This month, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music – Philip Cashian – explores the extraordinary music of esteemed Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. We perform a concert celebrating his works on Sunday 2 March at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room.
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The influence of maverick Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b. 1932) on the wonderfully varied and extremely successful younger generation of Danish composers such as Bent Sørensen, Poul Ruders, Hans Abrahamsen and Simon Steen-Andersen is clear testament to his standing as a ‘father figure’ of contemporary music in his native country.
Each of these composers has their own highly distinctive and instantly recognisable musical voice which I believe is partly due to the influence of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s totally fresh approach to composing, his ear for clarity and coherence, and an almost obsessive handling of musical material.
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has been labelled as a ‘new simplicity’ composer because of his interest in playing with sound, not music. His playfulness reflects his inexhaustible musical invention and the way he can take a very small, seemingly mundane idea and develop it into something of great significance. The opening of Song is a good example of this with his deconstruction of the text of John Dowland’s song Flow My Tears into almost comical percussive gestures and unpitched vocalisation (Opening – 01:32):
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, however, slowly allows fragments of the original setting to float to the surface as he skilfully lets the percussive sounds slip into the background until at 08:46 – 11:34 we arrive at music clearly reminiscent of Dowland’s original setting:
This breaking down of text into phonetic sounds to create percussive and sonic material for the singer clearly owes a lot to Luciano Berio’s Sequenza No. 3 for female voice (1966):
In 2010, in a brilliantly pragmatic and typically playful manner, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen placed Song on top of the instrumental piece Play to create Company for 4 voices and 14 instruments.
There’s a lot of repetitive, almost percussive, string writing which gives the music a gentle pulsing energy (reminding me of Poul Ruder’s music) as well as a minimalist feel. Listen at 03:18 – 04:00.
One of the things I really like about Company is the way the two percussionists – playing an assortment of instruments including bamboo and shell chimes, sandpaper and oil barrels – are central to the entire sound of the piece; whilst the strings, wind and everybody else amplify and echo what they are doing. Listen at 05:44 – 06:24.
One of Holmgreen’s great skills is to have contrasting layers of music happening simultaneously but not getting in each others way at all. I can hear at least four layers playing simultaneously at 08:05 – 08:37.
In the final section of Company, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen creates a halo of sound around the voices (which have slipped into A major). He creates a magical ‘other worldly’ feel by combining ‘jangly’ unpitched percussion with flourishes of guitar and, most importantly, lots of resonant string harmonics. Listen at 08:40 – 09:18.
Other recommended listening:
Poul Ruders Thus Saw St John
Hans Abrahamsen Märchenbilder
Bent Sørensen The Deserted Churchyards