Per Nørgård: A Light Hour (2008)
for percussion ensemble (10 musicians or more)
A Light Hour is for ‘any number of percussion musicians’ (but a minimum of ten). The duration is about 60 minutes. The instrumentation is in principle open, as long as percussion is used within the three types specified in the score: skin, metal and wood. Each musician uses two sound sources with two different sounds, one of which is bright (or light) and the other dark. Certain passages also include tuned percussion instruments – vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, gamelan, glockenspiel, steel drums, crotales and the like.
The work integrates and combines a number of rhythms that Nørgård has used in percussion works since the 1970s, for example in Early Spring Dance (for choir and percussion), and percussion works like I Ching, Easy Beats, Whirls, Zigzag, Nemo Dynamo and Echo Zone I-II-III.
Special “tone-feasts” (the composer’s term) – followed by a rest – are an recognizable
melodic feature of the work.: the first minute end with a short tone-feast (and a rest), the first four minutes end with a tone-feast lasting a minute (and a rest), the first quarter of an hour ends with a tone-feast of four minutes (and a rest) – and the work ends with a tone-feast lasting quarter of an hour (and a rest, when the work is over ...).
The first 15 minutes have a bright, light character throughout, and alternate between
rhythms and melodic play. The following 15 minutes are more insistent and decidedly
percussion-based, Afro-Cuban, whereas the third quarter of A Light Hour moves in the direction of an Asiatic-Chinese sound world with metal and wood in the foreground. The great tone-feast of the concluding 15 minutes moves from the sounds of the Balinese gamelan towards a modulating, European tonal world that comes together in a tight rush towards the finale. However, the music escapes from this tight grip and A Light Hour ends freely fantasizing with a collective improvisation over different motifs from the work.
Per Nørgård writes:
“A Light Hour is a new, through-composed, hour-long work for large percussion ensemble. You could call it a flowering of the seeds that existed in the work’s original version from 1986, first performed at the Winter Solstice on 21/12/1986 at the ‘Vækst-centret (Nørre Snede, Jutland) for and by residents of and visitors to this meditation centre.
Among the 10-12 participants in the simple 1986 version there were only a couple
of trained musicians, with the percussionist Einar Nielsen as director, while the others included dancers, craftsmen, one student and two schoolgirls. That this heterogeneous crowd succeeded, with a month’s preliminary work, in performing an hour-long work without
using notated musical material, was due – besides their intense efforts – to the basically simple principles of the ‘infinity rhythms’ (sometimes called ‘Sun & Moon percussion music’). One can read about this in both Danish and English (as well as listen and play) in Ivan Hansen’s publication Per Nørgård – Drum Book (Edition Wilhelm Hansen). A Light Hour (2008) from 22 years later presents – in contrast to the original’s ideally notationless improvisation basis – a fully notated, hour-long ten-part score for a well-defi ned percussion group, drawn up (that is, ‘further composed’) by Ivan Hansen and myself in 2008. “The new score on the one hand renders possible a concert performance with all the details thoroughly elaborated, and on the other hand does not prevent – on the contrary stimulates – an improvisational approach to the work. “Although a thoroughly detailed realization of the score is now possible with this 2008 score, the notated music can to a great extent also be conceived as a path which – in the longer term – can lead beyond a note-perfect rendering. This is not to say that ‘anything goes’; on the contrary, the written music opens up avenues for performances that transcend it. Once the performers have been able to realize the work, the next stage may be – improvisationally – to ‘dismantle’ it: the more or less dense musical text can be ‘perforated’ with non-played (excluded) notes and beats. Like a cheese with increasing numbers of holes ... or with a different image, like a finely wrought spider’s web against the background of silence.
The possibilities, including those of instrumentation, are legion, and are decided by every single member of the group – in interaction with the group and with inspiration from the ensemble leader. Only one thing is certain: A Light Hour lasts close to one hour – and starts with a bright (light) note.
I have given the work the subtitle “Med livet i Hænderne” (“Life in your hands”), since after all life for percussion players is propagated through the hands (and perhaps also because the tight synchronization of the ten parts may some times feel as if you are taking your life in your hands).”
A Light Hour (2008) was composed for and dedicated to the Percurama Percussion Ensemble and Gert Mortensen.
A CD-recording by the ensemble (the "Percurama version" of the work) is available on Dacapo records (ultimo 2009).