PULSAR: Interviews with three composition students

Edition·S has been working together with three composition students from the Royal Danish Conservatory, assisting them with the process of preparing parts for their orchestral pieces to be premiered 9 March by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra during the PULSAR festival. Edition·S talked with Bára Gísladóttir, Mads Emil Dreyer and Jeppe Ernst about composing orchestral works.

How has it been working with the orchestral format?

Bára Gísladóttir: Working with the orchestral format is both wonderful and challenging at the same time. The format is a universe on its own, carrying endless possibilities.

Mads Emil Dreyer: It’s been interesting. I decided quite early on to work with a number of software tools for analysis that I’ve been using recently for other projects. This meant that the first part of the process was centred around analysing noise samples on my computer and transforming these into primitive building blocks for the string section. This process also led me to the overall principle of using the orchestra completely divisi. Because of this, I ended up with a pretty odd-looking score that barely fits the A1 format. I would lie if I claimed that this way of working wasn’t quite an experiment on my part.

Jeppe Ernst: I don't like writing for the symphony orchestra. I find it uncomfortable that I don't have a relation with, or a personal knowledge of, the people performing the music. I have tried my best not to write an orchestral piece.

What lies behind the title of your work?

Bára Gísladóttir: The piece is inspired by the Tokyo subway sarin attacks committed by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995. Five terrorists boarded one subway each, carrying plastic bags with sarin. Sarin is a transparent liquid that can easily evaporate into vapour, hence the title VAPE.

Mads Emil Dreyer: The title Korte dage, evig sne (Short Days, Eternal Show) refers to the formal structure of the piece. Basically, it consists of two different elements; one continuous layer of various kinds of string noises that ebb and flow throughout the piece, and then a gradually transforming harmonic layer in the woodwinds, brass and percussion that enters six times and adds a sense of direction to the music. Nature is, of course, a place often visited by composers looking for titles for their compositions. I don’t think, however, that the relation between nature and music in this piece is of any mimetic kind. I’m not trying to translate snow into music. Rather, I think of the title as a way of describing the process of the piece. It unfolds in a mechanical way not that different from how nature sometimes behaves: Slow, undeterred and, to a certain extent, clinical.

Jeppe Ernst: The first and fourth movement (Salme and Hymne) are related in the sense that they are both based on the same psalm and both have religious titles. The psalm is based on a text by Norwegian writer Jon Fosse. The second and third movement (Monodi and Serenade) are related in the sense that both deal with the subjects of violence and desperation and both have secular titles. The two movements can also be seen as a portrait of three persons: The second movement being a portrait of the woman and the man, and the third movement being a kind of self-portrait.

How would you describe your work?

Bára Gísladóttir: To perform the attacks, the five men dropped the sarin-filled bags on the subway floors and poked them with the tips of their umbrellas, making way for the material to sneak into the atmosphere with terrifying consequences. In the piece, the instruments are divided into five groups, as representatives of each attack, describing the circumstances, atmosphere, both literally and figuratively, as well as the actual vaporisation. 

Mads Emil Dreyer: The piece is based on an almost monomaniacal approach to timbral transformations. Despite the fact that all the players have their own individual part, it has been my intention to make the orchestra sound very much like a unit. When viewed up-close the music looks complex and really polyphonic, but the overriding concept is actually incredibly simple. The piece is centred around one development taking place as a shift between two states, and what happens from the beginning to the end is basically one long process of colorization. I think the result is a piece that insists quite hard on not being in a hurry – like a machine which is seemingly going nowhere but then nevertheless slowly moves forward while gradually changing its character along the way.

Jeppe Ernst: Basically, the piece is (as most of my music) a study of loneliness and silence.

The concert will be conducted by Swiss conductor Baldur Brönnimann, who has also spoken with the three composers. Read his interview here.

More information about the concert on the website of the Royal Academy.