Review in the magazine Nordic Sounds

The Voice of Music: Conversations with composers of our time, by Anders Beyer, edited and translated by Jean Christensen and Anders Beyer. Published (in English) by Ashgate (Aldershot, UK and Burlington, Vermont USA)

By Guy Richards

This enormously informative and entertaining book is the fruit of over a decade of interviews conducted by its author for the major Danish periodical Dansk Musik Tidsskrift (Danish Music Review). The interviews have been translated into English with the assistance of Jean Christensen of Louisville University (an occasional contributor to Nordic Sounds), and are accompanied by full-page photographs of each composer (not all being recent, e.g. Erik Bergman and Per Nørgård). Christensen also interviews Beyer himself by way of an introduction.

The 22 composers cover a commendably broad spectrum of Nordic composers, from Holmboe and his pupils Nørgård and Nordheim to Hans Gefors and Kaija Saariaho, as well as a smattering of influential figures from elsewhere: Schnittke (a mere 3 pages), Gubaidulina and Denisov; Ligeti, Xenakis and – with by far the longest (40 pages) – Stockhausen. Some will cavil at the inclusion of this or that figure – Khrennikov, the erstwhile Stalinist bogeyman, is the most controversial – but there is no doubting the value of every single contribution, however brief. Oddly for a book in English, not one British and only one American composer (Philip Glass) is featured.

The interviews’ formats and styles vary considerably. Some are direct transcripts of conversations (as with Ligeti, Holmboe and Stockhausen), others later artificial constructs, as with Gubaidulina who answered in Russian questions asked in German. With Bergman and Denisov, the questions are mostly (but not entirely) expressed in the third person, jarring slightly with some very first-person responses.

The personalities of the composers are as varied as their music, from Gubaidulina’s aloofness to Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson’s open-hearted candour. (A shame no room could have been found for his composer-daughter, Mist Þorkelsdóttir.) All creative artists tend to self-obsession, especially under interview conditions, though none appear more so – and for radically different reasons – than Stockhausen and Khrennikov. Their single-mindedness contrasts with the wide sweep of knowledge displayed by Karl-Aage Rasmussen or Gefors, or the Norwegian Olav Anton Thommessen, the last exhibiting along the way a strange mix of the commonsensical and the completely off-the-wall! Incidentally, the Thommessen is marred by some indifferent proof-reading: one of Beyer’s questions is absorbed into the composer’s answer. At the opposite extreme is the wider, humanistic outlook of Þorkell and Holmboe.

The interview with the latter provides a good example of the wealth of detail the book provides. Discussion of the First Quartet is neatly combined with biographical data concerning Holmboe’s interest in Arab music (though neither Beyer nor the composer reflects on the common Arabophilia of Holmboe’s author elder brother, Knud). There is much to fascinate: who would have guessed Ligeti’s veneration of Machaut and Dufay, and knowledge of a host of obscure Renaissance figures? Indeed, music of the pre-Classical era is a recurrent thread in the awareness of many composers here, as are the recycling or recomposition of works by others, and the composer’s role in society. Fans of Stockhausen will be enthralled by his forthright views on such matters, as well as the discussions of his LICHT cycle.

There are remarkably few instances of dissonance between the composers’ various views of themselves or music, though when they do occur, as with Rasmussen on Ligeti’s reverence of Nancarrow, or Nordheim on Thommessen on Nordheim, they are informative. The most extreme though, surely, is to be found by comparing Denisov with Khrennikov. Even the opening sentences clash: where the one was almost always denied permission to travel, the other evidently “travelled an incredible amount.” Khrennikov’s answers are full of contradictions, evasions and self-justifications: on page 253 he claims “All problems evaporated with Stalin’s death” while a mere three pages later revisionism sets in: “Not all problems were resolved with Stalin’s death, but the most difficult ones were.” Beyer is a sympathetic and knowledgeable interviewer, although I suspect Khrennikov tried his patience; elsewhere he only comes unstuck with Stockhausen discussing Wagner’s vision of the future.

Overall, the book is very nicely produced and illustrated, though there are some proofing inconsistencies between names common across chapters, e.g. Farad Kara(j)ev and Alexander Vustin/Wustin, the latter having two index entries. The index itself has omissions – Waxman is referred to on page 90 as well as 80, and Karaev (thus spelled) is omitted altogether (p. 255). These are minor inconsistencies, however, and should not detract from a valuable addition to the literature of the music of our time.

Guy Rickards is a regular contributor to Gramophone and Tempo and the author of two books in Phaidon Press’ “20th Century Composers” series: Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze and Jean Sibelius.