Game of Chance

Leif Ove Andsnes, Ian Bostridge, Martin Fröst, Bugge Wesseltoft, Brodsky Quartet, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, the artistic leaders Lars Anders Tomter and Henning Kraggerud, and a number of other high-profile performers are on this year’s Risør Chamber Music Festival’s roster. Norwegian composer Magne Hegdal, well-known for his extensive use of accidental approaches to composing is the festival’s composer-in-residence.

Risør Chamber Music Festival, June 26 - July 1

A key part of tonality in western music plays on anticipation. Our anticipation may be immediately fulfilled, we may dwell on the waiting, or we may be disappointed. Each composer exploits anticipation differently, but the tool is the same. A promise is made, a probability presented, a leading note demands its final destination so that the last note of the scale strives towards its first. The tension is released.

A composition structured around such a causal chain expresses our world’s scientific and rational outlook, whose origin can be traced back to Ancient Greece. They sought to explain phenomena and assigned them an origin and effect. They asked why, they found many answers and constructed from them philosophies that ordered their world. Long after, during the 15th Century Italian Renaissance, the spirit of Ancient Greece was sought out, reborn and developed in new contexts.

Between these two artistically and intellectually vibrant epochs came what is known as “The Dark Middle Ages” when religion and the occult reigned. Closer to our own time, The Middle Ages found their opposite in the pillar of classical physics, which is Sir Isaac Newton. Today however, although the apples still fall towards the ground, they no longer do so as a matter of course – do they zig-zag ever so slightly? Is our faith in Progress as an inevitable effect of our civilization shaken? Will the world end at Easter, are the Middle Ages returning?

Early in the 1900 the physicists started digging down into the micro-cosmos. Our world started unravelling before our eyes: definitions we knew and trusted and which came together in plausible explanations no longer held. Are time and space two different dimensions, or do they run one into the other? Energy and mass – are they two sides of the same coin? Albert Einstein’s claim that “God does not play dice with the Universe” no longer holds. Quantum physics tells us that may be precisely what (s)he does!

So does this year’s festival composer, Magne Hegdal, and the staves are his Rubicon: he throws the dice knowing anything can happen. “Composition with Dice” may sound provocative for many. How can an artist renounce all responsibility for his work, indeed abdicate before it?

Illusions of grandeur or cowardice? Well, maybe simply a love of nature such as we find it: a web of branches from a weeping willow, a jagged mountain ridge, a lake almost shaped like a palette, even with a small islet where the hole for the thumb could be. (The latter actually becomes too contrived, like an English romantic garden imitating nature. Not much room for the accidental there.)

Hegdal wants to create nature authentically, and then non-intervention becomes a moral imperative. We look forward to presenting his music, and also to let him talk about his inspiration and his ways of working – his interventions.

In the 1970’s John Cage, one of the big musical events in America, visited Norway. He left a big echo of silence and wonder. Hegdal was one of those present to hear it ring. Cage was in many ways a conceptual composer, and hearing him talk was for many as powerful an experience as hearing his music. The neutrino moving faster than light; time being passed over. Effect comes before cause and causality is dead and buried! For Cage, accepting existence and the moment was fundamental. His outlook was close to the Buddhist. We have to agree with him that the frenzy of activity and communication everywhere work against the most important point of contact there is: to ourselves, to being. Incidentally, Fosnes Hansen established his point of contact with Cage with his first professional interview, where the subject was precisely Cage. We stumble across the game of chance again.

States the festival in a press release: - We will present music by Cage, and given the open-ended nature of much of his work we cannot know what will emerge. However, this reminds us what a concert really is and should be. No matter how well we know the repertoire, live music is about experiencing the unique, the moment that will never return. In Ibsen’s words: we can only forever own what we have lost.

Improvisation has been given ample room in this year’s programme. For example, the pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and the organist Gunnar Idenstam will give us notes that nobody has written down. Improvisation used to be an important and obvious part of all music. It vanished from classical music perhaps because the work of making music became separated from its performance. We are left with the impression that improvisation equals jazz. However, all genres are in flux and improvisation is returning to classical music. Neither is jazz what it used to be; it has come to include such a varied cluster of expression that the term “jazz” has become almost meaningless.

Lutoslawski is a modern classical composer who had active associations in Norway . Starting with a Bartok inspired folklore style, his encounter with Cage’s music had a profound influence on him. It is precisely the accidental – the aleatoric - which took his music in new directions and became an inspiration for many, including our own Arne Nordheim.

In the 1980’s Lutoslawski visited The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and he conducted most of his own work during his time with them. Lutoslawski himself was careful to point out that even with the freedom he gave his musicians, chaos was the last thing he wanted to achieve.

John Cage instructed his listener: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty two. Eventually one discovers it is not boring at all.” The Festival programme contains examples of use of the temporal in works by the Austrians Bruckner and Schubert, who let time flow in their “Himmlische Länge”. When time stops anything can happen.

We also want to draw your attention to a work that really has come into being through the game of chance. Scarlatti’s cat should perhaps have copyright of the sonata his owner wrote after hearing his cat walk across the piano keys. Mozart is represented in several rounds by “Skittle” Trios and “Do it Yourself” waltzes. To produce such a body of work by the age of 30 you cannot work systematically, laying stone upon stone. You have to rely on chance: inspiration arriving from a clear blue sky like flashes of lightning and with equal speed.

We start it all off in Risør and look forward to seeing you, if you should happen to drop by...

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