Wednesday 5 March 2014

Flow my tears: the London Sinfonietta play Gudmundsen-Holmgreen

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen Photo credit: Martin von Haller Groenbaek
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
Photo credit: Martin von Haller Groenbaek
Flow my tears, music by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: Theatre of Voices, London Sinfonietta, Paul Hillier: Purcell Room
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Mar 2 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Challenging people's expectations.

London is in the middle of a Danish invasion. London Sinfonietta have termed it Denmark Calling but as Else Torp of Theatre of Voices proclaimed 'The Vikings are coming!' Part one of this experience at the Purcell Room on the Southbank was a collaboration between London Sinfonietta, conducted by Paul Hillier, Theatre of Voices, and the Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1932-). The performance of Flow my tears (written in 2010), based on the song by John Dowland (1563-1626), was timed to coincide with the launch of their CD.

Born in Copenhagen, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen studied music theory and history at The Royal Academy of Music, Copenhagen, and became an Associate Professor in composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Aarhus in 1967. By 1973 he was already winning important prizes for his work, including the Carl Nielsen Prize (1973 and 2004), the Nordic Council Music Prize for Symphony (1980), the Edition Wilhelm Hansen Composer Prize (1996) and most recently he received a Grammy nomination for “The Natural World of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen” (2012).

His energy and curiosity were the focus of a 2007 music documentary Music is a monster by Jytte Rex, in which Pelle describes music as a demon controlling him - you can see a clip showing him dancing to Triptycon (1985) here.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen calls himself a “nay-sayer”. During his preconcert talk with Andrew Burke, the Chief Executive of the London Sinfonietta, Pelle discussed why it is “very important to say no to be a good composer” in order to find the right combinations of notes from the “thousands of possibilities”. He talked about music as raw energy, “Music runs into your body, you react a little different [...] in my case it has a tendency to move around to my feet for example” (see the dancing above). He also discussed musical influences such as serialism and minimalism, the effect of African rhythms, the singing of monks, the purity of Vermeer’s painting, and a fascination with a specific shade of blue. But more seriously he talked about allowing himself the freedom to compose and to challenge people’s expectations about music by bringing new things together.

At the heart of Flow my tears is the idea of separating out and the bringing together again pure music and pure singing in a new form. However, when looked at in more detail, it is also about reducing not just the original Dowland to its constituent parts, but also deconstructing the act of singing. It is also very cleverly assembled, the extent of the construction only becoming apparent as the piece unfolds.

The first movement Play was instrumental only. Full of fractured snippets of sound and layers of texture, Pelle made great use of the percussion section and augmented it, for example using back of the bow slaps from the strings. Noises from the trombone sounded like little rising vocalisations that were echoed around the orchestra. Amongst all this a dance tune, played very quietly on the violin, lurked in the background. Towards the end the texture changed and a legato line emerged from the brass, highlighted by high trills from the strings, but was cut short. The descending scale from Dowland is used, as its mirror, but the ending was in A major rather than Dowland’s original minor key.

Paul Hillier Photo credit: Ditte Capion
Paul Hillier Photo credit: Ditte Capion
Sound I and Sound II introduced the singers. Theatre of Voices was established in 1990 by Paul Hillier, moving to Denmark in 2004, and was nominated for the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2013. Singing today were Else Torp, soprano, Signe Asmussen, mezzo, Chris Watson, tenor and Jakob Bloch Jespersen, bass.

Sound I was about consonants and rhythm – a song which never quite happens, but is nonetheless mesmerising. Based on the words ‘Flow my tears’ and ‘Down vain lights’, vowels and pitch crept in, reiterating the A from Play. Similarly a fragment ‘oo-fl’ reminded me of the trombone exclamations. Sound II was mostly pitched vowels – a variation with little obvious reference to the Dowland.

Throughout Song the Dowland clamoured to be heard. From barely recognisable fragments Flow my tears was assembled, at first moving by quarter tone, and with many a false start, the tune emerged, only to be cut short at the end. This movement seemed to be as much about the silence held within it as the sounds.

Run and Turn II, later additions to the suite (2012), are, according to Pelle’s own notes, based on symmetrical tones grids, which limit the amount of material available. Run brought back the instruments and was threatening and dark at the start, moving on to battles between the different sections of the orchestra. Turn II with Spanish flavours from the guitar, air noises from the bass flute, and rattles from the percussion was very desert-like. The return of the singers provided a link between these and the other vocal movements.

The last movement Company meshed together Play and Song into a complete whole. In the earlier interview Pelle said, “It’s like climbing a mountain, when you reach the top you have a wonderful view.”

After the concert Theatre of Voices accompanied by Steve Smith on guitar performed three John Dowland songs: Tell me true love, Flow my tears, and Now, oh now, I needs must part. A lovely gesture that showed the inspiration for Pelle’s Flow my tears and also gave Theatre of Voices a chance to show off the lyrical side to their voices. The choice of Now, oh now, I needs must part was a lovely touch and a fitting end to the evening.

The second concert in this series is on the 12th March in the QEH with music by Simon Steen-Andersen and others and will be followed by a couple of days experimental music including new Danish composers at Cafe OTO towards the end of March. To complete the Danish experience the British Museum has a new exhibition The Vikings, life and legend running until the 22nd June.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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