by Stephen Johnson, The Guardian: 13 July 2004
Per Nørgård is unique. No-one who knows the 68 year-old Danish composer and his bizarrely wonderful music is likely to disagree with that. There are people who, as Thomas Hardy put it, carry their own atmosphere around them like a planet. Nørgård is one of them. To spend three-quarters with an hour with him (as I did early in April) is to be transported from the mundane reality of a fashionable London cafe to a world where normal laws hardly seem relevant. Nørgård talks with equal enthusiasm and richness of detail about quantum physics, religious anthropology, cultural history, astrology and ESP. In describing his art and the world-view it expresses he veers from the latest computer technology to the experience, over thirty years ago, which convinced him ‘that there is such a thing as the soul, and that it is immortal.’ Reason may protest, yet protest seems pointless. What Nørgård is describing is nothing less than vision. To hear him talk about it to realise how rare real vision is, and how much our cynical age stands in need of it.
The uniqueness of Nørgård’s music isn’t simply a matter of personal ‘house-style’ – mannerisms or fingerprints that give the creator away no matter what he sets out to achieve. In almost all his major works there is something unrepeatable. His six symphonies (the first five have been recorded by Chandos) don’t unfold as an evolving cycle. Each one has its own sound-world, its own technical, philosophical and emotional preoccupations. The First, Sinfonia Austera (1955), is firmly in the Nordic, Sibelian tradition: stark, spacious soundscapes and lucidly organic logic; the Second (1970) uses a process like English change-ringing to create a kind of dynamic stillness: everything moves yet remains essentially the same; the choral Third (1975) is a riotous cornucopia of styles, from lush Straussian tonality to textures of a teeming density that might have astonished even Charles Ives. It’s the same with Nørgård’s five operas. You never know what you might encounter next: Balinese Gamelan, dancing rhythms derived from the Classical ideal of the Golden Section and from Indian ragas, Danish folk-tunes… And this is the same composer who wrote the touchingly simple, atmospheric score to the award-winning Danish film Babette’s Feast – a modest popular success, but one which Nørgård feels absolutely no urge to follow up.
This isn’t simply a case of a composer striving desperately for novelty. In fact, says Nørgård, achieving anything truly original has a cost. ‘The fatal thing is that when I arrive at a solution which satisfies me, I’m not sure it could ever be repeated again.’ After his opera Nuit des Hommes (Night of Mankind) was first performed in 1996, the Danish composer Poul Ruders – whose unsettlingly powerful opera The Handmaid’s Tale was premiered in Copenhagen earlier this year – wrote to Nørgård telling him that he had found ‘the perfect solution’ to the problems of modern opera. With an endearing lack of false modesty, Nørgård accepts the compliment. ‘But Nuit des Hommes is so original, and I would say so startling, that you could not repeat it in any way without people saying that it was like Nuit des Hommes. You see? Fatal!’
Nørgård s claims for Nuit des Hommes are barely exaggerated – as those who see and hear the UK premiere at the Almeida Theatre on 12 July will discover. The libretto is an ingenious reworking of poems by the early twentieth century proto-surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire’s ultimately fatal experience of the First World War, recorded in his poems, is the basis of the opera. There are just two characters: a woman (Alice, a war correspondent) and a man (Wilhelm, a soldier). The ‘orchestr’ comprises a string quartet, a single percussionist and a computerised sound-track filled with sampled explosion-like sounds: matches being struck, branches breaking or panes of glass shattering. ‘I couldn’t have had just machine-guns or bombs – that would have made it too like a Hollywood war film.’
One of the most original features of Nuit des Hommes grew out of Nørgård’s frustration with the age-old problem of how to make the words in opera understandable. ‘I almost prefer opera on TV, because if there is an on-screen translation you can just follow it – you don’t have to keep moving your head and craning your neck to read the surtitles. So Nuit des Hommes is sung in French, in any country, but at the same time the text is projected onto the stage in sceno-video-graphic translation. This was the brilliant idea of the director Jacob Schokking, who first suggested the idea for the opera to me. ‘In a scene near the end of Nuit des Hommes, the two characters, de-humanised by their experiences of war, sing as though mesmerised by steadily falling rain, oblivious to the carnage around them. ‘In this scene Schokking’s projection follows the shape of Apollinaire’s poem on the page – the words fall like rain dripping down a window pane. That’s how the music expresses it too. We also see some of the stage directions – so when there’s an explosion up comes the word “Explosion”. At the same time the singers have video cameras which – like a silent film from the twenties – show close-ups of their faces: expressions and tiny movements. All this you’d never be able to see on a normal stage.’
There is however one basic quality which Nuit des Hommes shares with many of Nørgård’s other major works: an view of human life and the world which combines the objective fascination of the scientist with a kind of alarmed compassion. The same qualities can be felt in his Fourth Symphony (1981), inspired by the ecstatic, pained visions of the Swiss schizophrenic painter Adolf Wölfli, or in the grim innocence-to-experience fable of his opera Siddharta (1979). It is the same attitide that has made him consistently refuse to reject traditional tonal harmonies outright. ‘The rejection of consonance is one of the biggest prejudices of our time’, he wrote in 1984. Now, when consonance is more acceptable, he has a similar objection to those who dismiss lyricism. His Violin Concerto Helle Nacht (Bright Night) – released by Chandos this month – is a deeply melodic work, though Nørgård’s melodies are not those of Puccini, Mozart, Broadway or contemporary rock or pop music. ‘When I write – I think – beautiful tunes, it’s not in a style people will hear in the street. It’s a big problem for new music that people don’t already have tunes in their ears like those the composer is writing now, as they would have had in the good old days – Mozart’s time. We can’t go back to that. Commercialism has made it impossible.’ Even in the Babette’s Feast score – the nearest Nørgård has come to commercial success – the sweetly appealing tunefulness has a sting in its tail. Maybe that’s the quality which has prevented Nørgård from being as widely accepted as he deserves – that and a curious form of self-deprecation which has put the Danes squarely amongst world’s worst self-promoters. The splendid Chandos recordings, the Almeida premiere of Nuits des Hommes and the first performance of the Sixth Symphony (a joint Danish Radio/BBC commission, scheduled to be broadcast later this year) may just change that.