Norske Arkiver (2005)
Kunstnerens fortvilelse foran de antikke fragmenters storhet (2010)
Sørgemarsj over Edvard Grieg (2007)
To Zeitblom (2011)
Some years ago I was organizing a radio talk. The talk was to be about the idea of the music studio in its broadest possible scope: from Lee Scratch Perry to IRCAM so to say. I chose some tracks to play and discuss with my interlocutor and came across a piece by a young composer from Norway. The piece had been premiered in Donaueschingen in 2005 and one of its remarkable features was, that the orchestra on stage was confronted with the recording of an older orchestra coming out of loudspeakers thus playing with the difference between the sound of the live situation and the sound of a recording. The composition involved some Norwegian folklore and the idea of “Norwegianism”. But my conversational partner for the talk turned the suggestion down. I remember him saying that he didn’t like the nationalism that underlies piece. And I remember how I started to explain that yes and no, there was in fact an idea of the idea of nationalism, but that it was not meant in a patriotic or chauvinistic way or that at least I didn’t think so. I started stammering and realized how insecure I was with respect to the idea of nationalism in Lars Petter Hagen’s Norske Arkiver.
There was another incident. I had left the concert hall a bit early and was waiting outside after the premiere of To Zeitblom, again in Donaueschingen, this time in 2011. I was trying to make a whole of the piece, understanding how its tragic and its humorous side were connected. The humour being that of incident and misunderstanding, of the composer trying to account for his piece onstage almost in a standup way while the translator starts to deviate from the composer’s personal account, turning the story of the envious young man into words of Theodor W. Adorno. The tragedy of the piece is of course that of being a composer in the 21st century. While thinking, a colleague came up to me and started complaining that the Musiktage had become a platform for comedians and attention seekers. Of course the piece had been about the artist himself. He had taken the liberty of putting himself on stage where his modest place should have been a seat among the audience. But was that really the point: seeking attention?
What then is Lars Petter Hagen’s music about? Is it about music? Is it about Norway? Or is it only about himself? When looking at Norway’s contemporary music life in 2013 from abroad an irritation becomes apparent. When looking at works not only by Lars Petter Hagen but also by Trond Reinholdtsen or Øyvind Torvund with their self-involvement and their refusal to have their music function properly in the concert hall, there seems to be a strong opposition to the normality of contemporary music life and pieces written for string quartets based on fractals and texts by Parmenides. “This used to be utopian music”, a Norwegian composer once explained to me, “and now it’s a style.» (Interview with Øyvind Torvund)
So in a way Lars Petter Hagen’s music is about music becoming a style. Or at least questioning the idea of style in contemporary music. After all the idea of “Norwegianism” so present in his works is a style as well. It is rather difficult to pinpoint the difference between Geirr Tveitt’s conspirational conviction, that all medieval church modes are actually derived from old Scandinavian scales, and his attempt to find a Norwegian sound by employing parallel fourths and fifths on the one side and Hagen’s work with clichés of the Norwegian on the other. Hagen would probably not publish a book arguing that the Nordic music lies at the root of Western civilization, but in his music there are attempts to show that his musical thinking cannot free itself from the Nordic stereotype. The use of open fourth and fifth in the harmonic writing, the use of open strings and natural harmonics, the microtonal deviation of intervals insinuating a non- alienated, natural harmonic space – these are in fact already ideologized categories of music. The instrumentation is always aiming at a cristal and clear timbre, as if provoking the phrase of the ‘snow-filled candy’ once used to describes Edvard Grieg’s music. Interestingly enough, these effects are not always created by using the Hardanger fiddle and other folk instruments, but also by bowing vibraphones and crotales or playing a drum role pianissimo, which is not particularly Norwegian. And then there are references to and quotes by composers like Gerhard Schjelderup, Edvard Sylou-Creutz, Signe Lund, and Harald Sæverud, composers who are more or less associated with a Nordic sound.
So there is a self-interrogation, bemoaning aspects of music life such as prejudicial listener expectations and the fact, that everything worthwhile saying seems to have been already said by composers of an earlier age. And then there is the humour with which this self-interrogation is presented. There is an ironic side to the work about Geirr Tveitt, using bits of his burnt manuscripts, which are both: evidence of a personal catastrophe, when Tveitt’s barn burned down in 1970 and with it allegedly 300 unpublished manuscripts, and artefacts of the grand narrative of Western civilization, showing prominent features of “great art”, defying history like ruins and antique fragments. But this pompous pathos has obviously become ridiculous. The despair in the face of antique greatness that Johann Heinrich Füssli depicted in 1780 cannot be authentically felt in the 21st century. If the person in Füssli’s picture, his head down in despair, were actually Lars Petter Hagen, it could only be a parody of admiration and perplexity.
Members of the band Kraftwerk once recounted that when they started thinking about the band project, the idea was to create a music that would be considered German by prejudice and cliché: very technical, precise, inhuman etc. And even though the thought seems rather naive in retrospect, Kraftwerk came up with a very peculiar and unique sound. Lars Petter Hagen seems to carry out a similar process, creating a very personal language or even style by resorting to stereotypes of the Norwegian, which, as he has repeatedly declared, where of no importance when growing up in Oslo’s suburb – without fjords, block houses and anyone playing Hardanger fiddle.
However self-evident the parallels may seem, Hagen’s music has little to do with neoclassicism or the artificial ruins that decorated palace gardens in the 18th century. His funeral march may be about Edvard Grieg and the composer’s search for a musical identity, but it is also a funeral march about a funeral march, thus creating an abstraction that is closer to the idea of vanitas and the ephemere in the fine arts than it is to Norwegian woods. His take-off on Gustav Mahler in Kunstnerens fortvilelse is not an arrangement or a transcription or even a paraphrase of the original, but an appropriation that leaves Mahler far behind. The question of the meaning of the
past, the consequences of knowing one’s history, the composer’s clumsy attempt to connect to folk traditions and nature – all of this in the end leads to a music of its own. It becomes clear when one emphasizes the liberating moments in these compositions. There is the electronic sound box that the composer employs in To Zeitblom and that leads to an irruption of a rather cheap and scruffy material into an otherwise perfectly smoothed out sound world. And there is the solo for harp and tape toward the end of Sørgemarsj that appears logically consistent to nothing, leaving a taste of the possible in the otherwise harmonically tight and narrow corridor.
So yes, this music is about the tragedy of being an artist, about envy and success, about stereotypes and expectations, about nature and naturalness, about the greatness of the past and the disabling melancholy of the present, about nostalgia and sentimentality and about the contemporary music of today. But above all it is Lars Petter Hagen’s music and it is his very personal art.