hcmf// 2011: Reflections on Bent Sorensen
hcmf// Artistic Director Graham McKenzie reflects on the music of Composer in Residence Bent Sørensen ahead of the Festival...
I first came across Bent Sørensen's music in 1997 on Birds and Bells - a CD on the highly influential ECM New Series. At the time I pretty much collected everything released on the Munich based label irrespective of whether I had any prior knowledge of the artist or composer. Throughout the recording Sørensen plays continually with spatial depth in the music, inviting the listener to experience it from unusual and changing perspectives as glissandi sweep through the ensemble sound and composed ‘echoes' reverberate. The music is beautifully realised by the Oslo Sinfonietta and Cikada. Nordic Sounds commented - ‘Sørensen's music is dreamscapes without boundaries'. The track I kept returning to was Funeral Procession - slow and almost inaudible in places - there is a sense of compromised beauty about the piece. Like all of Sørensen's mature works it creates a strong sense of decay emotionally akin to viewing an aging artwork! I waited eagerly for further instalments from the Danish composer. Sadly nothing more arrived and gradually I lost contact with Sørensen's sound world.
I was re-acquainted with the composer and his music in 2007 courtesy of an invitation from the Danish Arts Council to attend the Bergen International Festival where Sørensen headed up a strong Danish themed programme. There I met Sørensen, found him to be engaging, found that we shared the same birth year, and hatched a plan to profile his work at some future edition of hcmf//!
Since that first meeting I have travelled to Denmark on a number of occasions to meet Sørensen and discuss his work, during which I have also become increasingly aware of an inventive and burgeoning music scene, involving a younger generation of composers and musicians, that seamlessly interconnects and flits between genres - much of it inspired by Sørensen,who is frequently cited as an influence. This cross fertilisation and experimentation in many ways seems to reflect recent developments in Sørensen's own practice. For a composer who has undoubtedly reached the elevated position of ‘greatest living composer' within his own country, I am astonished at the extent to which he embraces risk!
From the quiet, pulsating string quartets of the 80s, the 90s were largely dominated by large scale orchestral works, to be followed by Sørensen's self described ‘opera years'. The composer seemed to be following a well trodden path. Lately however he has diverted sharply and steadily built a more conceptually orientated and carefully curated body of work - perhaps best evidenced by The White Forest - an installation by Sørensen and stage director Katrine Wiedemann, in which eight vocal pieces by the composer - recorded by Theatre of Voices - are relayed through speakers hidden in a ‘white'woodland setting'. Sørensen is clear that he does not see this side of his work as some sort of distraction from the main event of his more ‘classical' composed works. ‘I don't want to make my music into a sound installation,' he says ‘I want a sound installation to be my music'! He is also strongly attracted to the durational possibilities offered by sound art - including permanence! He speaks of being deeply affected by the experience of returning to the concert hall to collect his bag shortly after a performance of one of his works, alone with the double basses and music stands, and wondering what remained of his music?
This growing flexibility to space and location however is also fuelled by a genuine desire for music to engage with a wider and more diverse audience - removed from the constrictions and conventions of the concert hall. He talks enthusiastically about his next project - a series of ‘backyard operas' - where the performance will take place in a back courtyard or square while the audience look on from the windows around the courtyard. In the second act audience and performers will switch locations, with the performers now visible in the open windows.
The perception of Sørensen is generally that of a solitary figure largely due to the pervading sense of melancholia and sadness to be found in much of his work. ‘Music is sorrow,' he says! Paradoxically as his current practice demonstrates - it turns out that he is the consummate collaborator! In his latest work Saudades Inocentes Sørensen has taken the relationship between artist and curator to its extreme conclusion, crediting writer and curator Anna Berit Asp Christensen as the co-author of the piece - ‘Anna and I were discussing some projects involving me as a co-curator and I asked her -Why is it always me who gets involved in your world of making programmes? Why don't you get involved in my world creating the pieces for the programme? A lot of the ideas regarding form, narrative elements etc - really came from Anna...'
The Portuguese word Saudades cannot be easily translated - it is often a desperate longing beyond that which cannot be reached. There is certainly no suggestion of desperation in Sørensen's music but there is a sense that he is still searching, still learning, and moving in directions that will surprise both him and us, for many years to come!
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