Part VI – Bent Sørensen – ‘Looking on Darkness’, researching a new sound
‘Looking on Darkness’ is a piece for accordion written by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen in 2000. The score is published by ‘Edition Wilhelm Hansen’, Copenhagen and available here.
FH: I had to do my final recital at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. It was a public concert which was reviewed in the most important Danish papers, like all the other final concerts of the soloist class students. It was a very important occasion, and I wanted to have two commissions: one Norwegian solo piece and a Danish one. From Norway I got the piece ‘Lament’ from Asbjørn Schaathun. He was my neighbor in Oslo at that time. I really hang on to him to make him write this piece. He was an established composer, but I really wanted it. From Denmark I really loved the music of Bent Sørensen who already was a very respected composer at that time.
LP: Were you looking for challenges? In these pieces I see that the difficulties are very high.
FH: It was not that. I’m not attracted to virtuosity in that sense. I don’t think I was primarily interested in that but of course I see your point. For example in ‘Gagaku Variations’, it’s not the virtuosity that makes this piece great to me. The virtuosity is not a goal in itself, but contemporary music should be demanding in one or another way. It does not necessarily mean fast notes but … sometimes it means fast notes, or new techniques. It’s more the development of new musical languages that I’m interested in, and that has sometimes resulted in difficulties in the score. When you are pursuing new ideas, some of these new ideas might be difficult to perform.
At that time I had good contact with the Danish composer and publisher Klaus Ib Jørgensen. He has himself composed some pieces for the accordion, and he knew Bent Sørensen very well. He asked Bent Sørensen to compose for me; he just said something like “ah, he is very young but very talented etc., you should consider to write a piece for him.” To my surprise Bent accepted the commission: I got some support from a Nordic fund and he wrote the piece.
Sørensen has this unique musical language which I really like. A lot of his music has something melancholic, soft, spooky, almost ghost like; I already knew his music quite well as a listener. You can find this very peculiar atmosphere in a piece like ‘The Deserted Churchyards’. When he composes a piece he always uses some inspiration from outside the musical world; an image, a story, he needs something before he starts composing. (Bent Sørensen’s ‘Birds and Bells’ review, ECM new series.)
LP: In ‘Looking on Darkness’ he got inspiration from a poem.
FH: Yes, for example. For ‘The Deserted Churchyards’ it was a real churchyard in Denmark, which is now under the sea. The theme of nature conquering the human is present in a lot of his works.
‘Looking on Darkness’ comes from a Shakespeare poem. It was also another very personal story behind this piece but I promised not to tell. Looking on Darkness is absolutely a very poetic title. In a dream while sleeping, the protagonist sees the shadow of his beloved in the darkness.
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
FH: I first met with Bent in Oslo, and I showed him the basics of the accordion. He never worked professionally with the accordion before.
I remember he was very interested in tone glissandos. You can recognize similar sounds in a lot of his other music. The bended, spooky sound. He used it also in orchestral works with the tubular bells, big long bells which were hit and put down into water; it gives a similar sound. (listen to ‘The Deserted Churchyard’ from 7’40”)
He probably knew, or maybe he assumed that it was possible to do something similar also on the accordion. I had no special interest in tone bending at that time. He really pushed me on this issue. And today I’m very happy, mainly because the piece became a work in his very personal musical language, which was what I was looking for. It has this atmosphere that no other accordion piece has. And I also learned a lot from the process of working with it.
LP: It’s melancholic, sad. How come?
FH: It’s because the sound quality changes when you bend a note. It’s almost like you can hear the struggle of the reed, the surrender of the note when you bend it! It’s difficult to work on sound quality on the accordion and this is the reason why a lot of the repertoire sounds more or less the same. If you play a string instrument you can work a lot with small nuances in sound, even if you play Mozart. For example you can play close to or further away from the bridge, you can use a light or heavy bow. Also on wind instruments you have lots of possibilities on every single note; how you treat the read, how much air sound you use on the note, vibrato or not etc. To change a register on the accordion is not really a big change of sound quality in itself, if you ask me. But you can do so many other things if you use your imagination. This piece helped me to see further in what sound possibilities we have on our instrument.
In this piece it’s a lot about the sound that comes from the bending. You choke the read, you are killing the sound inside the instrument. There is sadness in that sound. The sound gets introvert, it disappears. There’s something very fascinating about that.
One of the first problem we met was that when you bend the note in the right hand it affects the volume of the left hand too much. So we tried to play with the two feet register in the left hand while bending notes in the right. We discovered that this actually quite bad quality register in the left hand had such a small, week sound, that it didn’t get that much affected by the bellows pressure.
We could actually play a melody on the two feet register and do bendings in the right hand without destroying the melody in the left hand. That was a key to make this piece work. I don’t think Bent wanted to write a piece with tone bendings only as an effect. He wanted to have it in the melodies: they go across the tone bendings that very often take you to the next note in a melodic phrase. I later realized that how the reeds react on bending differs from instrument to instrument. This makes it probably more difficult on some instruments than others, but I don’t think it’s impossible to play on any instrument.
After our first session we agreed to meet again at his home in Denmark. For this occasion, just after maybe a month or two, he had already composed a lot of music, and he had sent some material to me before our second meeting. When I came there he had even written some more and we tried out and did some editing. It was a kind of cooperation. Even though if the piece is difficult to play is still idiomatic in my opinion.
LP: Already from the first notes the imagination is so captured by the atmosphere of the piece; I feel that the image of darkness is within this melody that is disappearing and emerging back from the obscurity.
FH: It’s in and out of sight: the sight is transcribed into sound, into hearing. It’s not about visual darkness but about a musical darkness which is silence.
It’s also a vivid 6/8 theme in the beginning of the piece, a jig, but there is still something spooky about it. It’s a musical play where the melody goes from one hand to the other. I see the bars with only 1/8 notes more as accompaniment to the other hand, and it changes back and forth between the hands for every bar. The eighth notes are a kind of time keeper, but they go in three against the melody which is in two, it’s a kind of light rhythmical play.
In my opinion is very important to keep the time also in the more extended, lyrical parts, because in general the tempo is related to the opening theme and the rhythmical play from the opening comes back in a lot of places in the score, in shorter glimpses.
The central part starts from bar 131, with a melody that he composed on the lyrics of the poem, only the first words: Loo-king on dark-ness. When you know that the words are in the melody you realize this motif’s importance, something that again makes this the main part. And this is the part with the two feet register.
I also played recently a piece by Sørensen with string orchestra (‘It is Pain Flowing Slowly on a White Wall’ from 2011) and I also have listened a lot to his music. I think there is a couple of misunderstanding often about his music: when you listen to it it’s often lyrical, melancholic and soft in dynamics. But it’s a little bit too easy to say: “OK, there is a lyrical part here, let’s play it rubato”. In this way very easily you lose a lot of tension, energy that you also need in this kind of music.
His music is never only beautiful, I think there is always something else all the time, it’s not like bathing in something beautiful. There is maybe something dark there.
You should not perform it too romantic, in this piece is always good to have a look at the metronome that actually is almost constant. And there is nothing theoretically advanced in that, it’s just that all comes from the same tempo.
The other common misunderstanding about Sørensen’s music is about dynamics: they are very soft and a lot of players, especially classical musicians, would then play everything just … very soft. But the dynamics here are very specific, you need to discover the dynamic range that is between pianissimo and piano. mp will then be a bigger, more present sound.
It’s something to do with what kind of expression he wants. Classical players tend to put a lot of sound and energy into everything they play. To have a big sound is very important for a lot of classical players. In order to make his music come through as he wants he needs to tell the player: “I don’t want your big sound”. I want you to work with the nuances within the softest you can play and up to reasonable volume.
It gives a lot of character to work with dynamics like these. Maybe not so much on the accordion I would say, but even more on a violin, for a singer or a wind player, the sound will change dramatically from piano, pianissimo to forte. For a lot of players f is the general dynamics. But that doesn’t mean that his music is only soft, he writes in a huge range of dynamic nuances in a very detailed way, from ppp to f at the loudest.
In this piece there are two kind of codas as I see it – one from bar 205 and a variation of it at 218 – and, let’s say, one additional echo from bar 229 which is maybe the real coda; it’s an echo of the beginning of the piece. From bar 205 I think he wants the effect of something like the out-of-tune harmonium, a nostalgic small organ, which you still can find in a lot of places in Norway and Denmark. You should start directly on down bended notes. It’s not spectral music, it does not have to be this or that quarter note by principle, it should simply be slightly out of tune to get this special sound.
From bar 218 you use vibrato instead of playing out of tune. To have a constant vibrato is a sound color effect too.
Bent Sørensen works quite intuitive, he is amazing. He is a classical composer type who writes by hand, and everything at his desk. A lot of contemporary composers type or even record everything into a computer where they can listen and change the material during the composing, copy and paste like in any computer program. In comparison Bent is a more old fashioned composer, and I have to say that I respect that and find it very fascinating, he is a representative for a kind of intellectual craftsmanship. It’s a little bit the same with Hans Abrahamsen too, who’s a more theoretical composer, I would say; with him more decisions are taken based on mathematical structures, but he also composes by hand. They are composers that are really able to imagine how their music should sound with their inner ear. That’s not so common anymore.
The interview with Frode Haltli continues.
List of topics
Part I: Introduction to the Scandinavian culture and society
Part II: From the contemporary to the traditional music and back
Part III: Ellegaard and Nordheim, accordion meets Norway
Part IV: A personal experience, New Scandinavian music for accordion
Part V: Maja S. K. Ratkje – ‘Gagaku Variations’, Ich bin ein Japaner!
Part VI: Bent Sørensen – ‘Looking on Darkness’, researching a new sound
Part VII: Atli Ingolfsson – ‘Radioflakes’, new virtuosism
Frode Haltli (b. 1975, Norway) studied at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, then at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, graduating in 2000. In 2001 the Norwegian Concert Institute named him Young Soloist Of The Year, he was also placed second in the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition 1999 in the Netherlands.
Concerts throughout Europe, USA, Canada and Asia. Directing his career into explorations of new music, he became associated with like-minded musicians mainly in Europe where the development of adventurous forms has grown throughout recent years.
Haltli has established links with several composers, notably Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje who is one of several who have written especially for him; others include Bent Sørensen, Rolf Wallin, Atli Ingólfsson, Hans Abrahamsen, Jo Kondo and Sam Hayden.
He has also cooperated with several string quartets, among them the Arditti String Quartet.
His debut CD ‘Looking on Darkness’ was released on the prestigiuos German record label ECM in 2002.
In 2012 Haltli released ‘Arne Nordheim Complete Accordion Works’ (Simax Classics) to great critical acclaim.
He has played regularely with the trio POING, alongside saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm and double bass player Håkon Thelin. They have commissioned more than 60 works from composers all over the world and recorded several albums.
Since the release of the duo album “Yeraz” on ECM in 2008 Haltli has also toured regularly with saxophonist Trygve Seim.
Frode Haltli has developed several transcultural music projects, in India, China, Japan, North Korea, Egypt. He has also played music rooted in Norwegian traditional music, notably with RUSK in which he is teamed with singer Unni Løvlid and violinist Vegar Vårdal.
On his 2007 recording ’Passing Images’ (ECM), Haltli is joined by trumpeter Arve Henriksen, viola player Garth Knox, and vocalist Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, for a selection of lyrical explorations of folk themes couched in the form of contemporary improvised music.
This theme and combination of old and new music is further delevoped in duo with Norwegian violinist Gjermund Larsen and in The Snowflake Trio with Irish flute player Nuala Kennedy and Norwegian fiddler Vegar Vårdal.
Frode Haltli teaches accordion at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.
To know more about check http://frodehaltli.com/.