Organised Sounds

Last weekend Susan explored that old battleground of ‘Classical’ versus ‘Pop’ in the shadow of the Cambridge Union debate, the motion being that ‘This House believes classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth’, with S Fry and a few friends batting for the heavy-mob, and DJ Kissy Sell Out bowling googlies from the Gasworks End. At best it is a tiresome subject particularly, in this instance, where the terminology alone seemed, to me, to be misleading and demeaning. Who cares for the irrelevance or otherwise of music? Not I. And who, may I ask, are ‘today’s youth’ that, according to ‘The House’, need music to be elucidated?

With X-Factor and off-shoots dominating popular ‘sounds’, and 120 million souls across Europe tuning in to the kak that is the Eurovision Song Contest (look, I wandered into the front room, OK?) I struggle to recall a time in the last 50 years when popular music reached such a nadir of despair.

Paradoxically, so-called serious music seems to be in rude health, and verging on the popular – with the likes of John Tavener, Philip Glass, Arvo Part and the late Henryk Gorecki finding a language that touches hearts (and heads) across the spectrum. But you will have noticed that this is a culture blog, and we can mix with the populist riff and raff any day of the week. On this day, almost exactly 100 years after the death of one of the pioneers of modern music Gustav Mahler, we look at a quartet of living composers who are trying to meet these challenges with an original voice: and it may be no accident that three of them hail from the frozen north.

The Dane Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen will be 80 next year. Although Conservatory trained, this eclectic soul has always had a taste for the off-beat, and the absurdist writing of Samuel Beckett has been a constant influence. In this short extract from his 1985 piece Triptycon, the composer wears his years lightly, writhing unselfconsciously to his own beautifully ritualistic music.

An almost exact contemporary of the Dane is the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, now naturalized in Belgium. His music has a cinematic quality, often exploring an extreme dynamic range quite suddenly, before relapsing into a sombre mood. This could be called Vesuvian and, because the forces required to play this music are often larger than normal, he could also be described not as a minimalist a la Glass or John Adams, but a maximalist, not afraid to use any forces available to him. In the wonderful concentration of this bleak piece Vom Winde Beweint (Mourned by the Wind), a Liturgy for Large Orchestra and Solo Viola, the large forces are hushed, creating an almost unbearable tension and, finally, a resolution of sorts.

Over the last few years, following the failure of the banking system, Icelanders have had very little to smile about, but they still have in their midst a huge talent in a small package. Bjork Guomundsdottir is an impish child/woman but she fears nothing in the complex soundworld that she inhabits. A multi-instrumentalist, she has a voice that is absolutely unique, but it is her broad musical sensibility that tugs away at you, and makes her very special. All these qualities can be heard in this short excerpt from her concert at the ROH; the innate theatricality as the curtain parts, followed by the majestic and uplifting theme from Dancer in the Dark.

A few years ago I heard the music of the Finn Kalevi Aho for the first time on the radio, and was dumbfounded by the originality of the concept and execution. It was his Symphony No.12 (Luosto), scored not for one orchestra but two – and to be played outdoors. The first movement, subtitled The Shamans, could best be described as a drum and brass ‘battle’ lasting an eardrum-testing 15 minutes. The symphony was to be performed upon the slopes of Mount Luosto, in Finnish Lapland, with the two orchestras plus vocal soloists surrounding the audience and creating, literally, surround-sound. Here we have a more recent piece Minea from 2009, but you will detect in the furious intensity of the music and the virtuoso playing, something of the flavour of this great symphonist, still in his early 60’s.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

8 thoughts on “Organised Sounds

  1. Brit
    May 22, 2011 at 09:25

    Challenging stuff. A Dane, an Icelander, a Georgian and a Finn… and of a rather different quality to their national entries to Eurovision. Why is it that Europe can do ‘serious’ music, but only Britain and America seems able to apply a serious sensibility to pop music?

    (You wouldn’t want Uncle Pelle to take to the dancefloor at your wedding, would you?)

    May 22, 2011 at 11:51

    Enjoyably curious selection… Was the first clip shot after a night on the tiles with the Dabblers?

    Mahlerman, my post focused on the branding of much of today’s music – both classical and pop. Refreshing that your choices demonstrate arty originality in music and, in some cases, packaging.

    On that note, I was present last year at the world premiere of Swedish composer Ylva Skog’s Smokey Moon, which takes its name from an eye shadow she is “very fond of.” The composition will be included in a set of four short pieces for violin and piano – the second is to be called Rose Pearl. Skog says, “I’m sure the listener will get his or her own reflections when hearing both the name and the music.” The finished suite will be called Four Shadows for Violin and Piano.

    May 22, 2011 at 12:26

    Terrific stuff, thank you. I’m particularly pleased to be introduced to Kalevi Aho – so much going on in this music, but it all comes together wonderfully.

    john halliwell
    May 22, 2011 at 15:02

    Lazy Sunday Afternooon nearly always throws up pieces of music that, in terms of excitement, beauty, or quirkiness, justify postponement of seemingly important tasks. Aho’s Minea is certainly a case in point; it is magnificent – and what better orchestra to show off the brilliance of this Scandinavian gem than the Lahti SO?

    Major influences on Aho’s music are reported as being Rautavaara and Shostakovich. I also wonder whether the greatest of all Scandinavian composers (after Sibelius) is a major influence; this chap is worth a lazy sunday afternoon all on his own:

    May 22, 2011 at 17:02

    Yes JH, I posted on Carl Nielsen’s Symphony 5 last January and, like the great Finn, he inhabits an instantly recognizable sound-world. Although Aho’s Symphony 12 is nowhere on youtube, you can hear it free online by rummaging around a bit, as well as on Spotify. Whenever I hear Stravinsky’s Rite I am still stunned by it, and find myself wondering about the effect it had in Paris almost 100 years ago: Aho’s Symphony does much the same.

  6. Gaw
    May 22, 2011 at 17:55

    The usual wonderful revelation from Mahlerman – how does he do it? I can’t add anything to what everyone else has said about Aho.

    john halliwell
    May 22, 2011 at 18:01

    Thanks, Mahlerman, I shall seek out Aho’s 12th. I have just read your January post re Nielsen’s 5th Symphony. I discovered the great Dane’s music through the 5th Symphony – what an astonishing work it is: by turns, tender and terrifying. I have a modern recording played by the Gothenburg SO conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. As if the symphony itself were not the fullest value for money, BIS adds Nielsen’s glorious Violin Concerto. This listener is spoiled rotten!

  8. Worm
    May 22, 2011 at 21:14

    I’m normally more of a drum and bass man, so it was a shame I missed out on Aho’s drum and brass – but this Minea was excellent too!

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