Niels Marthinsen (b. 1963)

Like a curtain that is ripped aside - with an introductory gesture which lets the music start right away, often fortissimo and with a quick, ascending glissando - this is how Niels Marthinsen's music likes to welcome its listeners. The otherwise well-known and fashionable feature in contemporary music: letting the music grow out of silence, eliminating the border between music and non-music, work and non-work, art and reality, he largely avoids. Let there be no doubt: this actually is music - "See there! Now we're going to begin."

Let us start in a similarly carefree manner with a quick character sketch:

Niels Marthinsen's music is burly, but chaste at the same time. It communicates directly with the listener, but also wants to do more than just entertain and impress. In all modesty, it is all about unfolding a meaningful musical progression which is more than a mere sequence of events. "Then this happens, and then that happens, etc." The labour involved in creating meaningful connections over time has previously meant dealing intensely with proportions, timing, and tempo and - not least - harmony: attempts to create new chordal and tonal connections; harmonic structures which can eventually be extended to determine the formal and expressive progression of whole pieces of music. Lately, however, another way of thinking has gained in importance, one to which, to a large degree, the music's harmonic aspect must subject itself. It is the preoccupation with structures which are at once repetitive - "circular" - and progressive - "linear", i.e. musical sequences that chase their own tails, but which are at the same time transformed at each repetition according to certain patterns toward something different and thereby even "discontinue" themselves, exhausting their possibilities of further transformation according to the same pattern. In a country like Denmark, where hardly any young composer remains uninfluenced by Per Nørgård's musical thinking - Niels Marthinsen not being an exception - and where Nørgård's discoveries of what could be called "infinite" musical structures (the "infinite row" and the "tone lakes") have almost become second nature to a whole nation of composers, there could be something particulary stimulating in thinking in another direction. Not as a rebellion, but as a challenge for the notion of the time of the work which lies hidden in this and similar types of structural thinking. Making music from "finite rows", if you like, music which has its time. That idea has its own beauty. However little this may immediately seem to harmonise with contemporary trends, postmodernist slogans about open works and suchlike, Marthinsen seems to be attracted in various ways towards letting his works make do with "merely" being closed. This is how, so to speak, unto Caesar is given what is Caesar's and unto God is given what is God's.

Sphere of Expression
'In a way all my melodies are horn melodies', Niels Marthinsen once said in an interview. In his works, it is easy to find examples of melodies which put that statement to shame, but still, there is some truth in it. It even relates to something more than just the melodic and the instrumental. The horn - and the other brass instruments for that matter - can in this context be seen as a metaphor for a whole sphere of expression, a musical-rhetorical style. The extremely zesty works, Réveille (1994) for orchestra, and A Bright Kind of High (1996) for virtuoso chamber ensemble and orchestra are both as concentrates of the most extrovert sides of this world of expression. But this field of expressions not only has to do with the dynamic and extrovert aspects of Marthinsen's music (e.g. in the fanfare-like gesture). It also, for example, has to do with a certain feeling for symphonic width and coherence which is obvious in the works for orchestra and bigger ensembles, especially in the works up to the Symphony from 1995, but which is also present in works for smaller ensembles. Although brass instruments are frequently used in a virtuoso way across the whole range, we are not dealing with a notion of sound which is necessarily narrowly associated with them. For example, the ways in which the piano is often used as part of the overall sonority to double and reinforce in different registers - in ways that may sometimes remind one of Poul Ruders - are often remarkably well integrated in relation to the brass section, or the piano complements the winds as yet another "orchestral group" in itself.

In this often very unshy and blunt sphere of expression, one also senses a bashfulness vis a vis the too navel-gazingly introvert - but the candid attitude also includes its own opposites, seriousness and quiet. The music is not mere action and gesture. Niels Marthinsen is equally self-ironic, humorous and seriously curious in his approach to music. He wants to know what is happening in it - what it is "all about", in order to use one of his own preferred expressions - and this is true of the music of others as well as of his own. But his own music should not "be about" profundity by means of a frowning gesture. He is really opposed to the romantic posing as lyrical, doomy, or "deep" - the lamento and "the infinitely sad", as he has called it - it then far too easily appears like a postulate or like a nostalgic retrospection on romanticism. In order to touch on what is meaningful in music, Marthinsen has indeed ventured to speak about the "spirituality" of music as something which does not only appear in its gestures and in the impressiveness which each single one of its musical events may have, but which in a certain sense goes beyond the immediate impression it gives. A quality that he, at the risk of sounding self-important, seeks to reach in his own music. But in his music there is still no room for the self-important. It is in a certain sense chaste faced with its own earnestness.

The talent for the orchestral, and for broad brush strokes, often makes itself felt in Marthinsen's works for chamber ensembles, particularly in his sinfonietta works. As artistic director of the Århus Sinfonietta for a number of years, he knows all sides of that particular instrumentation and has his own approach to its possibilities and problems. For someone like Marthinsen who suffers from a symphonic temperament to a relatively high degree, the sinfonietta is somewhat of a crossbreed, not quite an orchestra, and then again more than yet another chamber music creature. But he has found his own ways of circumventing the problem. Kammersymfoni (Chamber Symphony) (1992), Chimes at Midnight (Chamber Symphony No. 3) (1993), En Miniature (1995), and the arrangement of Ravel's Sonatina (1993) are some of the works in which Marthinsen frequently explores the sinfonietta's own "orchestral" possibilities - here he often seeks to organise the texture into a collective acoustic pattern and to avoid the fragmentation into nothing but individual utterances.

The beginning of Chimes at Midnight is one of many examples illustrating this - a rapid, octave-doubled melodic layer in the strings and winds is complemented by full chords in the relatively deep range of the piano (framed by double bass and English horn), while horn, flügelhorn, and trombone add a dimension of depth to the acoustic pattern with their supportive "resonance" in three different tempi. In total, a complex acoustic pattern with a degree of timbral saturation that surpasses the chamber musical aspect and creates an illusion of a sound totality that is larger than the sum of its individual parts.

In Outland for 16 musicians (written for the Malko Competition 1998) and in the opera Kærlighed og Forræderi (Love and Treachery) (1997), he lets many of the instruments appear in pairs or chorically and thereby gains the possibility of working with homogeneity of sound within an ensemble of solo instruments. At the same time, he can avoid the balance problem of the sinfonietta (between winds and the thinly orchestrated solo strings), and again the possibilites are exploited to create a surprising width and depth of sonority. Kærlighed og Forræderi (Love and Treachery) based on a text by Stig Dalager is a kind of chamber-operatic counterpart to Kundera's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Themes such as (in)fidelity, jealousy, and idealism unfold in parallel at the personal and political level, here with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Stasi Archives as the topical context.

But naturally, it is first and foremost in the orchestral works, from the early Erscheinungen (1986) and Pepper Music (1990) up to the solo concertos for tuba (1994) and for percussion (1995) and Symphony (1995) that the symphonic way of thinking unfolds itself in full. Where much orchestral music in the 20th century tends to go towards a fragmentation of the body of the orchestra in an almost chamber musical exploitation of the instruments, Marthinsen will just as often head in the opposite direction - his music radiates a fundamental and exhilarating pleasure in the orchestra's ... well, orchestral opportunities.

Up to Symphony - in works such as Pepper Music for orchestra, Gletscher (Glacier)(1991) for brass band, Chimes at Midnight and En Miniature (1995), both for sinfonietta - the endeavour to invent and exploit tonal, harmonic connections in new ways is clearly audible. It is an endeavour that not only sees harmony as "colour" and as an isolated, local phenomenon, but as a dynamic element that creates coherence. But rather than just recycling the effects of tonality out of context, where they would easily come to function as quotations of style, he builds his own "tonal cadences", and he extends such short harmonic passages to whole networks of chords with an eye for their possiblities of combination and potentials for structuring a time sequence. In the symphony, for example, the simple sequence of harmonies E Minor, C Major, E Major constitutes such a frequently recurring "tonal cadence" (in the first movement played again and again in tutti staccati chords in a rhythmic sequence, which continuously turns the experience of tempo upside down). In the course of the symphony, this then forms the basis of more comprehensive harmonic complexes and is exploited to create a number of different textures. Thereby he attains the reintroduction of both a feeling of logical consistency in moving from one sonority to the next, a sense of progression and a long-term harmonic perspective - a perspective which had, with serialism's fragmentation of the harmonious into isolated moments, to a large extent, been dissolved. At the same time, the reinvention of triads and tetrads in new contexts constitutes a basis for working with the vertical dimension of the music in works like those mentioned above (a basis which is, indeed, as a main rule quickly expanded and transcended). The chordal element is exploited as a counterweight to the multi-layeredness, which is also an important quality of Marthinsen's world of sound. The total, homogeneous sound again becomes accessible as a means of expression in the midst of the chaos.

The work of (re)finding meaningful ways of formulating longer musical sequences has, however, gone in another direction in recent years, as previously mentioned. This is true of a number of works from the second half of the 1990s: Trio (1997) for piano trio, Ex Jutlandia Obscura (1997) for solo trombone, Byen og Øjnene (The City and the Eyes)(1998) and Canto alla Secunda Giornata (1999), both for voice and piano, Outland (1998), Moonwalk (1998) for clarinet and vibraphone, and Introduction and Three Allegros (1999) for six musicians. Here Marthinsen experiments with what might be called the way in which the music "behaves" - which type of process it goes through. The point of departure is a systematic structuring of a very large amount of tone sequences into a continuous process of change, which ends up "eating itself up", the logic in the systematism followed by the process of change being taken all the way through. Outland and Introduction and Three Allegros are so far the works in which this idea is unfolded on the largest scale. In Outland, the entire form is measured out by an extremely slow playing of a two-part sequence, which behaves as just described: With what Marthinsen himself, characteristically, calls: a "horn motive" as the point of departure, a repetitive sequence is developed under systematic unfolding and change. On top of that sequence, two further versions of the same idea have been applied, one in two parts and one in unison, both in faster tempi. The circling, repetitive quality thus makes itself felt, both at a whirlingly fast "foreground level", at a slower "intermediate level", and at a completely slow, "macro" level. It is music where the chordal does not function as the point of departure, but where the aspect of gesture, at several levels (fast, slow, and large-scale) is coordinated in a complex soundscape and "produces" the harmonic element. So, there is still a harmonic development, but the conditions of working with it have changed in such a way that the vertical, chordal harmonies have now been replaced by less fixed, dynamic harmonic fields which keep on merging.

Is it important how music "behaves"? Charles Ives once opined that a song ought to have a few rights, like other citizens. If it felt like doing something against any "good" taste, then who would refuse it the right to do so? Well, not everybody will probably agree that music has a will of its own and should be covered by the human rights conventions, and Niels Marthinsen is certainly not the type of person to refrain from exerting his own personal influence. The music should preferably do what he wants it to do, and even better: a bit more. When certain sections of his symphony - especially in the last part - spread out into symphonic discharges which do not fall short of John Williams' Star Wars music, it is not so much "the music" (or the "good" taste) as Niels Marthinsen himself who has his way. The comparison with the Star Wars music does not come from nowhere: Marthinsen does not make a secret of a certain degree of admiration that he holds for that music and, by the way, does not suffer from fear of dealing with what is effective to the point of being kitschy. His musical collection contains an entire "chamber of horror", as he calls it - and he loves it just as much as he is amused by it. But with the principles he puts forward for the musical development in his recent works, there is a dimension in the music's "behaviour" which escapes the full control of the composer - the music is governed by a logic lying beyond the immediate effect it produces. It is a type of behaviour that enables everybody - including the composer himself - to go exploring in the music later and maintain a curiosity towards it. It does what he asks it to do... and a bit more.

By Jens Hesselager 2000 

©Edition Wilhelm Hansen 2000