The poetics of resignation – Lars Petter Hagen in conversation with Eivind Buene

I have used the term ‘neo-folklorism’ about some of your works. After having been taboo since the 1970s folk music material and methods are increasingly evident in the music of younger composers.

Folk music material is used today in quite a different way than before. Not so much as a celebration, but as a way of problematizing identity – a reflection on where we come from, as composers.

Where do you come from?

I don’t have a folk music background – my first composition, a clarinet concerto I wrote for myself – was motivated by my exploration of the instrument to discover new sounds. At the same time, when I was a member of the regional youth orchestra at the age of 15-16, we played a lot of Grieg, Dvořak, Tchaikovsky and such. And I have to admit that the overwhelming experience of sitting in an orchestra and being one hundred per cent engulfed in sound is an incredibly powerful memory. That ecstasy is an important reference for me as a composer.

You started composing in a continuation of the serial tradition, but reached a point where you began applying tonal material. And there seems to be a gradual simplification of texture and harmony from Norske Arkiver to To Zeitblom.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of reduction, attempting to reach some sort of essence, whatever that might be – perhaps because it is impossible. Much of the way I express myself lies in this attempt, the futile clinging on to an idea that there is a core of some kind. There is a form of idealism in this; faith – or at least hope. The idea of transcendence, trying to step outside oneself, is important to me. Music has a potential for changing people. That is what I believe.

You speak of hope, but in your titles and programme notes we find words such as tristesse, melancholy, despair, resignation…

I have always been interested in music as a form of reflection, and melancholy is a reflective attitude to life, an active response to something. That is why it can also be a positive creative force. The philosopher Espen Hammer writes about these matters in his book Det indre mørke (The Inner Darkness), about the cultural history of melancholy. It is not about sadness and depression, but about the realization of finality: you know you are going to die, and accepting the fact is the only way to relate to life. For me it also works as a compositional technique: realizing that it is impossible.

Two other terms that seem to be important to you are Ruin and Archive. Is your preoccupation with memory first and foremost an expression of a tendency towards nostalgia?

Music is intimately linked to memory, through time. We experience music in relation to something that has been. This is the way in which we experience musical form. An archive, a
collection, is precisely a materialization of memory, so for me these things belong together. The realization that time is irreversible has been called “The ruin motif of melancholy”. I am interested in the transitoriness of things, which the writer Tor Ulven was so preoccupied with; it is the opposite of nostalgia. I do not want to go back; I am lying in my grave, smiling at the world.

You called Kunstnerens fortvilelse… a brand new ruin?

There is a long tradition of constructing ruins that goes all the way back to the follies of the eighteenth century. And there is a darker offshoot, namely Hitler architect Albert Speer’s Ruinenwert, in which an important aspect of architecture was to construct buildings that would eventually decay into impressive ruins. This says something about the desire to live on after death by staging one’s own version of history. And it is a powerful force in the human psyche. The orchestra as an institution is fascinating because it presents a very practical confrontation with the past. Today’s orchestra is that of Mahler and Strauss, and you have to relate to that whether you like it or not. In its structure and sonority the orchestra is the same as it was in Mahler’s time, and my postulate became to accept the impossibility of writing better orchestral music than Mahler. The history of the orchestra after Mahler is a ruin.

That seems to me a liberating perspective. It implies a critical absence of illusion. Nonetheless long passages of Kunstnerens fortvilelse… are like a balm for the soul, as one would say – an inattentive listener might take it for pastiche. Are you afraid that the critical aspect might be lost beneath a blanket of euphony?

Yes, or rather… no! There are many layers of communication here. I am not interested in seduction. For me there is no contradiction between euphony and problematization. It is no longer the case that atonal music is critical and tonal music retrospective – in many instances it is the opposite. The relationship between concept and material is and has always been at the very core of the act of composition, and there is no clear recipe for how to materialize critical thought in the complex musical landscape of today. The point of departure for To Zeitblom was precisely this, as described by Adorno in “Das Altern der Neuen Musik” from 1954. Adorno already suggests here that contemporary music has found its form to too great a degree; this is contradictory to the idea that contemporary music should always represent continuation. You could say that the works on this recording are the consequence of ‘fatigue’ where compositional focus slowly shifts from interval structure, rhythm and colour to context. But at the same time this would be an oversimplification, since the essence of these works will hopefully never be reducible to a method. Insofar as one should attempt to understand anything at all, one should examine the poetic aspect of the music, that which is unformulated.

Could one, to use a somewhat clumsy term, say that you negate negation?

Well, it’s resignation. Resignation as a compositional method. But yes, any development involves a negation of the point of departure. And to me, the point of departure at the first encounter with the orchestra is really first and foremost an invitation to a discussion about values. Why is Mahler important? How does this continue? I have no solution. My project is the opposite – there is no solution, we can all give up.

…but we can listen to some fine music while we give up? It seems that you take a very material pleasure in the sound of the orchestra. At the same time, as festival director of Happy Days, Nordic Music Days and the Ultima festival, you have maintained a contextual and conceptual programme in which music as a sensual experience is toned down. Is there a schism between Hagen the composer and Hagen the curator and artistic director?


Are you sure of that?


So there is an ambivalence?

Absolutely. There is extreme ambivalence.

No schism, but extreme ambivalence?

Well, the motivation behind my work as a curator presenting music to the public arises from my social and political conviction that it is something profoundly necessary. An obligation to continue tradition. When I compose, the picture is more complex, because it is so personal. My preoccupation is with rendering visible doubt, weakness, differentness, fragile ideas, but I choose different strategies than those I choose as a curator. But my motivation is the same, I think. I probably do a lot more doubting than most people think I do, as a festival director too, even though I am concerned with making clear rhetorical statements. This provides the transparency necessary to communicate with the public. Reality is brutal, as you know, and when you cannot choose not to relate to it, it is easy to become cynical. At the same time you are constantly struggling to maintain your own sensitivity. It is a paradox, but I find it interesting in itself. The two roles complement one another, in a way they appeal to different sides of my personality and perhaps inspire each other more than I would like to admit.

Perhaps that is the reason why I often sense a form of dissension in your works, where your statements are voiced in one domain, and the material aspects exist in another. The various layers of communication in Kunstnerens fortvilelse… is one example. At the same time I feel that the sincerity in your music is sincerity in inverted commas, a staged sincerity. Or cynicism, if you like. Do you consider this to be a legacy of modernism?

Yes. I am interested in structure, and in a reductionist compositional technique. As you mentioned earlier, my scores are becoming simpler and simpler. The rhythmic element disintegrates and I try to remove all forms of musical gesture from the material – articulation, agogical aspects, that kind of thing, they are really in the way. My music is in fact very table- like, very schematic. But because I use this charged material it acquires a semblance of sincerity. The Tveitt fragments are the most concrete example of this. I took partly burned manuscript pages that had been recovered from the fire on Tveitt’s farm, and the way in which the fire had damaged them determined the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the musical fragment. If one of the pages contained a large chord but the clef and instrumentation were missing it gave me a lot of leeway for interpretation. A ruin, literally.

This is what the most recent decades in music have reclaimed – direction, gesture, context – and applied it to the ‘neutral’ pitch structures of modernism. You do the opposite – retain the gestures of modernism with which you dress a material charged with romantic expressivity.

That is a very precise summary of the project.

What forms the basis of the selection you have made from the Norwegian canon – from the Sørgemarsj for Grieg via nationalistic choral music of the 1930s in Norske Arkiver to the Tveitt-fragmenter?

It’s not really a canon, it’s a problematization. As an unknown young composer from Norway I was invited to write a work for Donaueschingen, one of the bastions of modernism, known for its scepticism towards folklore ever since Schoenberg’s day, and I wanted to start out with this stereotype idea of ‘Norwegian authenticity’. I wanted to strike a blow for the Golden Age – Svendsen, Halvorsen and Grieg. A liegeman of the rhapsody and a spokesman for a ‘national sound’. It was an interesting position to be in. So in the context of the festival a critical dimension arose, because it was, as you put it, a negation of negation; an ‘overidentification’. I find it fascinating that for two hundred years Norwegians, Grieg and all of them, went to Germany to study music; Norwegian music history was for the most part German music history and it was not until 1945 that this changed. In some way or other it is fundamental to my compositional project to examine why I write the music I write. Norske Arkiver was my first attempt.

Your music might have turned out differently if you, like previous generations of Norwegian composers, had studied in Germany – or to put it another way: Do you experience a provincial freedom in coming from the fringe of Europe?

Yes. I do. Inaccessibility is a condition of all freedom. Haha.

Could you, for example, have used the Adorno device in To Zeitblom if you had studied in Germany?

No. I don’t think so, but there is more to it than geography. The centre-periphery mentality is becoming less and less relevant. Now it’s all about relations, the individual and context, which is a much more complex problem. Zeitblom has a lot to do with ‘translation’, narratives, how we relate to our parallel universes, to the complexity. Ensemble Modern did a version of Zeitblom for which the Adorno translator Wieland Hoban unfortunately could not be present. So we invited Suhrkamp’s Derrida translator, instead. That was very good too. The text then focused more on the relationship between the original and the translation; that the original always needed a translation otherwise it is lacking something. The meaning always lies beyond language, in that reflective space between the original and the translation. Or between Hardanger fiddle tunes and Vivaldi’s viola d’amore concertos, if you like.

In the speech in To Zeitblom you mention your success with ‘exotismus’. Is that a deliberate play on the cliché of the Nordic idea?

Yes, it’s very deliberate, even expressly so! It is a staged, dramatic situation in which the very premise is that ambivalence. Many of my works contain similar theatrical devices, music losing to language; this gives rise to awkwardness and other elements that disconnect the music from its traditional context, not unlike Brecht’s Verfremdungsteknik. After the premier performance of Norske Arkiver at Donaueschingen I was approached by a girl who said that what I was doing was theatre, not music! I think she meant it as a criticism, but I took it as a compliment.