Contemporary composer: Bent Sørensen

Andrew Mellor
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Andrew Mellor points up the Dane’s stylistic integrity – his use of silence and decay, and how he seems haunted by music of the past

Bent Sørensen has won the 2018 Grawemeyer Award for Musical Composition, for his piece L’isola della città. This overview of his music was originally published in the August 2016 issue.

The morning before the afternoon I’d set aside to start writing this appreciation of Danish composer Bent Sørensen, I found myself at a gallery in Abu Dhabi gazing upon works by the Syrian-American sculptor Diana Al-Hadid. The two artists work in different media and hail from opposite sides of the world – geographically, culturally and politically. But to experience Al-Hadid’s exhibition Phantom Limb was to glimpse, in physical form, an uncanny representation of so much of what Sørensen’s music does.

Yes, Sørensen was probably somewhere in the back of my mind before I set foot in the gallery. But I’ve stress-tested my belief that the composer and the sculptor are unwitting collaborators and that my visit to the gallery was, at the very least, an extraordinary and revelatory coincidence. Here are some reasons why I believe it a pertinent and valid comparison – and a helpful one, if Sørensen’s music is new to you.

In The Sleepwalker, one of the gallery’s white walls appears to dissolve before your eyes – peeling, dripping downwards towards the floor while making fleeting references to the forms of Renaissance and Classical masters as it does so. The piece could well be titled It Is Pain Flowing Down Slowly on a White Wall, the name of Sørensen’s concerto for accordion and strings completed in 2011.

That score, like almost every other by Sørensen, contains its own technical allusions to the music of the past, just as The Sleepwalker does with art. But the concerto is most remarkable for its relationship to the sound and space around it. If Al-Hadid’s blank canvas is a white wall, then Sørensen’s is silence. But in both cases, those elements aren’t simply voids to be filled; they are integral and provocative parts of the discourse. Al-Hadid’s wall drips down towards the floor, appearing to disintegrate into nothing – into the atmosphere itself, gaping holes revealing the room on the other side. In Sørensen’s concerto, the strings begin to disintegrate. When that process is complete, the musicians first pick up and play harmonicas, then they are reduced to quiet humming, and eventually, before the concerto is finished, they pick up their instruments and leave the stage altogether (the solo accordionist is left in a sorrowful dialogue with a lone violinist positioned behind the audience).

The central work in Al-Hadid’s Phantom Limb is also that which gave the exhibition its title. In this room-filling sculpture, a series of stacked cubes and decaying platforms – all dripping in grey and white, melting or drifting away – support and also partially conceal the dismembered parts of a Renaissance-style statue. This speaks, to me at least, of Sørensen’s interest in decay and his frequent but veiled references to the music of the past, particularly the Renaissance (or, in the case of the accordion concerto, Haydn). In his complementary movements to Ockeghem’s unfinished Requiem – a series of choral movements that spanned most of Sørensen’s career when they were gathered together in 2007 and recorded by Ars Nova Copenhagen in 2011 – we hear the twisting thread of the Renaissance polyphony the composer so loves. But it’s rendered in Sørensen’s characteristic harmonic smudging, as if the music is being pulled between the magnetic poles of warm, Romantic tonality and rich, Schoenbergian atonality.

The stalking shadow of those Renaissance figures in Sørensen’s music – like the dismembered limbs in Al-Hadid’s sculpture – is more than a formal underpinning or an act of canonic aesthetic retrospection. Instead, it’s a close and sorrowful reminder that we are all destined, ultimately, to form ‘the past’ ourselves. ‘From the moment we are born, there is one way – a slow slippage into decline,’ said Sørensen some time in the mid-1990s, when his violin concerto Sterbende gärten (‘Decaying Garden’, 1992-93) was first performed; ‘Time gnaws away at us.’

Composer and writer Karl Aage Rasmussen has referred to Sørensen’s music as ‘evoking lived lives and ancient dreams’, despite its clear rooting in the here and now. ‘It reminds me of something I’ve never heard,’ said the Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim. Sørensen is a modernist who adores conventional intervals and lets himself be seduced by the simple shape of a song or a hymn. But always, those elements are concealed or yanked out of view before they can be cooked up into something comfortable. Either that, or they appear wrecked from the start, with the strange, unsettling beauty of a disintegrating Renaissance doorway or balcony. In colour, in form and in effect, Al-Hadid’s Phantom Limb strikes me as a kindred spirit to a piece like Sørensen’s motet Og solen går ned (2008).

Sørensen first came to prominence in the 1980s. He found his voice early and never changed direction. If you were to map his style, as Rasmussen has written, its development would resemble growth rings in a tree. His full-length opera Under himlen (‘Under the Sky’, 2003) was staged at the Royal Danish Opera in 2004. Four years before that, in 2000, the exquisite, pointillist piano concerto La notte (1996-98) was first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Rolf Hind. Some critics have pointed to the throbbing impulse and precise, calligraphic elements that Sørensen’s music took on around that time. Perhaps those things, in the long term, contributed to the more prominent sense of ‘time’ – both suggestive pulses in the music and, in a more literal sense, ticking clocks and tolling bells – that has emerged in Sørensen’s scores more recently.

But to my ears, Sørensen seems increasingly hesitant to fill the silence that surrounds him, to make a mark on the white wall – mostly owing to his delight in that silence in the first place. In January 2016, his new triple concerto was premiered in Copenhagen to quite some response, not just from the critics but from the public too. L’isola della città (2014-15), for huge orchestra and piano trio, is deafeningly quiet. Sørensen hallmarks are all over the piece: a Beethoven fugue drifts in like a ghost passing a window; the entire wind section is asked to play secondary instruments (in this case, ‘ticking’ woodblocks); he’s happy to repeat a single pitch at length, forcing his audience to focus on what’s to come; and his textures are distilled, perhaps reaching new heights of windblown refinement, in fact.

In a musicological sense, you might say Sørensen’s counterpoint in the concerto is more sure, original and (paradoxically) neo-classical than ever. But there’s something extraordinary about the control of the score, too – the presence of a huge orchestra lying mostly dormant, making such little noise but being utilised with relish nonetheless. In the radio broadcast of that premiere performance, Sørensen mentioned in an interview that ‘the island in the city’ might even be his own apartment, ever so slightly set back from Copenhagen’s main square Kongens Nytorv, where the din of the city feels so close and yet rumbles on so quietly.

Space is as important as time in Sørensen’s work. His truly unusual ‘concerto for orchestra, choir, actors and audience’ Sounds Like You (2007-8) was written for the embracing auditoria of the Bergen and Copenhagen concert halls. It explores the behaviour of two (actor) audience members, and to experience it is akin to taking your seat at a concert only to drift off into a strange, spiritual dream.

L’isola della città will be performed by its dedicatees, Trio Con Brio, at the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival in the autumn. In the meantime, Sørensen says that he has his mind on something big – a Passion setting that, like Bach’s B minor Mass, will incorporate material from throughout his career. His own consistency should make that possible, and there’s quite some stash to choose from.

Recommended recordings

Requiem (Sørensen / Ockeghem)

Ars Nova Copenhagen / Paul Hillier

Dacapo (7/12)

Sørensen doesn’t identify as a choral composer but this merging of his own work Fragments of Requiem with the Requiem of 15th-century master Ockeghem could have fooled many into thinking the opposite. Sørensen uses elements of Ockeghem and Monteverdi to underpin his own harmonically ‘smudged’ writing.


Trio Con Brio Copenhagen

Dacapo (8/13)

Sørensen’s piano trio Phantasmagoria (2006-7) is a precursor to his triple concerto and headlines this disc (trio works by Hans Abrahamsen and Per Nørgård hardly lessen its appeal). Phantasmagoria speaks of the fading memory of Romanticism and contains some remarkable writing, most of all, perhaps, the surging repetition of single notes at provocatively differing volumes in the Misterioso e meccanico movement.

Sounds Like You

Two actors, Danish National Vocal Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard


It’s remarkable that Sørensen’s spatial ‘concerto for orchestra, choir, actors and audience’, which calls for actors and singers planted throughout the audience of a vineyard concert hall (where everyone can see everyone else) has transferred so well to CD. Sørensen pulls off a characteristic trick here: doing new, unusual and surprising things that manage entirely to avoid gimmickry.

Sørensen facts

  • Born

    in Borup, July 18, 1958

  • Studied

    with Ib Nørholm at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen, and subsequently with Per Nørgård at the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus

  • Awarded

    the Nordic Council Music Prize in 1996 for Sterbende gärten

  • Sørensen on spirituality

    ‘People who say “I don’t believe in anything” seem to be a bit scared of believing. You have to be open. I’m not a churchgoer and I don’t follow anything. But we live in a world that produced Bach and Michelangelo; I live in a street where Kierkegaard walked. When you sit down to write a Requiem or a Passion, you have to have some spirit inside you. A Requiem that has nothing to do with religion – who’d want to hear that?’ (Interview, 2015) 

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