You don’t often see the large Danish orchestras playing new music. What are your thoughts about composing a whole symphony for The Danish National Symphony Orchestra?
Since I was a child, I have always been drawn to the orchestra. No other constellation matches it with regard to possibilities spanning from the details of chamber music to a large, massive sound. I believe that balancing the many possible expressions in one coherent work is a challenge to all composers. But this is also what triggers your imagination.
It obviously gives you a great amount of freedom to write for The Danish National Symphony Orchestra, because it is such a magnificent orchestra, and I do appreciate writing for the rather classical context constituted by a Thursday concert. Naturally a more uniform concert consisting only of Baroque music, Romantic music or contemporary music could provide an interesting insight into a certain time or a certain kind of music, but I actually prefer it when a concert is put together of contrasting works. When you put a new piece like mine next to old, familiar works, you break with the stylistic homogeneity in a concert. I believe that this can provide a wider perspective and show common features as well as contrasts over a long period of time. In the end this might lead to a better understanding of the past as well as the present. It is a perspective and an opportunity to reflect that I find hard to achieve at “special concerts” – of which I am basically a bit skeptical.
Formally your symphony looks different from most symphonies with its 11 parts consisting of an introduction and a number of expositions and interludes. What is the thought behind this?
It was never my intention to write a symphony in the classical understanding of the word – I am way too devoid of nostalgia to do that and too interested in coming up with something new. The question was whether it is even possible to write a symphony, when you do not want to write a new piece in an old style, which I did not. To answer that question you have to ask another question: What is a symphony? And confronted with that question you soon fall short of answers. Even though there are some common features, the differences between symphonies by J.C. Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinskij, Webern, Messiaen… are enormous.
Therefore I find it impossible to outline a static model of what a symphony is. On the contrary I see the symphony as a dynamic concept with a definition that changes over time, as the many different symphonies written over the past couple of centuries show. There is a difference between the conservative, music-historic approach, and the creative approach. As a composer, luckily, you don’t have to make the scheme fit – you can make your own. I haven’t entered a random place in the history of music and chosen a “symphony-scheme” to fill out in order to write a proper symphony. Instead I have chosen some general features that you will find across many otherwise completely different symphonies, like introduction, exposition, intermezzo and repetition. I have worked with these features in my own way in order to avoid writing an old-school symphony, but instead offer my own personal take on a symphony anno 2016.
Where did you find inspiration for your work with “Symphony”?
Inspiration comes from all places and in all forms. A sound, a feeling, an experience. Most often it is a rather small impulse setting something bigger in motion. But as soon as the work has begun it snowballs, and it seems like the piece writes itself or reveals itself bit by bit along the way. The small impulse that started it all is often almost invisible in the final piece, or even ditched completely in favor of something else – which however would never have appeared without the initial impulse.
Can you say something about the idea behind the work?
To me it isn’t really about an idea behind the work. The work is the idea. To me a musical expression is something that can only be expressed in music. If I could express the idea of a work in a few words – or even in many words for that matter – there would be no reason to even write the music. In that case it would make better sense to write a novel or a manifest.
Your work has previously been described as ‘composing with musical objects.’ Is that also the case in this piece, and how is that expressed?
I have worked with the idea of musical objects for about ten years by now, and I have explored different aspects of that idea in the pieces I have written during this time. To make a long story short you could say that to me a musical object is elements of sound combined and perceived as a unity. A single tone can be perceived as a unity, but so can the combination of a number of tones in the shape of a motive or a melody. In a wider perspective the combination of larger elements like melodies and intermezzos can be perceived as a unity in the shape of a whole movement, and the combinations of movements as symphonies, concerts, operas etc.
When I think of all these things as objects of different sizes rather than motives, melodies etc. I am able to work with the material in different ways. I am not forced to consider how I – in a classical sense – develop or alter a melody, because I don’t think of the constellation of tones as a melody but rather as a unity, as a musical object. It can be compared to a piece of wood – I can saw it or combine it with other objects, and together they make a larger object etc.
It is the same way of thinking when it comes to the symphony. In a way I short-circuit the symphony with these concepts and alter it in relation to its historical ancestors. So when there is an introduction, exposition and intermezzo in the symphony these parts are in different ways governed by the idea of musical objects. Another aspect of the musical objects that I am very attracted to is the idea that the music can be shaped in a way where it seems less fleeting and hard to grasp, but on the contrary more concrete and direct – almost like physical objects, like musical sculptures.
Where do you place the symphony in relation to your previous works – does it reveal something about future directions?
In a way this work lies as a direct extension of the works I have written over the past 10 years. It is a large piece, 30 minutes for a large orchestra, and it is obvious to see it as a kind of synthesis of what I have written up until now. There are many references to my previous works and many of the ideas are direct derivations or developments of ideas from previous works. That aspect is quite obvious, but at the same time there is a small arrow pointing in a new direction. Probably something more discrete. As I mentioned I have been working with the idea of musical objects for a long time, and even though these ideas are still dominant in the symphony, I felt a need to move away from them and free myself of them. Therefore the formal logic of the objects is broken and contradicted in various places throughout the symphony. In spite of the fact that it is probably only visible if you really analyze the piece, you might say that to me these are the first small steps towards a new freedom.
Symphony will be performed on 3 November and 5 November in DR Koncerthuset.