There’s a documentary by Jytte Rex about Holmgreen called Music is a Monster which doesn’t reveal much about his musical background, but paints an interesting portrait of a one-off character who knows exactly what music he wants to write and has developed the skills to do it. Those who’ve seen it always mention the scene in which the composer dances freestyle to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks.

Indicating that perhaps he’s not such a retiring figure after all.

Interestingly, he speaks (whilst floating Danishly in a chilly-looking Jutland sea) of Vermeer’s blues as being a great influence – “they create great gaiety in each pure scene”. Influences also include pre-pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, Mongolian deep-throat and overtone singing and above all, the sounds of nature. His virtuosic impressions of “sheep concerts” and a friendly yellow-hammer convinced me he has real ears.

For me his music is off-the-wall, comic, moving, clearly expressed, quietly radical and very, very Danish. A mutual friend told me that Holmgreen has essentially always been writing the same piece, but seen from different angles. To decide for yourself, check out his discography on the Da Capo label, including recordings by the Kronos 4tet and new release, The Natural World of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen with Paul Hillier and ARS NOVA, nominated for Best Choral Performance at the 2012 American Grammy Awards. Respect.

You could also check out the Kronos 4tet all Holmgreen concert at the Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen in December, or brave the beardy-weirdies and pop along to the Huddersfield Festival on November 25th to hear the London Sinfonietta give a repeat performance of the Holmgreen programme, all UK premieres.

It’s time we in the UK got to know more of this very interesting composer while he’s still around.

Speaking of Mongolians, one of my top fave films is The Story of the Weeping Camel, a 2003 German docu-drama. Set in the Gobi desert amongst a nomadic tribe of camel-farmers, the plot hinges around a pregnant camel who experiences a difficult labour and is too traumatised to feed her calf. Faced with the catastrophic (if you’re a Mongolian desert camel farmer) loss of baby camel, the family decide to do the only logical thing, and send a couple of the men off on a 3 day camel ride across the desert to fetch

The Musician.

In the nick of time, this all-powerful member of the Mongolian community shows up, big stringy lute thing in hand, and begins to work his magic on the obstinately un-maternal camel, accompanied by the eloquent singing of the camel-herder’s wife.

Here’s the family in the communal tenty living quarters (above), drinking camel butter tea while a sand storm rages outside, discussing what to do about the dying camel calf situation.

And blow me, the mother camel actually begins to cry – genius RADA-acting camel, god knows how this is done (unless it’s for real), and finally allows her starving calf to suckle. Unashamedly, I cried buckets at the simple and holy truth that all can be made well in the world by MUSIC….

The Musician could well have proved handy in helping communications between the Swedes and the Danes. London Sinfonietta’s mini Scandy tour included Malmö, across the spectacular bridge from Copenhagen. Ensemble administrators hinted that trying to organise concerts between the two countries had been less than easy, each side blaming the other for any mishaps and passing the buck across the water wherever possible.

The 8km Øresund bridge joining Denmark and Sweden across the Øresund Strait, finished in 1999. The train is beneath the road. An incredible piece of engineering.

It would seem that historical tensions are still in place, much like our own Franco-Brit chunnel equivalent. Here’s a small excerpt from some extensive anti-Swedish rant in Jens Peter Jacobsen’s historical novel, Fru Marie Grubbe, set during the Dano-Swedish wars in the mid 17th century:

“Faith they’re ugly folk, the Swedes,” spoke Eric Lauritzen. “They’ve nothing to set their teeth in at home, so when they come to foreign parts they can never get their bellyful… Thieves and cutpurses they are too – worse than crows and corpse-plunderers.. Half of ’em can cast the evil eye too, else why d’ye think the small-pox is always so bad wherever those hell hounds ‘ve set their cursed feet?”

etc. etc.

More recent anti-Svenska sentiments in Copenhagen are due to the years of carousing Swedes brought over on pre-Bridge party ferries to get wasted on the vastly cheaper Danish beer. Be warned: do NOT buy rounds in Sweden unless you fancy taking out a second mortgage.

Incidentally, the Danish Ø is pronounced in exactly the same way as the Swedish Ö. Fans of the Muppets’ Swedish chef will be able to practice this sound with his assistance.

Ingmar Bergman and the great Swedish theatre tradition forgive me!

To balance matters, I must mention a scene in Danish director Lars Von Trier’s TV series The Kingdom where one frustrated Swede, fed up with Danish vagueness, yells over the water all that is great about his country:

“ABBA! IKEA! Bergman! “

Anyone who’s seen the Danish-Swedish TV series The Bridge may remember the first meeting between the Danish chief detective and his leather-trousered autistic blonde (strangely un-sexy) Swedish counterpart, who have to work together to solve the problem of a body left exactly over the border, halfway across the bridge.

Humour is immediately established by the Swedes’ inability to pronounce their Danish colleague’s name, which includes the hilarious (to me anyway) letter “d”, which is pronounced a little like trying to swallow a large dumpling while saying “ah”.

Speaking of which, I encountered this extraordinary alien presence on a running sushi bar next to the Danish Academy of Music. Suggestions on Facebook as to its identity have included:

Cuttle fish with contact lenses, deep fried cello rosin, UFOs and Michael Gove, education secretary for England turning up at the Conservative Party Conference. Theresa May is on the table under a bowl behind him.

This last suggestion c/o fabulous pianist, composer and doctor of Stalinist Russian literature, James Clapperton.

The spectacular daytime journey across the bridge to Copenhagen becomes a whole new world on the late Saturday night train back home, which is packed with riotously drunk blonde young folk egged on by marauding troops of drug unit police wielding rubber gloves and sniffer dogs. Rather like being in an episode of Wallander.

It seems to me that the Swedish thriller genre, so popular with us Brits, has its roots in the underlying disquiet that underpins all seemingly utopian societies. Indeed, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, aside from being a thrilling plot-driven page-turner (for some), is essentially a rant against the hidden corruption and right-wing extremism behind the happy Svenska dream, bourne out by the author Stieg Larsson‘s mysterious death in 2004.

Have you noticed how every episode of any self-respecting crime series must contain one or all of the following elements: horribly mutilated body/ies, prostitution, drug/child molesting rings and a troubled police detective in charge, always at odds with his less-intelligent superiors, working mainly with brilliant instinct, and often borderline Asperghers.

Our very own Kenneth Branagh on location in Ystad for the Brit version of Wallander. I have to say, he does do Scandy-moody exceptionally well.

A Danish friend told me that in the last few decades there have been a succession of seemingly motiveless, random and horrific murders in Sweden, and mangled bodies show up with depressing regularity.

Perhaps human nature always has to balance the polarity between light and dark. Too many blissful communes and love-ins with clean streets, efficient transport, excellent free childcare and the highest per capita head standard of living in the world has to be counterbalanced by nightmarish crimes. Either that, or there simply isn’t enough daylight.

A former theatre, the Palladium in Malmö, built by city architect August Stoltz in 1920, belies it’s bingo-associative name and is a lovely concert hall with fab acoustics which can also be converted for larger dance, film and theatre productions.

The audience for our concert there was made up of about 90% non-ticket paying invited diplomats, ambassadors and their partners, most of whom had never been to a classical concert, let alone a contemporary music programme. In some ways, their total lack of prejudice made them a receptive audience, and they seemed to cope quite happily with the Brit-pack line-up of Adés, Knussen, Tansy Davies, Ed Finnis and Simon Bainbridge.

Incredibly, there is so much funding for concerts in southern Sweden that they don’t have any pressure to build audiences. Which would explain the total absence of posters in Malmö or billboards outside the main entrance. And perhaps also why I can’t think of a single Swedish composer.

Notice anything strange about the entrance decor in the Palladium foyer? Actually, our concert was part of their London 2012 series, but it felt a bit weird all the same.

Whilst the audience may have coped surprisingly well with the evening, the players involved in every piece were sweating. Seriously. For the two concerts in Sweden and Denmark, with two different programmes performed on subsequent days, we had a total of three days rehearsal.


Yes, we got 6 out of 6 possible stars (and hearts, bless) in the major Danish broadsheet reviews, and yes, once again British players pulled it out of the bag on the night. But can you imagine any other ensemble anywhere else in the world being able or willing to do this? Yes, there is less and less money to finance proper rehearsal time, but lord, it’s impossible to really refine performances of such demanding rep in this kind of time, even with such high calibre musicians.

One argument would have it that this particular audience wouldn’t have noticed anyway. But that’s a slippery slope. Ohhhh yes. The integrity of the composer’s music is at stake here, and we musicians have to serve. Surely it’s better to have shorter programmes and mixed ability rep (if you see what I mean) if rehearsal cash really is that tight?

There I go getting myself into trouble again.

Almost the same amount of rehearsal time was what the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (right) had allotted to ONE PIECE in their 25th anniversary opening concert last month at the CBSO centre in Birmingham. This was the premiere of Alexander Goehr’s To These Dark Steps (op.90) for tenor, ensemble and girls’ choir. The solo part was sung superbly by Christopher Gillett who stood in at the last minute (well, I guess things can’t always be ideal..).

The piece is built around the heart-rending poems of Israeli poet and translator Gabriel Levin, written during the 2008 bombing in Gaza, and (in simplified terms) is a series of vignettes concerning his experiences listening to contemporary music (he could listen to nothing else at the time) amidst the horrors of the surrounding war.

Messiaen’s Piece for piano and string quartet (1991), Ligeti’s Melodien (1971) and Webern’s Six pieces for orchestra (ensemble version) were programmed by way of lead-up to the Goehr premiere in this extremely powerful concert conducted by Oliver Knussen.

Gabriel Levin (left) is a gentle wise kind soul – not the table beating revolutionary one might expect from such writings – who I immediately fell for. He was deeply moved by Goehr’s settings, having never had his work set to music before.

The music seems a return to home for Goehr, with it’s highly charged Jewish atmosphere and Schoenbergian tonality and gestures. That said, many times in this piece I was reminded of Bach cantatas, and even some Britten tenor arias.

And yes, it was wonderful to get inside the complex score in such detail, a luxury that is going to become harder in these cash-strapped times unless tough prioritising decisions are made about how programmes are constructed.

The BCMG’s inspired Sound Investor’s scheme, set up in 1987, must surely help, a scheme that has been copied elsewhere – although I haven’t seen quite as obviously in place as here. People are invited to invest in commissioning new works (the new Goehr piece was one of these), with units of 150 quid upwards, and in exchange get to sit in on as much rehearsal as they like and hang out with the players.

Alexander Goehr, also 80 this year (along with Holmgreen).

I can’t imagine finding rehearsals that interesting, but the Investors all seemed delighted with the process and said it was fascinating to watch it all coming together. By the concert, they knew their piece pretty well and had developed a real relationship with it.

And at the backbone of this scheme and the BCMG itself is the powerful artistic directorship of Stephen Newbould and BCMG General Manager wife Jackie, whose tireless work for the ensemble was officially recognised last year with the prestigious RPS Leslie Boosey Award for “their considerable and unfailing contribution to contemporary classical music” in Britain. Richly deserved in these trying times.

I got fascinated by Birmingham’s aptly named Broad Street, the main drag that passes by Symphony Hall and home to the city centres main bars, pubs, dodgy curry houses, clubbing and lapdancing district. Every night, and sometimes as early as mid-afternoon, the girls come out in their strictly prescribed uniform scanties, wedge stillettos and full tart gear. It’s mesmerising, hilarious and tragic.

How is it that the further north you go in England, the less girls wear outside clubs in winter? I’ve been told it saves them having to queue for their coats and bags in the hatcheck room (to use an old fashioned expression), but to me it looks far more like a socially compulsory display of sexual availability. Although what the sheepish spotty blokes in their scraggy jeans, trainers and unremarkable jumpers make of these terrifying packs of apparent slags is anyone’s guess.

I found it strangely difficult to find photos of the young girl slag-packs I’m talking about, to be found in drunken ruins on filthy pavements in the small hours all over the UK on friday and saturday nights. But this gives the sort of flavour, if a tad further down the line than the teen-tart commercial victims I’m thinking of.

Doubtless they are assisted in their decision making processes by internet porn, MTV, Zoo magazine and vast quantities of lager. It must be daunting for lads if they are expected to perform like porn studs for seemingly infinitely available, voracious hooker chicks.

It’s as though feminism never happened.

NB: Slag uniform de jour = false eyelashes, push-up bras (or pref silicone tits), micro-dresses/underwear, cripplingly high wedge stillettos, tranny makeup, hair-extensions, nail extensions, zero body hair, perma fake tan and no brain.

Is this the fall out from the “Girl Power” myth initiated by the Spice Girls? “Power” expressed by aggressive outward sexualisation at an age before most really know what it means, regular drinking to oblivion, spending a large proportion of available/unavailable income to look like Jordan, (Katie Price, whatev.) whilst compelled to behave like porn stars, inspired by today’s compulsorarily raunchy pop idols and their soft porn videos, thus making themselves vunerable to the most appallingly crap shag experiences.

And told by girl mags that this is a good thing.

Yes, we all “put out” at the same age. It’s normal. But nowhere near the aggressively commercialised slut pressure these young women have to contend with. Don’t you find this extreme? Perhaps I’m sounding like their crusty old mum. But I would be worried if was my daughter. I’d want her to know that sex doesn’t have to be like that… And explain why to my son, if I had one.

Girls don’t look or behave like this in Sweden and Denmark. Why?

Perhaps a grim economic climate fosters alcohol/drugs-fuelled sexual promiscuity. And Birmingham is, let’s face it, mostly still pretty grim. But I can’t help feeling that whatever the setting – and these scenes are familiar all over the UK – a LOT of money is currently being made by the fashion, cosmetic and media industries (to name but three) at the expense of vunerable teenage girls. Not to mention their age-defying mothers and grandmothers.

There is much, MUCH more to say, but I’ll spare you for now.

And leave you instead with a little joke told by tenor Chris Watson (of Theatre of Voices fame) whilst explaining to his Danish colleagues the difference in pronunciation between “Morning” and “Mourning”.

“There’s bloke taking his dog out for a walk, sees another bloke in the graveyard across the road standing behind a tombstone

“Morning!” he calls over.

“No”, replies the man behind the tombstone. “ I was just taking a leak”.

Until the next episode of Z Blog, may you Fayre Well.


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