A Portrait of Danish composer Bent Sørensen
By Anders Beyer
Evocative. If the writer was only allowed to use a single word about Bent Sørensen’s music, he would at once choose the adjective evocative. The composer’s music creates pictures, but not clear pictures; on the contrary, anything too clear and bombastic is veiled by the presentation of the music. Extending the description, the next words would have to be blurred, indistinct, still. Several words crowd into the mind in the string of descriptive phrases: echo is one of them. The music is like an echo of something you’ve heard before, somewhere else and in a different way. When Bent Sørensen lets the musician lower booming bells into water, or wants the musician to whistle piercingly, it doesn’t just sound like technically striking tricks, virtuosically presenting a through-composed glissando in all registers that also evokes emotions and sensations that most people have an attitude to: church-like spaces, sunken cathedrals, angels, farewell ceremonies.
The associations range wide, as do the composers’ sources of inspiration. Peeling Renaissance paintings with angel motifs make up one of the motif complexes. Perhaps Bent Sørensen has also been inspired by his encounter with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s (1720-78) engravings. Bent Sørensen has spoken of some of these as “architectonic fantasies” and describes them as follows: “In Piranesi’s fantasies you can also see a wealth of lines that border on the chaotic and a sophisticated balancing-act between the real and the unreal, between an ‘overdriven’ foreground and an indistinct background.” You could say the same about Bent Sørensen’s music.
The first work I heard by Bent Sørensen was an cappella choral piece from 1985, called Lacrimosa. I have heard echoes of this piece in Sørensen’s later works. It emerges as a brief glimpse in Funeral Procession of 1989 – you feel that the composer is moving in a spiritual and acoustic space where ‘characters’ come back like wraiths – not ghosts, but beings who still have the same identity. This identity-creating element is established in the small choral piece in the form of descending lines, close chromatic weaves, tonality that is twisted and contorted. The title Lacrimosa evokes new associations: tears, farewells, melancholy.
Amidst the black swarm of voices the music has its white areas, empty spaces, as if someone has gone away. Just as the Winter Journey as a concept is impossible to remove from Schubert’s universe – it isn’t just a theme for his song cycle Die Winterreise, it’s an important skein in his work – the journey or the faraway is a goal for Bent Sørensen. The endless journey thus becomes the area of the poem and of poetry, of art. And since the journey is part of the universe of art, it changes character from purposelessness to reflection, image, sound that articulates the form of the journey as an expression of a state.
An important part of the reflection of this state for Sørensen is memory. The striking thing is that while this music incorporates the endlessness of the journey as an expression of failure, the landscape appears in the music. But nature is not conjured up in its Maytime glory and tempting remoteness, in Sørensen’s work it is the dying gardens, it is the aesthetic of decay that can be heard. The music does not recall this nature as if it had really been like that, it sees the landscape from its hermetic perspective, and like a prisoner who dreams of freedom, this music dreams of an imaginary nature, all the more intense the more this nature becomes removed from reality and the attainable.
The nature that the music lets sound is dead, gone to ground, stiffened, and is synonymous with nature morte in Sørensen’s work. The shocks contained in his music are due precisely to the artistic balance between innocence and the chill of death in each note. While the music of other composers often sounds as if it is written by an energetic, struggling and noisy person, Sørensen’s music is not so easy to associate with a person at all. Rather, it can be associated with the motion of the wanderer, away from the definitive and clear, as in the Schubert who begins a work with a decisive stroke only to let the wanderer lose himself in a vast, prehistoric landscape that sometimes opens up to the idyllic, sometimes to the grottoes and caves of the underworld like an English landscape garden.
Bent Sørensen has himself pointed out that a system of musical gestures with extremely fast staccato figures and the fast and slow glissandi in hectic, compressed textures recalls birds. One work is tellingly called Birds and Bells (1995), where the composer walks a thin line between the imperceptible and the sudden change. When new voices enter it is almost the rule that it happens imperceptibly. The play on the imperceptible, the homogeneity of sound and the dammed-up inward tensions are important atmospheric areas in Sørensen’s music. The melancholy colourings have set their seal on them ever since he left the world of folk music and began his journey into art music. At an early stage it became music formed as a modern gesture of complex expression, in close weaves with a swarm of notes that move in cloud formations, like the black sun that is a flock of birds in one unifying motion. In this motion the music holds its breath with the hesitation of the initial beat, as if the music stays still and meditates.
The titles of Bent Sørensen’s works are also evocative and give us a possible point of entry to the works. The titles do not reflect commonplace or everyday events. It is the opposite poles that interest Sørensen: angels above and churchyards below. Heaven and Hell mark off the extreme limits of the musical space. The composer could have chosen neutral titles, as was the fashion in the mid-twentieth century among the leaders of the avant-garde: ‘Moments no. 4’, ‘Konzertstück Nr. 3’, ‘Fragment no. 5’, ‘Structures’ etc. But this kind of thinking does not appeal to the Danish composer, who wants the mood of the work condensed into a telling title. Funeral Procession, The Lady of Shalott from 1987 (after Tennyson’s poem), The Deserted Churchyards from 1990, Adieu from 1986, The Bells of Vineta from 1990 (after Selma Lagerlöf’s book about Niels Holgersen’s marvellous journey), The Mask of the Red Death from 1990 (after Poe’s short story), Birds and Bells, Sterbende Gärten from 1992-93, and Shadowland from 1988-89 all immediately say something about the fundamental tone of the music.
Paradoxically, Sørensen has again and again been compared to composers who write music that carries on the tradition of the inheritors of Central European modernism. It has been said that Sørensen’s music is written in the same tradition, that the dogma of complexity that goes back to Stockhausen’s requirement – ‘sounds never heard before’ – and Boulez’ ‘It is necessary to accept complexity’, form part and parcel of the aesthetic foundation of the Danish composer. But Bent Sørensen does not think that way: ‘the new’ is not an emphatic category for him; rather, the recognizable leaves a seal, a particular imprint on the music, which helps to create its identity.
The reason Bent Sørensen’s music has been interpreted within an avant-garde tradition is perhaps that some of the music sounds ‘difficult’ – there are a lot of notes, etc. But it is by no means ‘meticulously structured’, as some have claimed. Another historical event helped to create a slightly misleading picture of the ‘complex’ Sørensen; that was when the Arditti Quartet performed his music for the first time in the 1980s. The quartet was then the mouthpiece of the ‘hard’ composers, as expounded above all in music by composers from Central Europe.
The outstanding musicians in the string quartet were the first to show the public what it was that Sørensen had intended with his notes. The Danish music was considered by some to be well-nigh unplayable, but after the effort of the Ardittis there was a decided shift in our perception of Sørensen’s music. The breakthrough came in 1984 with his string quartet Alman. So far, he has produced five quartets as well as a series of works for sinfonietta ensemble, solo works, concertos for violin, trombone and piano. All in all, an impressive string of works that places Bent Sørensen as one of the most original composers of his generation.
The Romantic universe
In the course of the 80s and at the beginning of the 90s scholars and critics realized that Bent Sørensen’s music probably didn’t quite fit in with the complexity theory. Fortunately, the word ‘complex’ has also since then been questioned so much that it seems reasonable to say that the whole fetishism of the ‘new’ in music has been exaggerated, and the word ‘complex’ has lost its meaning. A monophonic song can, as we know, be infinitely complex. In Sørensen’s case one should perhaps rather home in on the Romantic universe. In view of the composer’s interest in authors like Poe and Shakespeare, it does not seem entirely unreasonable to refer to the expressive world of Romanticism. Sørensen’s attitude to musical aesthetics has the valedictory as a theme; the artist cannot say no to nostalgia and the sweet suffering of the loss of the past: ruins, unfathomable melancholy, overgrown gardens. Fragments from the past are frozen there. So in the music Bent Sørensen seeks out the last remnants of the past that still sound in the present: church bells, birds, windswept churchyards, angels, death. The centuries commune – kindred spirits in their fin-de-siècle moods.
The Romantic, and unfulfilled love again haunt the large work for orchestra and two solo singers, The Echoing Garden from 1990-92. At one point the text says: “It is quiet in the churchyard where the former lovers and their mistresses sleep. They are respectable and sensible now, the poor wretches. No more waiting for letters, no more ecstatic nights, no more moist rhythms of young bodies. In the great dormitory they all lie now together”. To underpin the mood the composer has taken texts from three widely different authors: the above quotation is from Albert Cohen’s novel Belle du Seigneur, the other two are from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Rainer Marie Rilke’s Duino Elegies. What they all have in common is unfulfilled love.
In technical terms Bent Sørensen deploys certain devices – for example the imperceptible transitions in a swarm of voices. This very still music, which only hints at an atmosphere, sharpens the awareness of the listener. The effect is the same as when someone whispers urgently. The silence can become deafening, the details surface from the myriad voices. Well known melodies hide behind a latticework of notes and help to form an overall mood. In Funeral Procession Bent Sørensen has chosen two Danish melodies with departure as their theme to underscore the character if the work. They are Nu falmer skoven trindt om land (Now fades the forest all around) and Sig nærmer tiden (The time is nigh when I must away). The melodies hide in the piccolo and piano, but only as fragments hinting at their origins.
‘Echo’ was one of the first descriptive words I used of Bent Sørensen’s music: you think you’ve heard it before, but in a different way and in a different place. Bent Sørensen achieves this patina of something familiar by using quotations from songs of departure, as is the case in Funeral Procession. He can also do it by using a composition technique that makes the musical expression point in several different directions at once. In most of Bent Sørensen’s works, for example, you can find two-note chords with an indefinite expressive character. This ambivalent mood with notes that can belong to two different types of expression or chords, is reinforced by Bent Sørensen’s consistent rejection of any bass line. When music has no bass line as its foundation, the listener has no bearings in the traditional sense. In other words, the composer does what he can to sabotage acquired ways of listening to music. If he then nevertheless offers us a slight straw to hold on to, it is in the form of these two-note chords at intervals of a third.
This can be heard for example in the second movement of Sørensen’s violin concerto Sterbende Gärten, which is built up like a kind of perpetual motion machine with interrelated notes at third intervals. Inasmuch as there are no triads, only thirds, all the thirds will be ambiguous. Bent Sørensen also uses the techniques of “diads” in thirds and no bass line as a foundation for the sound in the work The Deserted Churchyards. In a trio section the piano has a simple, chorale-like motion below the static, repetitive staccato figures of the violin and cello – very still and transparent. The main role of the violin and cello is to “shadow” the other instruments – to be heard as echoes of the others. Bent Sørensen composes a musical chain reaction: if flute and clarinet gradually play louder, the percussion and piano immediately become faster and faster. Then, delayed, the strings come in with their shadow play. They react to the various motions of the rest of the ensemble. The music thus functions like a living organism where the composer lets one layer push against another to see what happens. The influences create ripples in the musical layers – just as we can see and feel when the wind plays over a cornfield. This is how much of Sørensen’s music is experienced – as musical chain reactions.
The swarming points of sound played staccato in the glockenspiel and piano in The Deserted Churchyards are again one of the composing methods Sørensen has often used; most clearly in Clairobscur of 1987 and in the third movement of Shadowland. Whereas The Deserted Churchyards works by virtue of two basic layers, the flute and clarinet against the piano and percussion, there are several lines or layers in Shadowland that all use staccato. Bent Sørensen has himself mentioned the French Impressionist/Pointillist painter George Seurat as a source of inspiration. It is not possible to transfer a technique from one artistic area to another. But to understand the technique and intention of the works, the way the pictures are formed can lend a helping hand. Seurat painted rather in the same way as Sørensen composes – for example in Shadowland: a huge expanse of small points which together, and only at a distance, form a whole picture. Every single small note is a tiny part of a drawing consisting of dots. And when many short note-points are played quickly by many instruments in close register, the whole can be heard as one long note instead of a mass of small ones.
The music of Bent Sørensen’s Shadowland belongs to a period with works that operate with the same pictorial idiom. Clairobscur and Minnewater from 1988 are from the same family. They are characteristic in not using the piano, because “the piano is a domineering instrument”, as Bent Sørensen once said. Not until Funeral Procession did the composer dare to use it, but then quite stripped of its normal piano sound. The sound approaches bell-like music. The same goes for the next work, The Deserted Churchyards. Again, Sørensen uses a technique based on letting the piano play with quick staccato motion in the high register. The piano thus loses its normal sound and can merge for example with the glockenspiel. The idea of having the piano merge with other instrument groups is something we can experience all the way up to the piano concerto La notte from 1996-98, where the piano’s role is not the traditional ‘contesting’ with the orchestra – the classic idea of the individual against the collective. In the piano concerto too there are subtle timbres and small shifts in the colouring that create a multi-layered composition which in the end is so fascinating because it is beautiful, very beautiful without either being backward-looking or norm-shatteringly new.
All Bent Sørensen’s works for chamber ensemble are typified by this use of instruments: the composer puts the musical microorganism under the magnifying-glass to see what is happening down among the swarm of voices. He lets the instruments play in extreme registers and even then very faintly. And if he cannot achieve the desired effect with ordinary instruments, then he uses unusual combinations in the service of expression. This can be heard for instance at the end of The Deserted Churchyards. The last passage is a final farewell to the deserted churchyards. The valedictory mood is composed by making the muted violins play glissando. Above this sounds a slide whistle, a special instrument that looks and works like a bicycle pump. Finally, the glissando of the strings meets the ascending glissando of the slide whistle and with perfect timing the work can end on one and the same note.
Three churchyards in Jutland
I once asked Sørensen why Funeral Procession came to be associated with The Deserted Churchyards. His reply was:
“I had written Funeral Procession the year before The Deserted Churchyards. At one point I had the notion of writing a small piece that could function as a kind of prelude to Funeral Procession. The idea for The Deserted Churchyards came in the autumn of 1989 when I was in North Jutland walking along the shore and saw some churchyards and churches. There are three remarkable churches there: Mårup Church (south of Lønstrup), which is disappearing – the water is eating its way in towards the church and now it is 30-40 metres from the water; then there is the old churchyard at Rubjerg; and the old Lyngby churchyard. In other words, there’s an area with a culture that is gradually vanishing. At one time these churches were far inland. In a way it’s time that has eaten its way in on these churches. This prompted the title The Deserted Churchyards, which thus now belongs together with the title Funeral Procession.”
Funeral processions have been on the composer’s mind on several occasions. The string quartet Adieu also centres on an image of a funeral procession, the composer has said. Funeral Procession, where the notion or the picture evocation becomes manifest, points back to the ideas from Shadowland. We are in the same world of images whether we are in the choral piece Lacrimosa, in the string quartet Angels’ Music of 1988, or in the Funeral Procession. Technically Sørensen works with a wealth of variation within a relatively limited space with his resources. The music is built up from thirds, it is swarming dynamism against static stillness.
All the same you get a sense of different periods in Bent Sørensen’s creative career. The fourth string quartet (Schreie und Melancholie) from 1994 belongs together with the trombone concerto Birds and Bells. We hear the same dislocated thirds that are neither major nor minor.
Bent Sørensen’s music is dreamscapes without boundaries. Down to the finest details of the structure it wants to join forces with the lyrical leaps and irregular rhythms of consciousness. This requires elasticity of structure and expression. And for that reason among others, Bent Sørensen’s music is in the widest sense of the word thought-provoking, because it consists of structures that in indescribable ways play on the listener’s whole emotional keyboard. Some of it can be captured and described in words – but most has to be experienced and sensed beyond spoken language.
© Anders Beyer 1999
See also Anders Beyer: Skygge eller skikkelse. Interview med komponisten Bent Sørensen.