Danish composer Per Nørgård, who turned 80 this year, is the only composer I know who appears naked on the cover of a book about his life and music. That would be a risky, not to say potentially off-putting move for most composers, but there is Per in all his glory, sitting on a wooden veranda, staring out into an idyll of lake and trees in a photo for The Music of Per Nørgård: Fourteen Interpretative Essays. Now, I'm not going to push the metaphor of Nørgård's nakedness too far, I promise, but there is a connection between the image of man in the midst of nature and the elemental experience of listening to Nørgård's music; the fact that his work is unafraid to let it all hang out, compositionally, emotionally, and expressively speaking.
Don't believe me? Have a listen to the opening of his Fifth Symphony. Nørgård himself quotes one listener who describes this 35-minute work as "a walk with a fire-breathing dragon", an image that says something about the gigantic power and imagination of this piece, which changes in a second from the surreal sounds of sirens, whistles, wind machines and bird-calls to brassy explosions, swirling string writing – and silence. It's music that has all the chaotic unpredictability of a weather system, and listening to it is like being in the middle of a thunderstorm, or walking through a whiteout: discombobulating, disturbing, sometimes even dangerous, but inescapably compelling.
The Proms will host the British premiere of Nørgård's Seventh Symphony on 9 August (Nørgård has also completed an eigth, which we've still to hear in the UK), and his large-scale orchestral works run through his huge output as markers of how his music has changed over the decades. Nørgård's musical vision was forged in Denmark of the 1940s and 50s, inspired by his studies with Danish symphonist Vagn Holmboe and his love for Sibelius. Nørgård heard in Sibelius the radicalism that later generations of composers would discover, the way his music simultaneously manipulates different kinds of material, different kinds of time, and how forward-looking his use of the orchestra is in its texture and physicality. He even wrote the old, and by then compositionally silent, Sibelius a letter, and received a warm reply. Having dedicated a major new piece to him, Nørgård was too shy to meet Sibelius when he travelled to Finland – even though he glimpsed him in the grounds of his house, Ainola.
But Nørgård was not too shy to extend Sibelius's principles into musical places that not even the Finnish master could have imagined. Nørgård started to use a so-called "infinity series", a mathematical principle that does what it says on the tin, and leads to the generation of an always-changing sequence of notes. This isn't a version of Schoenberg's serialism – far from it, since, the infinity row creates the possibility of resonantly tonal centres across a large-scale work: this is not "atonal" music. Never mind the theory, though: listen to Nørgård's Voyage into the Golden Screen to hear how the infinity row can create music of visionary intensity: slow-moving layers of harmony and line that build to a climax of blinding power in the first part, and then, in the second, you'll hear some deceptively minimalist-sounding riffs (the difference from real minimalism is that nothing is ever simply repeated in Nørgård's music).
Nørgård's attraction to eastern philosophy (he has written an opera on Siddharta), and his embrace of 60s-ish ideas such as "the expansion of consciousness while fully conscious", the title of one of his articles, might suggest music of blissed-out transcendence. But Nørgård's work has increasingly embraced conflict, violence, and even humour (you've got to have a sense of the ridiculous to title a piece Bach to the Future, a double-percussion concerto he composed in 1997; Nørgård is also a fan of the music for the South Park movie, friends say). One of the catalysts for this broadening of his expressive palette was Nørgård's discovery in the late 1970s of the work of Adolf Wölfli, the Swiss artist who spent most of his life in a psychiatric hospital. The combination of pattern and chaos, of obsessive detail and expressive wildness in Wölfli's paintings finds an analogy in Nørgård's music – have a listen to the Fourth Symphony, directly inspired by the Swiss artist, and you'll hear how Nørgård's music creates a surreal world of sudden changes of mood and texture that's somehow pulled together into a single form, a genuinely symphonic journey.
That's what I like best about Nørgård's music, its simultaneous sense of freedom and coherence, how it pulls you along with all the power of the undertow of a great wave. His Sixth Symphony, "At The End Of The Day", is yet another huge, elemental experience. Nørgård's music becomes a force of nature in its own right, since it contains, accepts, and creates such titanic expressive extremes. And that's to talk mostly about his orchestral music: Nørgård's operas, his songs, and his chamber music are all there to discover, too. Enjoy your walk with Denmark's music-breathing dragon.
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