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Performing Composers

On the new music scene, composers do not just hand over their work for print, when the last note has been put in the score. Instead they enter the spotlight in one way or the other, when the work is performed for an audience. Performing adds an extra aspect to the role as composer, to the work and to the relation between composer and audience.

The composers take part in the performance of their own works in various ways. Some take on the role as the main performer; a good example is Niels Rønsholdt who is the lead singer in several of his recent works. In other cases -  score, instrument and composer almost seem to merge into one entity in works performed on homebuilt instruments - check out works by for instance Jeppe Just Christensen and Lars Kynde. Yet other composers take part in the piece on a video screen as you see with Christian Winther Christensen and Nicolai Worsaae.

Martin Stauning’s “Interventions” at the Royal Danish Theatre

When Martin Stauning’s name is featured on the programme for Corpus Unika at The Royal Danish Theatre, it is not as the chamber music composer we know as best, instead it is as composer and performer of his own piece “Interventions”. 

In “Interventions” Martin Stauning is alone on stage as performer, and the music literally derives from his movements.

“The piece stages trivial everyday actions like shaving or mopping the floor,” Stauning explains about the piece where his movements will be picked up by contact microphones on his fingers. “I try to find the inherent sound of these actions, which are repeated in a loop. What we hear are the extremely amplified sounds, and while the action is repeated, the sound will be looped and further amplified in an internal feedback.” 

The idea behind the piece is to explore what Martin Stauning calls the ‘indifference of everyday actions’. “The indifference gets its own meaning in a piece like this,” he says. “Actions that in their regular context have no deeper meaning – like shaving or washing your hands – are pulled out of context and seen as a musical or performative object, allowing it to be a part of the music in the same way as an F minor chord or a bar of four beats.”

“Through repetition these actions are ascribed a sort of meaning,” Stauning explains and continues: “It simply has to! We would not be able to bear our existence if the trivialities in life did not have a meaning.” 

To Martin Stauning, stepping into the role of performer is a way of putting himself out there in a different way from the composer sitting behind a desk. “You kind of turn yourself into a target, saying, come on, shoot at me, if you want to!”

Read the whole interview with Martin Stauning here.

Simon Steen-Andersen: Run Time Error

“Run Time Error” is a site specific audio-visual performance, in which Simon Steen-Andersen performs at two levels – in front of the camera in the pre-recorded video sequences, and behind the joysticks when video and sound recordings are sampled in a live performance. 

In the video recordings, Simon Steen-Anderse moves on a thoroughly planned route through the building, where the interior and the architecture function as the instruments of the piece. With a handheld microphone the composer captures the sound of plastic cups rolling down escalators, a ticking clock and beats on panels, lamps, books and dustbins.

“Run Time Error” has been created in various versions all over the world, and Simon Steen-Andersen has a number of dogmas for the compositional concept that he applies every time. For instance: The work must be made from objects found on location, every object must be used only once (meaning that 300-400 objects are brought into play in each piece) and there must be an immediate association from one sound to the next. In this way, a linear movement occurs – almost like a scale unfolding throughout the building.

When “Run Time Error” is performed, Simon Steen-Andersen live samples the sound and video recordings in a double video projection with a stereo sound track using two joysticks. In this way the piece can be compared to a video game played by the composer, in which he himself is the protagonist. Read Rasmus Holmboe’s article “Have You Seen the Music” for a further elaboration. 

Niels Rønsholdt: Me Quitte

Niels Rønsholdt is one of the Edition-S composers who most readily experiments with the role of the composer and the effect of entering the stage as the singer in his own works.

“Me Quitte” is a song cycle based on a classic love song by Jacques Brel: “Ne Me Quitte Pas” from 1959. According to Rønsholdt, Brel’s chanson represents the quintessential ideas of romantic love in Western popular culture; love as pure, beautiful and good. In “Me Quitte” Rønsholdt turns this cliché upside down, since love is just as often both destructive and cruel.

Rønsholdt borrows fragments of text from Brel’s chanson, but sings them backwards, and most importantly – Rønsholdt is the one who sings. When the virtuoso crooner Brel sings, he is the incarnation of confidence and power. When the unschooled Rønsholdt goes on stages performing “Me Quitte” he displays all his fragility and powerlessness.

"Me Quitte" was released on CD in 2016, and is available at Dacapo Records.

Niels Rønsholdt: Word by Word

In the performance notes of the opera “Word by Word”, Rønsholdt writes: “With its extreme minimalism, this opera will most likely be both embarrassing, ugly and boring. But it will be true.”

Niels Rønsholdt sings all the seven parts of the extremely intimate work. “Word by Word” disappoints all expectations of a classic opera, and instead of the pathos of a professional opera singer, Rønsholdt performs his own piece, discretely reciting a libretto in a trivial, everyday language.

The intimacy is underlined by the staging of the piece. Rønsholdt lies on a long table, foot against foot, with a silent woman. Fruit, berries and cake are placed round them, resembling an exploded wedding cake. The audience is invited to eat the food from the table – establishing a sensuous bond between audience and composer – or letting the audience eat into the fragile artist bit by bit as the piece evolves?

Jeppe Just Christensen: Three Songs in 9 Movements

When Jeppe Just Christensen went from being a ‘regular’ composer to performing his own works, one motivation was to avoid the loss of control that follows, when you leave the performance to others entails. He describes this in an interview in Danish newspaper Politiken: 

“I don’t want to sit in the audience listening to my own works any more, because it is unsatisfying to just sit there, unable to do anything.”

Jeppe Just Christensen does not stop at composing and performing his own music. He also builds his own instruments, and to a large extent, they also define the compositions as well as the performances.

One of Just Christensen’s compositional principles is cutting to the bone and creating condensed, personal and honest music. In ”Three Songs in 9 Movements” from 2015, as well as in many of his other works, the honesty and authenticity is inherent in the imperfect character of the home built instruments. The performance of the works by the composer himself - or his group ‘The Jeppe Just Institute’ -  is also characterized by a sense of honesty through the playful approach that seems to come along with the instruments.

Lars Kynde: Elephant Heart

Lars Kynde also creates the instruments that his works are played on. Often, they take the shape of rather complex installations, and usually the composer is part of the performance. In “Elephant Heart” composer, performer, instrument and score has combined into one great compositional machine.

The setup of the piece includes a conveyer belt, which functions as the score and moves small marbles along as notes. At the end of the belt, the marbles fall down and hit tuned metal tubes, which function as the sounding part of the installation – the “Tubephone Campignon”.

The instrument is played by three performers each controlling one of the elements: “Tempo”, “Rhythm” and “Pitch”.

Christian Winther Christensen: Concerto for a Movie Loop

”Concerto for a Movie Loop” is written for orchestra, piano and video projection. The video shows the composer playing the theme from the ”C minor prelude Op. 3, No. 2” by Rachmaninov.

The orchestra plays alongside the composer on the screen in loops that each last a minute or so, but are constantly changing. Elements of noise gradually take over from the regular sounds of the instruments as the piece develops. The noise that comes to dominate, comes from various physical movements in the final section of the work.

Nicolai Worsaae: Eight And A Half Pint

In Nicolai Worsaae’s “Eight And A Half Pint”, the composer is also present at the performance of the piece through a video sequence. Worsaae plays the main character in a silent movie, basically drinking a lot of beer!

The piece and the title contains a lot of references – to Beethovens 8th Symphony, and to Fellini’s movie 8 ½ – and Worsaae reveals a possible interpretation of his own part in the performance: ”I imagine the movie to be about a composer who is not making any progress in his writing process. Instead of staying home and finishing the piece he tries to ignore the threatening deadline by getting drunk.”

Read a short interview with Nicolai Worsaae about ”Eight And A Half Pint.”

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