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Lars Petter HAGEN (b.1975)
Norske arkiver (2005) [17:59]
Kunstnerens fortvilslse foran de antikke fragmenters storhet (2010) [11:51]
Tveitt-fragmenter (2006) [6:23]
Sørgemarsj over Edvard Grieg (2007) [9:23]
To Zeitblom (concerto for Hardanger fiddle and symphony orchestra) (2011) [19:21]
Gjermund Larsen (Hardanger fiddle)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Rolf Gupta
rec. Oslo Konserthus Norway, 22-24 August 2011; 13 May 2013
AURORA ACD 5074 [64:55]

Lars Petter Hagen is a Norwegian composer still in his thirties. I had not encountered his music before. I have returned to this disc several times over the previous three months in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of this body of work before writing this review. The failing is all mine I am sure, but I cannot get a ‘handle’ on the music and as a consequence no revelatory doors have opened for me. The liner accompanying the disc a general essay titled Auferstanden aus Ruinen (risen from ruins - crudely translated) and a transcribed conversation with the composer. Both are reasonably interesting and a good starting point regarding the underlying philosophy of the works but the complete lack of any detail regarding any of the music severely impaired my ability to comprehend what I was hearing.
 
There is a Hagen ‘sound’ for sure. This is overtly contemporary music which while by no means rejecting tonality per se chooses to embrace it - wholeheartedly on occasion - as fits a greater need. There is a very static quality to the majority of these scores. The analogy that struck me repeatedly was of musical mobiles; phrases or instrumental groups slowing rotating in a larger space. On occasions these groups overlap and interact. Within each group Hagen uses bare ‘simple’ intervals, whether consonant or dissonant, but the interest is generated when the overlap cause further resultant ‘harmonies’. He also juxtaposes pure electronically generated tones with the more complex yet still pure sounds of, say, string and harp harmonics or bowed vibraphones. There is a Satie-esque stasis which I found hypnotic at times but ultimately too unrelenting and grey.
 
The disc opens with Norwegian archives. Here, live playing is set against a tape of ‘old’ recordings of an orchestra and electronics. The electronics create an effective halo of extra-orchestral texture around the sound blurring the ear’s ability to identify quite what is playing what. Hagen gives the five movements very specific titles but I’m still struggling to understand how the titles relate to what you hear. Indeed if your attention wanders it is very easy for one section to have blurred into the next with next to no differentiation. Another characteristic is the emergence of what one might call super-consonance suddenly from a passage of resolute dissonance. These tend to be a sequence of chorale-like chords which have a pure “white-note” consonance of Copland-like naivety. Such a passage in the second movement 6 Hymns immediately precedes a recording of distant hymn singing. Its rather atmospheric; like hearing a church service relayed over a bad radio from across the road and down the street … but I’ve no idea what it means. The following movement confuses me even more - over a held drone-like open fifth on the violin a sheep bleats five times. This movement is called A play about melancholy. I suspect we are meant to laugh with Hagen; certainly on first unprepared hearing it’s something of a shock. Like most gags, the more you hear it the less funny it becomes. The closing movement - Funeral Marches - in turn closes with over a minute of an old orchestral recording - of what, I do not know.
 
This is what Hagen writes in a note about the work on his own website:-
 
“From writing in a post-serial, complex style I have in recent years turned to working more and more with documentary material. It is important to me that the music sounds somewhat untreated, so that the collected material presents itself in its most reduced form. I like to think of the form as a sketch book. The five movements of this work are various archives of ”found objects”, all of them having originated in works by the above-mentioned composers [Edvard Grieg, Gerhard Schjelderup, Edvard Sylou-Creutz, Signe Lund, Geirr Tveitt and Harald Sæverud]. Some are straightforward harmonic reductions, like slow, unfinished chorales; others are archive recordings from Norwegian radio, quoted fragments from the Norwegian (and German) orchestral heritage, or re-syntheses of Norwegian folk music. In addition I employ temperaments from two traditional Norwegian folk instruments: seljefløyte and langeleik, a wooden flute and a string instrument.”
 
I quote that at length because although specific to one work my sense is that the philosophy applies to much of the rest of the disc too. The next piece is The Artist’s Despair before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins. So there is clearly a thread coming through now - of memory, decay and heritage. The thing is to the ear it sounds remarkably similar to the preceding work. Again musical mobiles slowly turn and consonance appears from behind clouds of dissonance before disappearing again. The work ends with another curious disjunction; suddenly we get a strange full orchestral ending … well not really full. The middle of the orchestra has been disembowelled leaving high string harmonic chords over a fff parping contra-bassoon and a simple tonic/dominant timpani figure; it’s a curious echo of the end of Mahler’s Third Symphony. That’s a similarity I noted before reading Hagen’s assertion in the liner that “my postulate became to accept the impossibility of writing better orchestral music than Mahler. The history of the orchestra after Mahler is a ruin.” I’ll pass that thought onto Ravel, Bartók … add any of a hundred names.
 
The idea behind the third work, Tveitt-fragments is rather neat. As is reasonably well-known the composer Geirr Tveitt suffered a creative catastrophe when his home burnt down destroying literally hundreds of unique and irreplaceable scores. Hagen has created a work using literal burnt fragments - samples are reproduced in the liner - which show a chord here, a key-signature there. The result sounds, again, remarkably similar to the other works. By now it seems clear Hagen doesn’t do rhythm once one excludes the chirruping synthesiser figurations that inhabit some of the scores. I do find myself wondering why one calls a piece Funeral March if there is no element of a march to be heard. By all means call it funeral music or reflections on a funeral march but by now - an emotion repeated on every listening - my frustration with this music is building. Which is slightly unfortunate since I have not reached the work that initially piqued my interest in requesting this disc to review.
 
The idea of a contemporary idiom work, using a ‘classical’ concerto form showcasing a definitively ‘folk’ instrument - the hardanger fiddle - seemed like an intriguing prospect. There’s fine playing from soloist Gjermund Larsen. The clashing dissonances with the fiddle’s drone strings give a clue to Hagen’s fascination with microtonal overlapping motifs. Again, once one strips away the embellishing figurations of the solo part and the sputnik-like electronic interjections the music is nearly wholly static. The term ‘concerto’ seems something of a red-herring. For sure the instrument is pretty much ever-present but as an integral part of the overall texture rather than a leading line. Much more bizarrely, around the nine minute mark, the music is interrupted. At that point we are given a recording of the speech the composer gave at the work's premiere in English together with a German translation. This is overlaid initially with a birdsong track. The German translation is not such a thing - it wanders off on a different thread which since I do not speak German - and there is no translation of the translation (!) again I am left bemused as opposed to enlightened. Gradually the predictable bell figures on harp and percussion return under the text so that the music slowly returns to centre-stage. Once again there is almost no variation in the style of the music and the work limps to its end with little impact and no sense of completion or closure. I am very loath to be negative about any music I feel I do not understand but this is operating on a level to which I do not respond. I doubt I ever will.
 
The entire disc suffers from rather an unatmospheric recording. Without being able to see scores my feeling is that the dynamic range of the recording has been lifted and constricted. Surely, there are a greater nuanced range of quieter dynamics requested than we are given here. One can turn down the volume from its usual setting but then the whole sound picture recedes. Clearly, no comparable recordings exist. That said, as far as one can tell these seem to be highly competent performances. They are limited only by the cramped recording quality and the limited emotional landscape of the music. The booklet is fine and the photographs of the Tveitt fragments are the most intriguing element. Personally I rarely find composer conversations bear much repetition and this is no exception. The notes are written in English and Norwegian. The disc is presented in the increasingly popular cardboard gate-fold format with the liner booklet tucked into a slot inside. Pictures include moody shots of a snowy train station and down-market pizza establishment; as with the music no context or explanation is given. Again, my suspicion is that there is a belief that some sophisticated form of post-modern irony is at work here but it’s beyond my understanding.
 
Sadly, this is music I find as unremittingly drear and dull as the images that adorn the disc's sleeve.
 
Nick Barnard
 


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