m a k i n g t i m e
In 1997, Dacapo issued a CD of 4 chamber orchestra works by Anders Nordentoft, and after several listenings, I set it aside for possible review in this column. Born in 1957, this Danish composer's work impressed me with its clarity of timbres, coherence of musical arguments, freshness and mastery. I really liked all four works but was not quite sure what I wanted to say about them.
Three years later, Dacapo issued On This Planet, and as soon as it was available in this country, I grabbed it, curious to hear more from Nordentoft. What a shattering surprise!
Planet may be best heard as a traditional cycle of songs with chamber orchestra back up, but it may also best be heard as a concert of songs not necessarily linked as a cycle—like, say, a rock concert. I'll come back to this distinction in a minute. But whichever it is, Thomas Sandberg's rock vocal delivery, Nordentoft's spare acid-sharp musical lines and searing rhythms, his lyrics sung in English with pulsating clarity, and the contrasted moments of whispered forlorn desperation make the disk so compelling that unless volume is set very low, I doubt most listeners could do anything requiring much concentration at the same time. This music grabs this listener in a clutch of attention so anxious and angry and sad and lonely in its pain that one feels almost as if is sucked back into the vortex of long-past adolescence. And the adolescence of which I speak is that of Rimbaud, and rock music and Bob Dylan and early Paul Simon lyrics, but also of today's drug trips, mosh pits, and binge drinking.
Apparently, the work has become something of an event, in that there is a website (www.onthisplanet.dk) devoted to information about it, including locations of upcoming performances.
Nordentoft's lyrics borrow a few lines from Rimbaud (also Derek Walcott), and those touches set this work as a kind of "season in hell." But the 16 pieces of Nordentoft's "season in hell" (a couple purely instrumental), 6 of which are a sequence called "lucid king"... what are they?
The western concert song cycle, first fully exploited by Beethoven and Schubert, organizes a group of separate songs to create a narrative or psychological experience for listeners by exposing different moods or perspectives on some unifying idea. Although songs get detached and performed separately from their cycles, in the case of really powerful cycles, the whole far outdistances the effect of the songs as separate entities, and a live performance of a complete cycle often seems more overwhelming than a recital of well-chosen separate songs. On This Planet overwhelms with the impact of a major song cycle and reminds one of Britten or even Mahler—especially with regard to the instrumental palettes.
A rock concert has a different coherence. In its "liveness" it always seems bigger than a recording, no matter what decibel level the recording is played. The vortex of audience longing for group coherence and enthusiasm is part of the experience, but the visceral strenuousness of the performers and the pacing of energy and fervor with troughs and highs of emotion build, in the hands of the best entertainers, to incite an experience that far overwhelms the significance or even memorabeness of any separate song, no matter how well known and iconized that song may already be to the audience.
In the song cycle, the composer, through the representational setting of texts, creates a subjective/psychological center. The performers bring this composed subjectivity alive, and the listeners witness the representation—and, to whatever degree they find connections to their own subjectivities, affirm the psychological "truth" of the composer's vision.
In a rock concert, the performers interact with the audience's desires and expectations for a communal event, and through the music, pacing, visceral immediacy of the event, an ephemerally immersive psychological state is enacted. "Truth" of experience is contingent on the success of this enactment by all parties, in particular audience member's immersion into collectivity and abandonment of subjectivity.
The difference is between a represented, subjective, psychological "truth" and an enacted, collective, psychological "truth."
As I said at the beginning, On This Planet is perhaps a cycle of songs with chamber orchestra back up or perhaps a rock-like concert of songs not linked. Sandberg's vocal style's rock inflections are unmistakable. So why does the cycle versus concert distinction matter?
To my mind, Nordentoft has done something unprecedented with On This Planet. With the traditions and training of a symphonist, and through the lens of those traditions, he has produced a work that reflects on and re-enacts, but does not intend or pretend to be, a male vocal rock concert. Thus the male adolescent angst and anger that the words and music anguishingly expose are not simply emoted but offered in a way for reflection and even recollection. Perhaps, another way of saying this is that Planet gives us male adolescence revisited from an adulthood which is honest enough to be true to the emotional contours of its own youth, as if its issues had never fully been resolved or outgrown but at best simply survived. This unprecedented effect is realized through the double-lens of song cycle and rock concert performance context and aesthetic approaches.
A sequence within the overall set called "lucid king" terrifyingly narrates shooting up on heroine. You don't have to have been a junkie for this music to sear your veins, and if you can hear it without getting scared, then you have buried your own adolescence in a crypt of sad denial!