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Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen

Born: 1932

Died: 2016

Nationality: Danish

Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen

Photo © Lars Skaaning

A failed pessimist

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has often been described as the Contrary Mary of Danish music: an anti-expressive, anti-virtuoso, anti-romantic sceptic; a lover of the absurd theatre of Samuel Beckett and its grim, black but also tender humour; a pessimist who did not believe in big words and swelling harmonies, far less mankind’s finely wrought systems and truths. According to Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen we – mankind – are essentially pretty helpless. What a good thing, then, that we have music! Because if Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was a pessimist then he was a failed one: the musical voices and beings which populate his works have a quite extraordinary knack of getting under the skin of their listeners and actually becoming part of the interaction, the euphonious symbiosis produced by his works – despite possibly being as contrary as their creator.

One might say that Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music prompts one to ask, yet again, certain absolutely fundamental questions. Questions such as “What is a musical voice?” and “What, in fact, is polyphony?” The ensemble piece Mester Jacob (1964) begins with just a few notes played on a bassoon. What one listens to here is not a phrase played on a bassoon, but the actual sound of the bassoon, because it is not playing an actual melody. In fact the bassoon is given only three notes to play in this whole piece. It moves up a step, then down a step, then it executes an inquiring glissando – and suddenly you find yourself focussing on the fact that it just keeps going, and by so doing eventually becomes a being. One with which you can actually identify!

What turns the bassoon into a voice is its insistence – even though it has nothing much to ‘say’, no melody, for example – and even though it has nothing much to say it with: virtuoso rhetoric, for instance, or a lovely tune. Nor does it receive any help from other instruments, it does not fall in with the other voices. The voices are simply there, alongside one another. The same can be said of the car horns and the cello in the legendary Plateaux pour deux (1970). They honk and bow, each in their own voice – but simultaneously. They may well be aware that they come from different worlds, the street and the concert hall; that they are, on the face of it, incompatible, but they keep going! It is almost an exercise in democracy …

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has described himself as a bit player and an outsider in Danish music, and in response he has been hailed as an ‘established outsider’. He has been associated with musical concretism and the new Danish simplicity. From the late 1970s onwards Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music opens the door onto worlds which, in terms of dynamic, technical virtuosity and complexity deviate from the doctrines of both concretism and the new simplicity. This is true of Symphony and Antiphony (1977), Triptychon (1985), Concerto Grosso (1990) and For cello and orchestra (1996), to name some of his most monumental works, and, not least the opera – or anti-opera – The sun comes up, the sun goes down, which had its premiere at the Danish Royal Opera in 2015 on the occasion of that same opera house’s tenth anniversary. But it is still the case with these works that they generate sound scenes over which a wide variety of musical voices and entities can pass in all their incompatibility. Together.

Since the start of the new millenium there has been a growing international interest in Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music. His long-standing collaboration with the Kronos Quartet has resulted, for example, in a series of string quartets, of which Last Ground from 2006 – with his usual gift for contradiction – was but the first. Both No Ground (2011) and New Ground (2011) evoke a singular form of landscape: one which in the latter springs up, so to speak, ‘around’ Pachelbel’s famous canon, which is repeated over and over again, like a joint ritual, a joint exercise for all of those involved. With a classic Gudmundsen-Holmgreen device (also employed in the percussion concerto Triptychon, in which the third movement is created by playing the first and second movements on top of one another) he ‘crowned’ these two string quartets with Green, a piece for four solo voices, so that as a whole they form the works No Ground Green and New Ground Green, in which strings and voices come together to produce landscapes suffused with an utterly pastoral beauty.

Time often stands still when in the company of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s musical beings and their now quiet, now clamorous worlds full of repetition, deviations and small shifts. Some may find this frustrating, others will see it as a special quality – but the voices and the beings are there, they live and breathe.

© Ursula Andkjær OlsenTranslated from the Danish by Barbara J. Haveland
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