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Poul Ruders

Born: 1949

Nationality: Danish

Publisher: Edition Wilhelm Hansen

Photo © Lars Skaaning

How does one describe a phenomenon like Poul Ruders? No sooner have you found the mot juste than something in the music clamours to contradict it. He can be gloriously, explosively extrovert one minute - withdrawn, haunted, intently inward looking the next. Super-abundant high spirits alternate with pained, almost expressionistic lyricism; simplicity and directness with astringent irony. Try and restrict the language to technical matters and the paradoxes continue: few composers on the contemporary scene are so versatile, so accomplished, so obviously in command of their tools and materials, and yet the music can give the impression of dancing on the edge of a precipice. It is a language of extremes, commandingly integrated - and perhaps all the more startling for that.

Aside from a few private lessons with the distinguished Danish composer Ib Nørholm, Poul Ruders undertook little formal training in composition. Finding his voice has taken him longer than many other composers, and the pursuit of new styles and devices has led Ruders in all manner of directions, metaphorically and literally. One of his earliest important orchestral works, the huge symphonic poem Manhattan Abstraction (1982), was inspired in part by the fantastic New York skyline. It is an exhilarating piece, full of glittering colours and driving rhythms: uplifting, yet - as so often with Ruders - there’s a complementary dark side, and towards the end, a solo violin momentarily suggests dwarfed, imperilled humanity.

Images of the apocalypse, of catastrophe on a barely-imaginable scale, have preoccupied Ruders throughout his career. Corpus Cum Figuris (1985) and Thus Saw Saint John (1984) evolves as a series of demonic, mechanistic dance ‘breaks’, but where in the former work, the horror imagery was rendered more devastating by Ruders’ iron control, in the latter it emerges in almost riotous profusion. In the later eighties, the tiny voice of human protest heard briefly in Manhattan Abstraction becomes stronger as darkness becomes increasingly dominant in Ruders’ works. The three concertos Dramaphonia (with piano solo, 1987), Monodrama (percussion, 1988) and Polydrama (cello, 1988) are all, in their different ways, dominated by dark, bass colours and Ruders’ alarming ‘frozen’ chordal textures, just as Nightshade (large ensemble, 1987) defines the elements of Ruders’ style at this stage.

None of this, however, quite prepares one for the Symphony No. 1 (1989). Drawing together extreme contrasts in a sustained symphonic sweep, it is scored for an orchestra a latter-day Richard Strauss might have relished, handled with Straussian virtuosity. An ‘unashamed’ admirer of Strauss, Ruders is evidently very much at home with grand projects. One of the grandest to date is the Solar Trilogy (1992-95), a set of three symphonic poems about ‘our nearest star and primal source of life on Earth: the Sun’, performable individually or as a huge dramatic triptych.

Ruders’ international breakthrough came with Concerto in Pieces (1994-95) - a modern response to the educational demands that created Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. Commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and premiered at the 1996 Last Night of the Proms, the concerto was a great success - and proof that Ruders can broaden his appeal without talking down to an audience.

In the opera The Handmaid's Tale (1996-98) - more than in any of his other works - Ruders draws together the themes which have preoccupied him for so long: the apocalyptic, the elemental and the human, aching tenderness, grotesque irony, despair - but perhaps also, as in the closing pages of the FIRST SYMPHONY, a flicker of hope.

The huge success of The Handmaid's Tale has led to several operatic commissions in the new millennium, notably an adaption of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece of alienation and existential guilt, Kafka's Trial (2001-03), and more recently Selma Jezková (2007), Lars von Trier’s brutally bleak musical ”Dancer in the Dark” reimagined as an even darker, but more profound opera. His recent production also includes the extraordinarily well crafted chamber works Serenade On The Shores Of The Cosmic Ocean (2004) and Dreamland (2010) amply confirming that Ruders is a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, he has found time to resume his symphonic production with Symphony No. 3 (2009) and Symphony No. 4 (2011), the latter being perhaps Ruders’ most extroverted work to date. Symphony No. 5 (2013) is the preliminary final in the line of Ruders´ symphonies and in the programme notes he says: “There´s no story, as it were, but I´ll admit that I initially wanted to give the piece a sub-title: Ring of Fire, inspired by the term used to describe the vast ring of active vulcanos encircling the Pacific basin. It sounds real good, right? – Ring of Fire – so naturally it´s been used before, more than once. I therefore gave up the idea and the symphony is the second of the series without a subtitle. The 4th symphony, the one featuring a concert organ, is quite simply called Symphony No 4: An organ symphony as opposed to Symphony and Transformation and Dream Catcher – the subtitles of my 2nd and 3rd symphonies. At any rate, the Ring of Fire approach is dominant throughout the symphony”.

©Stephen Johnson
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