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Andy Pape

Born: 1955

Nationality: American

Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen

Photo © Lars Skaaning


One of the first things that strike you when you meet composer Andy Pape is a certain youthfulness that makes you wonder whether he is in fact a Peter Pan. He certainly likes to play! He is curious, he is‘there’, and he is attentive to most things happening around him, both big and small. Compared to his contemporary composer colleagues, he is quite an unusual figure. Born in Hollywood, Pape’s background as an all-American boy - going to pool parties and listening to Jefferson Airplane - is reflected in an attitude towards composing that might once have been called disrespectful; but which we would prefer to call open and communicative. Neither Western European Romanticism nor Darmstadt Modernism hangs as a ponderous tradition over the composer’s head, with creative paralysis or all sorts of desperate evasive maneuvers as a result; on the other hand he appears to have no urgent need to incorporate rock/jazz or electronics in his music for their own sake; these and everything else are relevant possibilities in the endless range of existing musical realities that Andy Pape can take or leave, relate to or not. And, as he says when asked what kind of music he writes; “it’s contemporary music – after all I’ve just written it”.

Settling in Denmark in 1971, Andy Pape’s immigrant background is reflected in several ways in his oeuvre. Perhaps coincidentally – but what is really coincidental? – his first opera was about the king of escape artists, Houdini, who was an immigrant to the USA; and just under fifteen years later, Pape wrote the orchestral work An Americaner in Denmark (1993)– the title to be pronounced in Danish with a thick American accent. This work revels in a completely virtuosic fusion of Gershwin, Danish national songs, lavish orchestral writing, rhythmic drive and high spirits – not least when he quotes his own ragtime-like music from Houdini the Great (1988) – and at the same time suddenly brings into play such difficult themes as integration and identity, assimilation and authenticity – through music with an almost physically narrative content.

The thread that ties together the works of Andy Pape is his persistent urge to tell a musical story. He is fond of working with textual material – he is almost constantly at work on yet another opera – and in most of his works there is a narrative, whether there is a text or not, or whether there is any scenic action other than the musicians playing their instruments. The music illustrates something, the sound suggests something, the gesture of the music is clear; but not always confined to the unambivalent. Pape’s large, artistically challenging orchestral work Confessions of Time (1999) deals with the scarcely tangible phenomenon that time can be experienced as moving faster or slower than it actually is. Suburban Nightmares (1996) on the other hand is more readily comprehensible in its sometimes shockingly violent account of the presence of death in the suburban garden and of the infectious nature of fear. In fact, with its consistent theatrical strength, one often forgets that it was supposed to be a tuba concerto.

Since the overwhelming success of Houdini the Great (1988), Pape has proved that he is also a master of deeper-probing psychological drama with Leonora Christine – The Queen of the Blue Tower (1998), an opera depicting the anguished soul of Danish princess Leonora Christine who spent 22 years of her life incarcerated in Blue Tower. Pape skilfully combines elements of high and lowbrow musical culture in a blend that elegantly emphasises the social gulf between the princess and her fellow prisoner, a servant girl, as they engage in an intense psychological power struggle. More recently Pape has scored big with the children’s opera Sigurd the Dragonslayer (2005), which - in quite its own way - is an introduction to one of the stories from Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. The opera was commissioned by the Royal Danish Theatre in connection with their production of Wagner's entire Ring Cycle and has since been performed in a number of Ger­man opera houses.

Although Andy Pape is not without a talent for ingenious constructions, it would be misleading to describe his music as hardcore modernism. He wants to communicate, and even entertains the notion that he probably wouldn’t write music if there wasn’t an audience for it. This rare ability to “deliver the goods”, so to speak, has certainly extended Pape’s appeal beyond traditional classical music audiences and in 2009 made him an obvious choice as featured composer at the grand opening of the Copenhagen Concert Hall.

While his breakthrough opera Houdini has continued to be performed around the globe – counting a 2012 performance in Houston, Texas – Pape’s prolific production of operas reaches a new height in 2015. This year, Pape’s full-length opera Other Buildings (2014) will be premiered at the Funen Opera as the culmination of his three-year residency at the opera, and his children’s opera, Kjetil the Dragon (2015) will be premiered in Sweden. Joining the 2014 premiere of Journey of the Fumes (2012), this makes a total of three operas premiered in twelve months. In addition, Pape is composing a symphonic piece for Odense Symphony Orchestra, marking the 150th anniversary of Carl Nielsen. 

Based on an essay by Jesper Lützhøft
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