Simon Steen-Andersen & the Carl Nielsen Prize

We are now well into the 21st century’s second decade and so it is hardly an original observation to note that perhaps the foremost difficulty for artists of any genre working today is simply making sense of the multiplicity of means available. Some find new ways to use the existing forms, right through to where others devote themselves entirely to new avenues. Yet, a handful of composers, such as Simon Steen-Andersen, appear to sidestep these difficulties altogether, seemingly reinventing themselves afresh for each new work.

Since early success with his String Quartet of 1999, Steen-Andersen has become known as one of the most alert, uncompromising, and surprising artists of his generation. Just as that early work was followed by a prize, so this year on October 25 at the Royal Library’s Black Diamond, Copenhagen, the composer is to be bestowed a most distinguished honour in Danish cultural life: the Carl Nielsen Prize.

Born in 1976, Steen-Andersen is a leader of the first crop of Scandinavian composers whose plural musical language ranges far beyond the questions of which notes to write on the page. The realm in which he operates is boundless and often the result exists in some grey area between the accepted art-forms; they might contain any mixture of electronics, video, performance, as well as exploiting the wildest possibilities of instrumental music. For instance, take the two assistants required along with the pianist to perform Rerendered, the Chinese GuZheng soloist, sampler, and symphony orchestra that make Ouvertures, and On And Off And To And Fro for soprano saxophone, vibraphone, double bass, and 3 players with megaphones.

But with this, his works are disobedient inventions. Black Box Music, which at once deconstructs musical and theatre conventions, is at the same time perhaps the most immersive theatrical experience one might imagine. His earlier RunTime Error is a video-installation work where the material, of a percussionist playing ‘objects and instruments found at the location’, must be created within certain practical constraints, which in itself hints of the self-imposed aesthetic dogmas of some contemporary Danish cinema. This is the composer as curator, digesting the plurality of our age and finding ambiguous positions from which to devise and present new works, and in doing so re-envisioning the role.

Upon first hearing, particularly early instrumental works, musically-speaking we might be quick to point toward the composer Helmut Lachenmann as a decisive formative influence. But the Dane’s recognition and exploitation of the inherent theatricality of extended performance techniques has developed and combined with a rich creative language resulting from studies in Germany, Argentina, and his native country. More than just ‘going further’ to embrace this otherwise latent quality, the composer plays with it like a John Cage or Mauricio Kagel, sometimes even to the point where it must be supressed. We might again think of Rerendered; a work with a restrained employment of perhaps the most unrestrained methods of operating the grand piano conceivable. This is music conceived through some ‘precarious tension of opposites’ and somehow born from this is an art uncompromised, yet uncompromising.

However, strikingly for all its innovation, and contrasting so much contemporary music of the last century, this is work that resounds with listeners the world over. As well as its undoubted qualities, perhaps part of this is down to the audience’s familiarity with the work’s more unorthodox elements. One might be right in pondering as to whether we do live in an age where, for example, video projection and unconventional instruments such as megaphones are more familiar territory to viewers than the traditional orchestra is itself.

Simon Steen-Andersen will undoubtedly continue to do much to listeners but finding the right adjectives is tricky. It seems unjust to call this rethinking of the composer’s role as a ‘challenge’, as it so often is. His work is hardly a provocation or a dare. Rather, it is art that revels in the rich options presented to a truly creative spirit, and puts the serving of the concept first – whether it be a harp and video work or a wordplay on gambling and drinking for orchestra. The artist’s sole focus is doing the hypothesis justice, and where the then extraordinarily difficult job of making sense of the resultant multiplicity of meanings is passed politely to the writer and critics.

To celebrate the awarding of the Carl Nielsen Prize, the Danish National Chamber Orchestra will play a special concert on October 25 at the Black Diamond, Royal Library, Copenhagen. To be performed are Double Up, Study for Instrument #3, and RunTime Error.

by Luke Lewis