Andrew Mellor examines the music of Danish music’s senior maverick, celebrating his 80th birthday today
When Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was presented with the 400,000 tax-free Danish Kroner that constitutes the Carl Nielsen Prize in 1973, he came off the podium repeating one word. ‘Skattefri…skattefri!’ he mumbled with a glint in his eye. ‘Tax-free!’ Yes, Pelle, that’s 400,000 kroner with not an iota of duty heading back to the Danish crown. How good does that feel?
His reaction had actually done what much of his music does: alighted on a seemingly irrelevant detail and magnified it in all its banal innocence – giving it depth, charging it with meaning and accentuating its ridiculousness; creating in it something that can question and enchant at the same time.
Of all art music’s panicked lurches towards a ‘new’ simplicity, that perpetrated by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen is among the most resonant and fascinating. It’s probably better aligned to Cage’s revolution than Stravinsky’s: a return to sound which in the process forgets about the restrictions and trappings we associate with ‘music’.
If, for example, you were to dream-up a work scored for cello and squeeze-bulb car horn, you might be faced with impassable questions of sonority, balance, ensemble and all the stuff our musical culture has decided are important. But in his piece of that scoring, Plateaux for Two (1970), Holmgreen shows how irrelevant all that discussion is by creating, as he so often does, a sort of primeval, physical counterpoint.
Although it might not be a counterpoint at all – more the ‘thing’ that developed into counterpoint in the same way that the wailing and cooing of cavemen developed into speech and then conversation. At the same time, though, the music of Plateaux for Two is elegant, beautiful and very, very human. Perhaps that makes it ‘sophisticated’. Perhaps not.
When I saw Plateaux for Two played in London last year I was reminded of a comment Holmgreen made to the journal Dansk Musik Tidsskrift a few years ago. ‘My balance doesn’t consist of ABA structures and the like’, the composer said. ‘It is more like tightrope walking. You can act like a clown on the rope, almost falling off all the time, wearing big shoes and a funny hat. The elegance, however, lies in the clown’s not falling off the tightrope. This is the situation that I have reached when I use the different instrumentations that I have concocted: we approach the embarrassing. Composing a piece for cello and car horn is embarrassing.’
Embarrassment, after structure (a challenge overcome by Holmgreen and now laid at the feet of cellists and car hornists), is the second big tightrope walk of Plateaux for Two. At the London performance a small section of the audience fought hard (and very audibly) to contain explosive laughter, which created a second narrative and charged the room with atmosphere. Holmgreen, I felt, would have found it funny too – not least as the real object of embarrassment became the staid atmosphere of classical concerts. He had exposed it while writing a beautiful piece of music that collided with our sonic assumptions, not our ‘concert etiquette’ ones.
And still the concert hall fears the childish Holmgreen – to whatever extent that is possible in these numbed times. The composer first edged towards the infamous with Tricolore (1969), a piece consisting of nothing more than three rich, tonal chords (the three ‘colours’) – one on strings, one on brass, one on woodwinds. People derive pleasure from seeing things in the simplest possible manner, Holmgreen explained in connection with the piece. But there wasn’t much sign of that when it was first performed in 1970 and was met with a ten-minute barrage of boos and hisses from the Basel audience.
Tricolore is a sort of Danish Lento. Its stark, cutting simplicity yet rich, absorbing focus on musical colour seems to have paved the way for Holmgreen’s explorations of music as a timbral more than narrative art. Howard Skempton is in there, as is Arvo Pärt’s elevation of a ‘single beautifully-played note’. What we hear in Holmgreen, though, is that thrilling sense of conflict which remains hard-wired into Denmark’s musical psyche.
In Holmgreen’s case, it manifests itself most clearly in the composer’s mischievous tendency to combine ill-fitting things – large against small, the banal against the profound, music against speech…a car horn against a cello – but it’s also found in the alluring way he deals with tonality, anchoring much of his music on a tonal backbone (he calls it a ‘tonal grid’) against which other harmonic and rhythmic elements grind and fight. The tonality is always there, it’s just played with and provoked – pushed out onto the tightrope. It results, musically speaking, in simplification rather than complication; a ‘delimited space’ in the words of Danish music critic Jens Cornelius that makes an awful lot of Holmgreen’s music relatively easy to get a handle on.
It also provides fertile ground for mockery and the absurd – two elements in which Holmgreen has the most exquisite taste and skill of any composer alive. Writing ‘funny’ music is the easiest thing in the world; just bash-out an oddly interrupted cadence or give the trombone an elongated glissando. But writing with a teetering, elusive irony that has serious things to say both about musical structure and human life is a rather more difficult.
It’s there in Plateaux for Two, of course. And it finds one of its most beautiful expressions in Three Songs with Texts from Politiken (1967). In the first of these songs the harmony is only implied because the music operates on a unison, as in a Bach cello suite. But there’s something clinging and heartfelt about the line’s delicate dance with ‘conventional’ tonality, sung by a voice and plucked by a guitar like a lament. Then there’s the text. The singer (and guitarist) recite not Holmgreen favourites Beckett and Murray, but droll business reports from the daily newspaper Politiken, opening with sterile, date-specific corporate news from shipping line DFDS.
Does that undermine the music or reinforce it? In a sense, it does the latter but only because it does the former. Politiken’s music critic Henrik Friis refers to Holmgreen’s consistent attempts to ‘pull the carpet out from his own solemnity’. It happens to wonderful effect once more in the composer’s Horn Trio (2005). The magical poise of the last movement is peppered with speech from the violinist, who after certain gestures of particular character played by her and her colleagues, speaks out with the word ‘yeah?’ and, in Danish, ‘nå?’ (‘oh really?’). Something about the placing of the speech and its colouring renders it primarily tonal rather than verbal – it’s not as if a human has suddenly entered the discourse, but as if the voice were there all along; in the horn, in the piano and in the violin.
One reason for that is the physical nature of the music; those spoken gestures can feel like impulses from a heartbeat. This is vital to Holmgreen. Rhythm out of a consistent pulse; a pulse connected to human biology whose circular, repetitive qualities can become a meditation. It crops up all over the place in the music: from the physiological madrigals, to the ‘jungle baroque’ orchestral canvasses, and to the more narrative structures written for Paul Hillier and the Kronos Quartet. Narrative they may be, but they are musically circular – no end point, everything as appealing in the moment as isolated sections of a tapestry would be.
That very ‘animal’ simplicity might be a vital part of what has lured me into Holmgreen’s world. Perhaps it’s the more rational part of my brain that drags me back time and again to the ‘simple’ version of simplicity – where the musicology drifts away and the aesthetics sharpen up: music that’s neat, clear, shows its workings, makes you smile and leaves a sort of gentle residual wisdom. Yes, it’s sometimes farcical, sometimes ugly, and sometimes completely meaningless. But it’s also stimulating, moving, highly attractive and a whole lot of fun.
'Music is a Monster' (Dacapo DVD 2 110406) Buy from Dacapo
Jytte Rex’s biographical snapshot of the composer is a joy to watch and a fast-track into PGH’s world – both personal and musical. Performances of PGH works, some considerably dated, are punctuated by extended, frank monologues from the composer on his life and the creative process, beautiful footage of him in his ‘natural habitat’, and some now-famous footage of him dancing to his own music.
'Kronos plays Holmgreen' (Dacapo 6 220548) Buy from Amazon
The centrepiece here is Moving Still, PGH’s work for Paul Hillier and the Kronos Quartet. The first half sets Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘In a thousand years’, a fantastical vision of the future narrated by Hillier; the second half is an arrangement of the traditional song In Denmark I was Born that metamorphoses almost undetected into an Arabic style without much altering its distinctly Danish melody. The piece stirred-up controversy in Denmark when it was premiered; the rarely-heard baritone of Paul Hillier sounds tender and vulnerable in this performance.
'Distant Still' (Dacapo 6 226549) Buy from Amazon
PGH’s Horn Trio Near Still Distant Still is one of the wonders of his more recent output and a good barometer of where his ‘new simplicity’ project had got to 8 years ago. The final movement referred to above contains a Holmgreen hallmark – his inclusion of vocal gestures from instrumental players, in this case performed with a sort of natural, standoffish brilliance by violinist Christina Åstrand.
'The Natural World of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen' (Dacapo 6 220583) Buy from Amazon
PGH isn’t known much for his vocal music outside Scandinavia, but some of the most startling examples of how much can be achieved with minimal musical material – sometimes just two notes and a handful of nouns – can be found in Statements (1969). Also included are arrangements of simple songs – a must for every Danish composer – and a perceptive booklet essay by Jens Cornelius that provides illuminating context and analysis. Paul Hillier conducts.
'Scenes from a New Music Seance' (Other Minds 1019-2) Buy from Amazon
This brand-new disc includes a performance of PGH’s violin sonata Double (1994) which the American performers approached with such sincerity they even sourced vintage Danish clothes pegs with which to prepare the piano. The piece has some classic PGH game-play and shines a light on his fascination with the simple major triad. Gramophone’s January issue will carry a full review.
The London Sinfonietta and Theatre of Voices present a ‘portrait’ concert of music by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, on November 25.
In Gramophone’s December issue (available November 30) we mark the 80th birthday of another great Danish composer, Per Nørgård. Subscribe to Gramophone.