If Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen is
a pessimist, he is at least in his own way also a ‘failed pessimist’. The
intriguing thing about his musical idiom is that, despite its prominent
contrariness, it is still able to say yes to being here and being part of the dialogue. In the great majority of his
works, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has cultivated a quite special precise ambivalence which allows his music to snarl at itself, to
tell itself to shut up, even if it nevertheless sounds and is present. His musical world contains many
contradictory phenomena, yeas and nays at well nigh all levels of music,
allowed to live their own lives side by side as independent beings. And it is precisely through these beings that
he rediscovers the voice as a basic
element of music.
voices find their authenticity and sensitivity in the very way in which they do
not take the old beaten paths of ‘expressiveness’. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has no
faith in the bloated pathos with which humanity has so often expressed itself.
But he cares all the more for the small words – that is, the lives and activities
of the small, squeaky, noisy or traditionally non-musical sounds. This is
illustrated well in the bassoon’s lonely vacillation in the work Mester Jacob (Frère Jacques) from 1964. First it is sound. One listens to the actual timbre of the bassoon repeating a very
few notes again and again. Suddenly one finds oneself focusing on the fact that
the bassoon keeps going. What makes
it a voice is its insistence which
gradually transforms it into a living being; one simply identifies with it!
In a musical world based on
sound beings and voices, it is perhaps not surprising that vocal music plays a
relatively large role. Nevertheless the human voice does not feature in order to
‘pour’ expressive content into the works, at any rate not in the direct sense.
Perhaps the most famous and notorious of the vocal works is Je Ne Me Tairai Jamais. Jamais (1966) for choir, ensemble and reader to text
extracts from Samuel Beckett’s novel The
Unnamable. A piece of absurd drama in music and absolutely a major item in
other major works we find Tricolore IV (1969) which consists by and large of just three
different sounds; Symphony, Antiphony (1977), transmuting a simple three-chord part
into the most teasing ragtime melody, which with its banal happiness breaks
into the apparent order and ends up carrying the whole orchestra with it in a
gigantic chaos of noise; and Triptychon (1985), in which the strict simplicity is present at
the most overall level, while the vitality and exultancy bubble under in the
extremely virtuosic percussion part.
The work that lies furthest from
the ideas of the New Simplicity movement, of which Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was a
key figure, must be his Concerto Grosso (1990). At once his most complex and most compact
work, it is described by Gudmundsen-Holmgreen himself as “Vivaldi on Safari”. For Cello and Orchestra (1996) on the other hand, is a revelation of raw yet delicate offbeat
poetry - poetic most of all because of the long ‘Abgesang’, which lets time stand still in a mobile-like repetitive
A growing international interest
in Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music has led to several prominent commissions in the
new millennium. His longstanding collaboration with the Kronos Quartet recently resulted in the violently
beautiful string quartet Last Ground (2006), while other notable commissions include works written for the London
Sinfonietta, KNM Berlin, Ars Nova and Bang on a Can All-Stars. The latter requested
the piece Convex-Concave-Concord
in 2008, an ambiguous, rustling structure alternately expanding and contracting
before exploding in an almost blues-like expression.
Time often stands still when one
is in the company of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s poetic beings and is drawn
into their sometimes silent, sometimes noisy world of repetitions,
displacements and small pushes. Some might regard this as frustrating, others
will see it as a unique quality, but it is certain that the beings are there,
and that they live and breathe.
© Ursula Andkjær Olsen