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Interview: New orchestra work by Martin Stauning

On 13 April The Danish National Symphony Orchestra will premiere Martin Stauning's 'Liminality'. We spoke with the composer about contrasts and collapses and about having the courage to let 87 professional musicians do nothing for 30 seconds.

Photo: Jakob Boserup

Read the interview in Danish

"It is very, very classic - it is extremely tonal music," Martin Stauning exclaims while going through the score of 'Liminality'. "At first I imagined it would start with a minute and a half of something very powerful followed by seventeen minutes of ssschhhhhhhhhh... Scorched earth!"

It didn't turn out that way exactly, but the final form of the piece is a series of statements and collapses, and between them almost silence; the liminal phases. This is the concept that the title of the work is drawn from, as Martin Stauning explains: "Liminality is the state in a rite of passage where you are in between the two stages, that the ritual represents a passing between. You are no longer what you were before the ritual, but you also haven't reached the result of the ritual. I was very fascinated by this concept not only as a sociological or psychological idea but also as a concrete musical form. In the work we have various states or statements and in between them we have almost complete silence - a phase where we don't now exactly where we are going."

Martin Stauning builds up slowly to the first collapse of the piece. "You can give people a massive punch at once, or you can take their hand and caress them a little bit first, and when they least expect it THEN you throw the punch! That is much more interesting and a little more mean," he laughs. Stauning takes the hand of the audience by starting the piece with a string quartet placed around the conductor's podium. They play very silently with dimmed strings while a flute adds a timbre to it. From this starting point comes the contrast when the rest of the orchestra joins in, then the collapse and then silence.

"I am trying to be aware of the visual aspect of it as well," Stauning tells. "We are moving the ears of the audience around in the orchestra. It has a great impact if for instance the violins have been sitting there not doing anything for five minutes and then all of a sudden they start playing. That kind of shift draws a lot of attention, also visually."

The courage to make room for silence
Martin Stauning tries to give various elements in his works more time. "I tend to continuously cut stuff away. That can be a fruitful exercise when the result is a condensed expression, but sometimes you end up with a piece where the audience doesn't have time to decipher the music." Therefore he tries to imagine what the first experience of the music would be like. "One minute isn't very long if there are three or four layers in the music to decipher and you have never heard it before. What I might find boring after a minute because I have heard it many, many times already obviously won't be boring for you."

While writing 'Liminality' Stauning realised that in particular the liminal passages of almost-silence needed to be extended in order to let each of the statements stand out more clearly. "It takes courage to have an orchestra of 88 musicians at your disposal and then take your time to let just a single percussionist shake a thunder sheet silently while everyone else is doing nothing," Martin Stauning tells and finds one of the places in the score where only a thunder sheet breaks the silence. He had added three notes in another part, but when he got the printed score he crossed them out with a pencil, and he calls it a classic mistake for a young composer: "Nothing needs to happen here! Take it away! We are able to cope with thirty seconds of almost nothing, there is nothing to be afraid of... None the less I was so afraid that I added something extra. But I erased it now."

Extension of well-known ideas
Stauning wrote his first orchestra work 'Burlesque' for The Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2016, and it was premiered during PULSAR festival at The Royal Danish Academy of Music. "The experience of having worked with an orchestra before is obviously extremely important," he says, and points out that for most young composers having an orchestra work performed doesn't happen often, and therefore it takes a long time before you can work with the lessons you learn. 'Liminality' however extends and sums up ideas from other previous works for far smaller ensembles.

"Actually the form of the work resembles that of ’Îles en Mer d'Argent’, that I wrote for the Danish Chamber Players. In that piece I imagined these islands and then you went from island to island across a frozen silvery sea." In 'Liminality' the islands have become collapses and the frozen sea is the liminal phases. "Actually it isn't the collapses that interest me, it is what comes after, that I find interesting," Stauning tells and continues: "That is when something happens inside us. We have just been exposed to this," he says and points in the score. "And during the silence here we get the time to process it." 

And what comes after the orchestra work? In which direction is it pointing? Martin Stauning hesitates before answering: "I tend to write very gestural music, and this work contains many gestural elements. But there are also elements of a more organic character, and I would like to explore that further," he says and continues: "I would like to write a piece completely without gesture. That would be groundbreaking for me."