On a ledge in my hallway at home is a knobbly flint, decorated by a splodge of white paint and a ribbon threaded through a hole in the stone, to which is attached a luggage label inscribed with the following message: “To Susanna! With love & good wishes from Per, the tired sheep & Langeland’s beach…” Prop the stone up at a particular angle and indeed, a mournful sheep looks back at you. I love this flint. It brings back fond memories of one of the most remarkable, amusing, thoughtful, surprising, kind and insightful people I have ever known.
And it also reminds me of his extraordinary music: the ability to convey in sound the strange sudden shifts in perspective – the quicksilver shock of thousands of tiny fish turning simultaneously, the rhythms of water dropping from leaves, the this-is-small-this-is-far-away self-replicating phenomenon of fractals. And, like fractals, the further in, or further out, you go into his music, the more miraculous beauty and integrity is revealed. This is a composer who writes symphonies and string quartets yet is truly radical in his approach to his material and fearless in his curiosity, reinvention and exploration of musical structure.
I first discovered Per Nørgård’s music through my friend Thomas Adès, who was already interested in him when we were at university, and was the pianist in a number of performances of the trio Lin. Through luck as much as anything, I found myself a few years later working for Per’s publisher. I listened to as much of his music as I could get my hands on, got to know him and his wife Helle, and count it among my highest achievements that I helped to secure a number of important commissions and performances of his music during that time.
There’s so much to discover in his work. From his earlier period, introduce yourself to the ‘infinity row’, an infinitely extending, self-replicating (this is where the fractals bit comes in) and self-generating sequence of notes, resulting in an ethereal, sonorous soundworld that feels like the aural equivalent of a warm golden bath. Try the Symphony no.2, or the orchestral piece Voyage into the Golden Screen. Then there is his subsequent obsession with outsider artist Adolf Wölfli, which inspired a series of pieces culminating in Der Göttliche Tivoli (The Divine Circus), his opera based on the life and writings of Wölfli, filled with pain and cruel humour, as well as forgiveness and humanity, in its fantastical depiction of what it may be like to live with psychosis.
For many, Per’s vast choral Symphony no.3 remains his crowning achievement, and it’s a crying shame that it hasn’t had its UK premiere. But the later symphonies are also masterpieces. Symphony no.6 (At the End of the Day) completely subverts any conventional idea of symphonic form with its many unexpected twists and turns, like exploring a house of mirrors. And, as with a number of Per’s works, something completely new creeps in right at the end – suggesting a new area of musical exploration to be embarked upon.
But if I had to choose three works (and thank goodness I don’t have to) I think – possibly – these would be, for a variety of musical and personal reasons:
- Pastoral (from Nørgård’s music for the film Babette’s Feast) – heartbreaking in its simplicity
- Unendlicher Empfang for two pianos – sweeping from high drama to tiny, haunting loops of material, and including two out-of-phase ticking metronomes. (Twenty-something me: “The translation is “Endless Reception”. Per: “Ah, like an Ambassador’s reception?”)
- String Quartet no.8 “Night Descending Like Smoke”, based on material from his multimedia opera Nuit des Hommes (given its UK premiere at Almeida Opera in 1998: those were the days)
Recently, he seems to be less well known than he used to be, as a younger generation of experimental Danes are having their moment of revolution against what they may regard as the establishment…So it was tremendous news to hear that the New York Philharmonic have awarded him their $200,000 Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music. And characteristic of him to respond “I am naturally very pleased about it…but it’s quite mysterious how they chose me. Nobody came to visit, or to speak to me about it”.