The Work of Art as a True Presence

Interview with Swedish composer Hans Gefors

By Anders Beyer

Anders Beyer: Recently various institutions have tried to revive the old idea of a common Nordic identity in music. Such was the theme of the Scandinavian festival held in Berlin in 1994. And in a new music festival—arranged within the framework of the Nordic Music Festival—the organizers want to contribute to an active definition of ‘Nordicness’ as distinct from the rest of the world. According to the festival brochure it seems that it’s particularly Nordic to alter the perception of time. The goal is to increase awareness of a supposed ‘Nordic way of thinking’.

And then there is the recurrent issue of the Nordic ‘sound’. As part of an on-going project, the focal point of a new book on Nordic music history, Musik i Norden, has been to find common Nordic traits both in the music itself and in music institutions. Personally I find that the common denominator lies in the cooperation between music institutions, rather than seeking common areas of musical expression.

You have been active in two ‘camps’, one in Denmark and the other in Sweden. We Danes know that Per Nørgård was inspired by Sibelius and has talked at one point of the ‘universe of the Nordic mind’. How do you evaluate the attempt to establish these ‘cross references’?

Hans Gefors: There are only a few instances where it makes sense, and there are preciously few references to other Nordic composers and artists in the history of Swedish music. But if you think back to the turn of the century, there was, in fact, not only a ‘Nordic tone’ but also close connections between important artists that had not existed before and haven’t since. This even influenced artists on the continent, for example, Rilke, Schoenberg, Busoni, and so on. I’m thinking of authors like J.P. Jacobsen, Strindberg and Ibsen. There was a group that met at the Zum Schwarzen Ferkel in Berlin consisting of Strindberg, Munch, Obstfelder, Dehmel, Paul, Wedekind, Przybyszewski.

The artists at the turn of the century knew each other; it was natural for Stenhammar to ask Sibelius to conduct his symphonies at Göteborg, just as it was natural for him to invite Nielsen to conduct his symphonies. Stenhammar heard Sibelius’s Second Symphony and wrote a letter about the enormous impression the work had on him.

Sibelius was significant for composers from Alfvén and Rosenberg through Åke Hermansson to myself. Nielsen was very familiar with Swedish music and his book, Living Music, had an impact on Kallstenius, Nystroem, and the composers in Lars Erik Larsson’s generation.

Beyond that, it is the institutional cooperation that has continued; we have some very important organizations like UNM (Young Nordic Music), Nordic Music Days, and NOMUS (Nordic Music Committee/ Nordic Council of Ministers). There is also a tremendous amount of contact between composers and musicians. But there is little in common culturally just now, surprisingly little, in comparison to how often we see each other.

AB: But if we go a bit further back in the century, and look at the development that was spearheaded by various strong personalities in the different countries, would you also say that there was minimal mutual inspiration then?

HG: The ‘Monday Group’ in Sweden had an enormous importance for music in Stockholm, not least, for the training of composers. They paved the way. When I went there, Ingvar Lidholm was Professor and before him it was Karl Birger Blomdahl. These composers brought the spirit of the ‘Monday Group’ alive for their students. Daniel Börtz and Sven-David Sandström inherited this view of music. But the Monday Group didn’t get their international impulses from Denmark or Norway, but from Hindemith, Honegger, Bartók and from Sacher in Basle. Even at that time the other Nordic countries were uninteresting as sources of inspiration. In Sweden it was the Hindemith tradition that took over and you can trace it even now. Hindemith’s is the underlying tradition, a doctrine which dictates that the musical craft must be in order.

AB: Could you name some composers who resonate with this idea? For some, this reference to Hindemith’s aesthetic could sound pretty negative.

HG: In the earlier works of Blomdahl, Bäck and Lidholm you can hear from the melodic style that they have studied Hindemith. But the modernist aesthetic also arrived in Sweden via Bengt Hambraeus and Bo Nilsson, who were in Darmstadt very early on, and that influenced the development of the ‘Monday Group’. You can see it in Lidholm’s Poesis, and also in Blomdahl’s work, though he was very angry when he heard Xenakis’s Metastaseis, he said it wasn’t music. I know that Lidholm was inspired by Nono’s cantata Il canto sospeso. It was the Italian treatment of the voice that made the impression. You can hear its influence in Lidholm’s Nausikaa ensam (Nausika Alone). But again, it is evidently international thought that had an impact on Swedish music.

A little further back there was a group centred around Lars Erik Larsson, de Frumerie and Wirén. I think that in their generation cross-fertilization of ideas was still felt; they knew Holmboe, Riisager and Høffding and were strongly influenced by functionalism in Danish music in the 1930s. Lars Erik Larsson composed his concertino series consisting of concertos for all the instruments of the orchestra. These were widely used by amateur orchestras, and I am sure that they owed a debt to Nielsen and Høffding. That spirit lived on in Larsson’s students.

AB: In the somewhat younger generation there was a personal and, to a certain extent, also a professional connection between Vagn Holmboe and Erik Bergman. They were well acquainted and knew each other’s music very well, but their music admittedly does sound different.

Aftwer the war

During the isolation of the war, the ‘Monday Group’ grew from strength to strength. After World War II you didn’t travel to Denmark anymore, you travelled further afield. Did the ‘Monday Group’ develop because it was impossible to get international status and recognition or did they deliberately choose to lock themselves into a local centre?

HG: The ‘Monday Group’ developed during the war. The members were all very active and all were in their twenties. Blomdahl, the oldest, was twenty-three; when the war was over he was twenty-nine. They couldn’t leave the country, they had to stay where they were and figure it all out for themselves. The whole Hindemith influence started when they studied The Craft of Musical Composition together. After the war they got in touch with Europe at large. Several of them were fine musicians and scholars: Eric Ericson, Hans Leygraf, Bo Wallner, Ingmar Bengtsson and Nils Wallin. In the 1950s they continued to be absorbed in modernism because there was a strong desire among the group to stay modern and to turn outwards toward the world. It was the beginning of the modernist wave—the optimistic part of it.

AB: But there were other Nordic composers who held similar attitudes: Arne Nordheim from Norway in his earlier days, and the Dane, Gunnar Berg, for example.

HG: Yes, but they were younger and worked entirely on an international basis from the beginning. Nordheim was the first Norwegian to become a real modernist. That generation could turn directly toward Europe. And that’s the way it is still. There is no Nordic cultural community, no names that people gather around, nor places where students from different Nordic countries might come to study. There may be initiatives in that direction, but there has not been any real centre to cultivate a common Nordic ‘tone’. Conversely, you find national voices surviving within the Nordic countries.

I can remember when I was young reading an interview with Arne Nordheim who had just been in Warsaw in order to produce a tape for one of his pieces. When his hosts heard the work, they said, ‘Oh, that sounds so Norwegian’. Nordheim couldn’t understand it because it was simply what he was used to producing in his studio. I think the whole issue is rooted in a wish both at home and abroad that a Nordic ‘tone’ exists. Something along the lines of, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we really had a cultural fellowship and exchanged aesthetic principles instead of just sharing food and socializing’. But when one compares Sweden with, for example, Denmark, it is the differences that strike me most.

AB: We could possibly elaborate on that because you lived in Denmark ten years ago. You studied there for many years, primarily with Nørgård.

HG: Yes, also with Karl Aage Rasmussen, and the entire ‘circle’ in Århus.

AB: So are you the exception that proves the rule?

HG: Yes, for my part that’s the way I feel. That’s why I express myself so emphatically (laughter); no one else has such bi-cultural citizenship. There should be more people with insight into Danish composers’ way of thinking, and more people in Denmark who understand how the Swedes think when they make music. I saw that clearly when Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was in Stockholm last year for the Stockholm New Music Festival. He was invited by Göran Bergendal (Producer, Swedish Radio and member of the artistic committee of the Stockholm New Music festival, ed.) who knows and appreciates his music very much. There are other Swedes who also like his music very much. He was the featured composer and he is a very odd composer. After the performance of his Concerto Grosso I spoke with some Swedish composers: they were totally confused. They didn’t understand what he wanted to achieve, where he wanted to go, what he had done, and what it meant. They perceived it as complete nonsense. They couldn’t interpret the music, they didn’t understand how it was put together or why.

AB: Why could you understand it better?

HG: You have to know the whole tradition of ‘new simplicity’ in Denmark. You have to know certain key works and know how they are put together.

AB: You have named one of the most difficult composers for a foreigner to come in to contact with. In an interview in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift (Danish Music Review) Gudmundsen-Holmgreen himself said that his music is considered next to impossible for foreigners. Difficult and unmanageable, just like his name which is so long it’s impossible to fit it into newspaper columns without ludicrous hyphenations.

HG: He was also booed at one of the ISCM World Music Days festivals. It’s a frequently cited story. Even though you can say that Gudmundsen-Holmgreen is an extreme case he is a good example, because the Swedish composers neither liked what they heard, nor could they understand it.

AB: What kind of discussion did that provoke?

HG: I tried to discuss the idea of ‘layer upon layer technique’ in which you put different layers together. The layers are phrased independently and thus create relationships that ‘rub’ against each other. All the while, each layer has its own stylistic identity. The Swedish composers had not heard it that way; they didn’t understand the piece in that way. They thought it was too long as they didn’t perceive the interaction of the layers. The stylistic references were not interpreted correctly, either. When I tried to explain what I had heard in the piece, it became clear that they hadn’t heard the same thing at all.

This idea was confirmed at the last Young Nordic Music Festival in 1994 (Ung Nordisk Musik). Much of the music by young Danish composers, even when they are not directly inspired by Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, is rather odd, compared with that of others.

AB: ‘Odd’?

HG: Diatonic and constructivist—very Danish. You don’t find it in many other places. What you have is a constructivist relationship and then on top of that, a diatonic, naïve or pastoral idea, or whatever you may call it. There is always a pastoral tone—non espressivo—but it is structured all the same: rock-hard. This is so peculiarly Danish that others cannot grasp it.

AB: In a panel discussion at the recent Young Nordic Music festival you called Danish music ‘freedom-thirsty’, Swedish music ‘expressive’, Finnish ‘authoritarian’, Icelandic ‘traditional’ and Norwegian music ‘unschooled’. You’ll have to explain this in more detail.

AB: With Danish and Swedish composers one can hear who has taught them. With the Norwegians it’s as if each one starts anew; there is no common style. In spite of the fact that they have had a Professor of Composition for many years, namely Lasse Thoresen, and a standard institution, there is still no Norwegian school. I’m not saying that that is either good or bad, I’m just making the observation. It is difficult to find a common denominator for Norwegian music. It can be very modernist and it can be unbelievably backward-looking; it can be just about anything. The music of other countries is much more predictable.

AB: So you claim that you can listen to a piece by a young Danish or Swedish composer and afterwards be able to tell who his or her teacher was?

HG: Almost every time. Of course, I’ll probably get it wrong if we try this experiment. But when one has read the programme notes and listened to the music, it is much clearer than you would think. To put it differently: the education that young composers receive goes much deeper than they themselves realize.

AB: But in Denmark we pride ourselves on having no school of composition. Only kind and mild-mannered teachers who are very understanding. The recent debate in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift has brought perspective and nuance to the relationship between teachers and students in Denmark. Moreover, the younger generation is now beginning to write and formulate an independent position on how to proceed.

HG: Yes, but they work very clearly within the Danish tradition. To put it in perspective I can compare it with my own development, which ended with my going to Denmark—inspired by all the references to Nørgård in Bo Wallner’s book Vår tids musik i Norden. It was a quite conscious decision; I couldn’t stand the music scene in Stockholm. The whole atmosphere, the way people communicated.

AB: Could you be a little more specific?

HG: Yes. There was an episode which proved decisive for me. I was a participant in a workshop for young composers at Fylkingen—the platform for performance of new music—just after I began to study with Ingvar Lidholm. We were supposed to work with Harpans Kraft (Power of the Harp), at that time the most advanced new music ensemble. They were used to having many pieces dedicated to them by former students, for example Daniel Börtz, Sven-David Sandström, Lars-Erik Rosell and Anders Eliasson. So here comes a whole new generation—I was twenty and Lasse Hallnäs and Mikael Edlund were twenty-one, and so on. Suddenly they were presented with four young men who didn’t agree with the premise. And the whole thing was a disaster.

AB: What premise?

HG: The premise was that one took over the older generation’s position, became conversant with the scene. Just as you had to do your military service, so you had to serve your time in musical life. You began by arranging the chairs in Fylkingen. It was never discussed until this workshop with Harpans Kraft, but there it became clear that this was demanded from you without question. But we were twenty and didn’t know anything at all. We were unusually young when we started our composition studies; Sven-David Sandström and Daniel Börtz had been older when they set out. So here came a group of people who didn’t have the same background as the previous generation.

AB: When you say background, you mean religious background, don’t you?

HG: Let’s call it a social background with a religious component. Lidholm, Bäck, and Sven-Erik Johansson and most of the others came from religious homes. Blomdahl was actually an engineer and was anti-religious. There is an historical pattern that relates to the migration from the countryside to the cities. In the country villages, music was kept alive by the Fundamentalists, the Pentecostal Church, the Salvation Army and the State Church (Lutheran). This fostered a very strong tradition that had its flowering in art music just as we were becoming involved in music. We were city kids who had played rock and American folk music; we had attended public music schools and had no knowledge of the religious tradition. And they couldn’t understand what we were talking about. It was pure nonsense, and possibly also threatening to them. I felt trapped and angry—even though at that time I didn’t understand why. We were expected to stand to attention and unquestioningly accept the way music was organized.

AB: So, what about the episode at Fylkingen?

HG: I was young and a little shy. I found it difficult to speak to the musicians and didn’t feel at home at that stage. Lidholm hadn’t been there to introduce me to the musicians, and don’t get me wrong, I was in awe of these famous people. The first thing that happened when we arrived was that we youngsters were scolded, because we didn’t understand the blessing and usefulness and the foresightedness of this project. They offered us something and we turned our backs on them. It was a judgement against the young composers, who didn’t even know what they had done wrong. It developed into a genuine war of words. People began to attack each other, everyone was against everyone else. It was probably the end of a common cause among Swedish composers. I remember that when I left, I thought that I wanted nothing more to do with the whole thing.

It was a different world when I went to Århus. There I met musicians—I had not met a single musician from the school during my entire first year at the Music School in Stockholm. I hadn’t got the basic education I needed either. I got that at Århus. I became involved with AUT (Århus Unge Tonekunstnere) in a voluntary, uncoerced way. Karl Aage Rasmussen—even though he is only five years older than I—was the strong man there; he was the centre of a group that met, partied and talked about things. We discussed aesthetics till we were blue in the face. It truly stimulated my development, my Swedish reference system was subjected to heavy pressure. Wonderful! We could really be free with each other; you could think what you wanted, and at the same time we could listen to each other’s ideas. Implicit in being free is the need to adopt contrary positions and to air your anger.

AB: Was that allowed?

HG: Yes, or perhaps one could say that the culture of the place allowed it; viewpoints were often put forward but you didn’t get taken to task because you dared to speak out against the leaders. Unlike the way it had been in Sweden.

AB: The spirit of Århus has been carried on in your work at the Music School in Malmö, where you are Professor of Composition. There is this same desire to engage in dialogue. I experienced it myself when I was a guest lecturer there. Have you succeeded in creating an alternative to the wider musical environment that surrounds you?

HG: I think so, actually, and that thought was confirmed by my good friend Sven-David Sandström just recently at the UNM. He is a Professor in Stockholm and a person with whom I have always kept in touch, even while in Denmark (Sandström is currently Professor of Composition at Indiana University, Bloomington, ed.). He said of a performance of a particular piece from Malmö that it could never have been composed in Stockholm. He didn’t say why, but I think that I understood what he meant. If you have several working centres, then some things that are acceptable in one place just aren’t in another. Some things are possible in Malmö that are not possible in Stockholm and vice versa. I think it’s very important, even more important than the national idiom. I don’t think that it will be less noticeable in an international culture, but more. Centres of regional style will be created. If you have studied in a certain place, it influences your thinking; it makes some things possible and others impossible.

AB: Now you are speaking of local centres inside national boundaries. But if you as a Swede look at your own generation, and then look at Finland it is very clear that those who influence music these days are those who dared to go abroad. You can’t talk about the local, even if we admit that Heininen’s influence is something they all experienced. From here it looks like an attempt to become free of Sibelius’ spirit, like Hansel and Gretel, who went out to find themselves in the big world. Nevertheless, you call the Finns authoritarian?

HG: Yes, I think it’s obvious, particularly at the UNM. I felt that the young Finnish composers had written very competent works, perhaps the best from a technical point of view. But when I spoke with some Danish composers about this they said that they yawned when they listened to these pieces, and so did I. I was really aware of my Danish background; I listen to music in the same way. I was bored by the Finns’ desire to make modernism . . .

AB: Towards an ideal?

HG: Yes, and not only that. It’s becoming institutionalized in a particular way; it is being raised up to the level of a kind of style that it really didn’t set out to be. You can classify all the stylistic traits and there can be different branches to each trait, but in the end they come from one and the same modernist trunk. And all these branches emanate from Schoenberg, never from Stravinsky. It is serialism, the formal part of modernism which becomes institutionalized, never the other. For example, those composers who interested Karl Aage Rasmussen—Ives, the Futurists, Nancarrow and Harry Partch—it is never they who set the tone.

AB: What about this Nordic community that is supposed to include the Finns? Isn’t it almost absurd?

HG: What do you mean?

AB: In the work of the Swedish composer Karen Rehnqvist one can clearly trace inspiration from folk songs; in Per Nørgård there are instances of Danish song. In the Norwegian Lasse Thoresen one can trace an attempt to strengthen ties with the folk tradition. But what on earth is the connection between Finland and what the Finns practise at IRCAM?

HG: The Finns say that you can’t sit at home at the kitchen table and become international. So they make an extra effort to get exposure, with Heininen’s help, of course. They travel abroad, not to the other Nordic countries. This is one of the reasons for the lack of common aesthetic ground. If Swedish composers go abroad they don’t go to Denmark. They might go to Finland because of Heininen’s success, but they are more likely to go to England or to the USA, to Germany, or to Holland. But then Swedish composers don’t travel so much. Personally I’m surprised that not more Nordic composers have come to study with Per Nørgård, I mean he has international stature.

AB: You characterized Swedish composers with the term ‘expressive’. Is that due to Hindemith’s influence?

HG: I first heard the label ‘expressive’ from Karl Aage Rasmussen and then suddenly I was in a position to understand it objectively. His comment about Lidholm’s music was that it had a special ‘espressivo’, a violently expressive character. And then I too heard what he meant, particularly in Lidholm’s music. Grandiose violent strokes with clear contours. And this tradition is continued with Börtz and Sven-David Sandström. They are both teachers—or have been—in Stockholm. Though as a composer Sven-David is still moving in unexpected directions, he is maintaining his links with the religious tradition of his homeland. And no-one really can understand his music without understanding that dimension.

AB: Although you use the term ‘expressive’, it is hard to define it because it has so many associations. But, at the very least it implies that expression takes precedence over structure?

HG: Yes, expression is very important. It must be personal, honest and deeply felt. Moreover, expression is bigger than oneself. In Börtz’s music it is very clear that it comes close to a collective expression.

Gefors Close-up

AB: I think that what you say is also true for the next generation—not that I would put you into the same category as Anders Eliasson, who expresses a lot of Sturm und Drang in his music. You have a very romantic aesthetic; there are no quotation marks around your music, no parody. Everything is to be taken literally: a sigh is a sigh. But how much of your personal philosophy is embedded in your work? Do you want to see the music as a means of reaching a new understanding of life?

HG: Now you are putting me on the spot. It’s a lot easier to talk about other composers. Your questions take me by surprise—do I have a Romantic aesthetic? But if I think about what I want to communicate through my work, I would have to agree with you that it is more than the individual notes. There has to be a reason, you have to dare to do something, and the music has to affect the listener. It is my Swedish legacy that comes through here.

AB: When you say ‘affect’, we come back to that old problem of construction versus expression. Magnus Lindberg, who, in his early compositions, continued in the modernist tradition, has become more communicative in his new pieces, for example, Coyote Blues. He sets something in motion and wants the music to reach the listener. Is that what you want, too?

HG: I have learned to compose following Per Nørgård’s way of thinking, so the constructive element is taken for granted. But it can never become the raison d’être for writing a piece. On many occations I have discarded a piece when I realized that I had a structure but that the piece had nothing to say. Therefore I distrust the ability of structure to provide inspiration. So we come to what’s even more difficult to talk about: the content.

I visualize an important moment, the starting point, the moment when you decide to be a composer, when you discover that the most important thing in life is to compose music. I’m speaking of an existential moment. As a teenager I was a song-writer. I composed my own songs and sang them at parties in the city and the country. I can trace that background in my operas, even in my orchestral pieces, for the element of song is still there. One way or another, it all comes back to the singer and his guitar. As a composer I am deeply interested in melody in the broadest sense.

AB: Some people talk about being on the trail of a new kind of beauty, one that has never been ventured before, a beauty that isn’t kitsch, but rather a valid new expression. Are you on the trail of that kind of beauty?

HG: Yes. That’s what I have been doing the whole time. I get very depressed when I read Adorno. Although he wishes that beauty would return, he sees it as lost, and so he tries to construct a world where one talks about the loss. I feel strongly that it’s not so. When was beauty lost? On which date? What happened? I don’t see any proof that beauty has been lost. Just try to open your eyes and see, not only in music, but also in the theatre, in visual art, in popular music, I mean funk music and so on. If you look at how people live, then you can see that they are always searching for beauty. I think that in art music we have been too willing to accept what Adorno called the negative dialectic. We always come back to the question of authenticity, and, perhaps it’s easier to say that beauty isn’t authentic and so give up the search. To my mind, that is a kind of laziness. It is considered hard to make something beautiful, and so one makes something ugly—because it’s a lot easier to do that.

AB: You don’t believe that beauty is a negation, that it is expressed through its absence and that it is beautiful to the degree that it is lacking?

HG: No, that’s philosophical twaddle, too smart and too contrived. It’s overly intellectual and commonsense dictates that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is a kind of escape mechanism, an expression for our infinite disappointment that beauty wasn’t salvation. I like to communicate. To use an image other than that of the song-writer, I might suggest a good conversation, where one person has an intense dialogue with another. That’s where you can really get into some depth; there is a ‘you’ on the other side.

Opera composer

AB: Some years ago you enjoyed real success with the opera Christina. Recently some scenes have been recorded on CD. My obvious question is: what do you do after success?

HG: Write another opera. No, seriously, it is a shock, but it brings a kind of experience that can be got no other way. You meet complete strangers who have seen the opera and understand it; composers aren’t used to that. Many composers have abandoned the belief that their thoughts can reach the listener. That’s when the different escape mechanisms and negative dialectics get going.

I didn’t immediately start to compose an opera. Someone suggested that I write an opera on Erik the 14th and become a kind of chronicler. But as I had improved technically as a composer, I wanted to explore and deepen my ability to express myself. There is a song cycle on CD, called En Obol (A Penance). I think that in it I was able to reach a new level of expressive power, even though the expression is very introspective compared with Christina. Today, as I work towards my third opera, I have simplified my musical language significantly.

For me, composing has something to do with development. There is a lot of talk about the audience and communication, but the important thing is that the individual who is listening is a kind of ‘partner’. It should be something like a love relationship. We have to develop together. You receive something from the listener when you reach them, and it is a kind of gift. That has to be developed, and then you must give something back. Perhaps it works and you give thanks to the relationship but it may end in divorce. I can’t think in terms of buying, selling and management, but today it’s difficult not to talk in terms of management. Losing the potential for art to awaken understanding is a common mistake.

AB: Are you referring to the attitudes of composers like Górecki and Nyman?

HG: Yes, but I think that there is a big difference between them. Nyman has always wanted success, but Górecki was overwhelmed by it. All you can say is that the possibility for success is always there. I heard a large-scale mass by Górecki in Warsaw in 1983, but I never suspected that he would become a world-famous composer even though I really liked the piece. Composers are perhaps not the best judges when it comes to these things. It is as hard for a composer to calculate what will become successful, as it is for a pop musician to predict what will be a great hit. You cannot compose a successful work on purpose. Afterwards it may be possible to see what made it work, but until then you must make do with being as personable and as good a composer as possible. I am old-fashioned enough to think that we should just be good composers.

Back in time

AB: We have already spoken about the Nordic character and the claim that a preoccupation with the concept of time is a particular feature of Nordic music. That claim in fact was made by one of the organizers of the Nordic Music Festival, the Swede Anders Hultqvist. He has composed a work called Time and The Bell and has addressed the question of time in music in various publications, including Nutida Musik. What is the point of researching chronometric time as opposed to experienced time? What is it all about? Articles have been written about time, whether it goes backwards and forwards, or whether one can get out of it, or on to it, and even whether one can hear it or not. I don’t understand much of it.

HG: I think that one can only see the ‘Nordic spirit’ as some kind of idea or metaphysical fellowship. The concept of time is something all composers here at the ISCM write about, and whether it concerns getting on or off is an open question. When you hear different pieces, then you distinguish other things more easily—for instance where the composer studied—before you hear the relationship to time. My opera, entitled The Park after Botho Strauss, was governed precisely by an exploration of time. But whether that’s what ultimately emerges from the work is something I’m not sure about. The drama is built on the action and so the time involved is very concrete. If something is to happen then it takes time. If an action is to be realistic then it takes the time that that action takes, and altering it—to slow motion, or stop-and-go—gives it a completely different expression. Arias are fermatas in the progress of time. In opera you go back and forth, between stepping out of, and back into, time. That’s the way it has been since the 1600s. Seen from that viewpoint the exploration of time is not as new as the avant-garde would have it.

AB: What about the Nordic perspective compared with that of the greater world beyond? Right now we are in the midst of the ISCM World Music Days in Stockholm, a festival packed with concerts. I find it amazing that composers from all over the world are still interested in making a glove to fit the hand of ‘Central European Modernism’. Pretty shocking, isn’t it?

HG: Yes . . . it is quite ‘fantastic’. The illusion that modernism is finished is strong both in Sweden and Denmark. Many of my colleagues believe that modernism is a thing of the past, but everything points to that being wrong. Modernism has been institutionalized in a very special way. It has been assured a kind of museum existence. You can give a work a catalogue number and file it under ‘Freiburg-Modernism 1994’.

AB: There are young Nordic composers who try to write their way into the Central European tradition.

HG: The Finns do it very successfully through Heininen and by setting up some ideal works that follow the norm according to Schoenberg and to the ‘correct’ Stravinsky—that is, Sacre. Take, for instance, the Norwegian composer, Asbjörn Schaathun. His work Actions, Interpolations, Analyses is an example of this phenomenon. I think the piece sounds old-fashioned. Written in the post-Webern idiom, it has the international sound common to all ISCM festivals.

One of my students was at Darmstadt last year. There were 400 young people who went around and practised 7 against 5 all week so that they could play new music. Modern music uses this kind of thing like a fetish. It has been passed on, there has been nothing new in forty years. Modernism is a success. You could write a best seller entitled The Success of Modernism.

AB: According to common historical parlance we live in an age of pluralism, and now you say that modernism is stronger than it has ever been.

HG: Yes, that’s right. It has become institutionalized. There are some who would put it differently but they are quickly silenced. It is a self-perpetuating system, perhaps because the audience is too small. An audience can change things; there are precedents for that in music history. Mozart was a court composer. And forty years before the Eroica Haydn began to invent the symphony. Then along came this new middle-class audience and changed the whole thing. Now we are caught inside an institution in which there is no new audience. Like the ISCM it is a closed system and will probably remain that way until we are told that we are not to use money for that purpose any more. For me it’s more valuable to have a good performance at the opera house than at the ISCM World Music Days. I would also rather compose for orchestra than for the ISCM, but most of all I like to work with opera. There you find singers who think that it’s really pleasurable to sing the work. There’s a whole institution working on your piece. There is enough rehearsal time. It’s pleasure.

All of this is missing from the ISCM world of composers who adopt stances with their strong aesthetic statements. That’s why it is so easy to write museum modernism, to make such complicated music that it can’t be grasped, can’t be controlled. We can no longer imagine something that isn’t modernism. Several years ago it was post-modernism, but that has now been absorbed by modernism. Not even minimalism has the strength to fight it anymore.

AB: But isn’t there a pendulum that swings between historical positions? We have just spoken about a romantic aesthetic nowadays which is a witness to our turning back to historical frames of reference.

HG: Yes. There is nothing to indicate that we are ever going to be finished with anything whatsoever. Although we forget many things they pop up again. Once something is invented there is always the possibility that it will come back. This goes against the idea that cultural elements are born, grow old and die. The romantic aesthetic is acquiring a new aspect. It has always been present and in the 1800s it became central for various reasons. It’s difficult to imagine that there won’t always be people who will undergo anything in order to create the perfect work of art, who feel that although what’s found there might be illusory, it’s worth doing anyway.

The idea that it can be too late or too romantic or too functional stems from idealism and from historical philosophers. I don’t believe them and I try to resist their ideas. There will always be aesthetic purists who think that it is crazy that some still think they can afford to be romantic. But the romantic idea wishes to underscore the importance of art. In that way romanticism is in itself almost an ideology and the aesthetic of modernist art is, in fact, romantic because it wants to write off the mindless society that is ruining humanity. In this sense it is a kind of super-romanticism. We want to reach a world where it means something to experience an artwork, though I wonder if institutionalized modernism has abandoned even that position. The feeling of togetherness which we can experience in an art work is more powerful than that we can find in anything else—possibly only with the exception of love.

Postscript by Hans Gefors (June 1999)

At the time of the above interview, I avoided making a clear statement about my views, something I now regret. Since 1994, I have written two more operas, Vargen Kommar (Cry Wolf, performed in Malmö, 1997) and Clara (performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, 1998), and the song-cycle Lydias sånger (Songs of Lydia, for mezzo soprano and orchestra, premiered in Stockholm, 1997). These experiences now allow me to articulate my relationship to new music more precisely.

These days technical matters are more important than artistic concerns in contemporary music and this has been the case since composers were taken in by scientific ambitions about composition that were supposed to codify the perfect musical work. In reality all that was achieved was a registration of the materials and principles of organization used in any composition. To recognize masterpieces you have to make use of a totally different set of human skills and abilities. The codification process has been further escalated through the predominance of computer techniques and the prestige of IRCAM.

Previously it was the concept of the single motif or series permeating everything that determined the value of any piece, but now algorithms and spectral analyses occupy the same position. That which should have been a means has become the end. This is a materialistic attitude that is highly problematic from an artistic as well as from a philosophical point of view. I sometimes find artists and works that rise above this world view, but they are exceptional.

Writing about serious music does not at all seem to reflect some of the serious criticism that has been levelled at materialism (‘matter over mind’) and rationalism by various authors over the last few decades. Also I see no evidence of recent debate about narration and hermeneutics entertained by authors with a humanistic viewpoint. The same is true of contributions from authors who try to see mankind’s condition in a new light from the perspective of psychoanalysis or of communication theory. In fact, every day we hear about new avenues to creativity and new techniques of releasing mental energies. None of this has apparently had any influence on the mainstream of compositional activity, which, ever more, has become an enclave for outdated scientific ideals.

Those composers who are enchanted by their craft cannot see beyond the musical materials and do not have the extra energy and ideas needed to look ahead and think about the significance and purpose of music. Consequently, new music is reduced to the level of ornamentation. We squabble about triads or their absence as if that were the essence of music. I find this unacceptable. It is crucial that I am able to grow as a human being through the process of composing, and I want the listener to be able to comprehend my intentions and thoughts so that I, in turn, can learn something about myself and about the world from that attentive listener.

Once or twice in the interview I refer to the ideal of a frank conversation and the feeling of presence that it provides. This is not only an abstract idea but a real influence on my work. Thanks to opera I escaped, as if by magic, from the self-imposed limitations of musical compostion that I have just described. Now, almost exclusively, I write large works that last the whole, or at least half, of the evening. The modern standard of a ten-minute long ‘aperitif’ to a concert of standard repertoire strikes me as incommensurate with essential qualities. The narrative and action that are fundamental to opera have provided me with an unsurpassed starting point for composing. This forces me to articulate my intentions clearly both sensually and conceptually—in a way in which the compositional techniques I use, no matter how ingenious they may be, do not indicate at all. It is as though I have to bring abstract knowledge out into the bright light of the real world with all its desire and resistance. And what satisfaction I feel when it works!

This brings me, finally, to the artificial opposition between absolute music and so-called programme music, something that has poisoned discussion about music for a long time. No composer wants to be accused of writing programme music! The composer of the Rite of Spring offers a truly pathetic denial in his Poetics of Music. Who really believes that the plot had no significant influence on the composition? What would music be without memories, images, dreams, visions, experiences, situations, meetings, events, gestures?—Merely ornament. It would be just as bad if music lacked consequence, logic, order, form, shape, patterns, style, repetitions, design, traditions, formulas—pure chaos. Genuine music cannot do without both. For me, writing operas has dissolved this opposition, it does not exist.

The listener must be taken into account too. I find it unbearable when young composers reveal that they have absolutely no idea about how the music that’s played is to be perceived. Cognitive research explores mutuality (reciprocity) as a fundamental dimension of even the most primitive forms of communication, but composers nevertheless seem unable to throw off those blackboard demonstrations of arrows and connecting squares of the old stimulus–response-type. On a visit to Malmö, British composer Brian Ferneyhough predicted that sometime in the future all listeners would become composers—in other words, a nightmare in which nobody listens.

Only the serious listener can inform us that we are being understood—not as composers, but as human beings. The last words in Botho Strauss’ drama and my opera, Der Park, are: ‘Haben Sie mich verstanden oder lauschen Sie nur’? which I translate as: ‘Do you understand me or are you just registering sounds’? This is precisely the kind of situation to which I am strongly drawn—not to find the right musical motif, but to create a situation in which the spectator responds, ‘I understand’!

© Anders Beyer 2000.

The interview was published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000. The interview was also published in Danish: ‘Kunstværket som virkeligt nærvær: Samtale med komponisten Hans Gefors’. Danish Music Review vol. 65, no. 4 (1994/95): page 146-157.


Hans Gefors (b. 1952, Sweden) studied composition with Per-Gunnar Alldahl and Maurice Karkoff, and then with Ingvar Lidholm at the State College of Music in Stockholm. He eventually moved to Denmark to study with Per Nørgård at the Royal Academy in Århus. An experienced teacher, music critic and editor, he has been Professor of Composition in Lund. A long-term interest in literature and psychology coupled with a sure dramatic sense have resulted in a number of operas that have appealed to general audiences, first in Sweden and now abroad. Scores can be obtained from the Swedish Music Information Centre. BIS, dacapo and Phono Suecia are labels on which his recordings can be found.