Arts: Controlled Chaos ; per Norgard's Sixth Symphony Has Its UK Premiere at Monday's BBC Prom. and about Time Too, Says MARTIN ANDERSON - His Expressive Complexity Deserves a Live Audience

By Anderson, Martin | The Independent (London, England), July 25, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Arts: Controlled Chaos ; per Norgard's Sixth Symphony Has Its UK Premiere at Monday's BBC Prom. and about Time Too, Says MARTIN ANDERSON - His Expressive Complexity Deserves a Live Audience


Anderson, Martin, The Independent (London, England)


For a country that was one of the first outside Finland to take Sibelius to its heart, Britain has been remarkably slow off the mark in appreciating the major Danish symphonists. Carl Nielsen's six life-enhancing symphonies didn't become a CD staple until 50 years after his death, and they're still concert rarities. Vagn Holmboe wrote 15 symphonies, the last premiered in Copenhagen in 1996, just before his death at the age of 86. And yet almost none of these muscular, powerful works have enjoyed a live performance in this country.

Incredibly, it's only now that Per Norgard - Holmboe's heir and student, and one of the towering figures of contemporary music - is getting a hearing at the Proms, with the UK premiere of his Sixth Symphony on 30 July, performed by the visiting Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard. And it's not as if Norgard (pronounced something like "nur-gor", but make sure you throttle those concluding Rs) were some aspiring young talent waiting to attract attention - he has just turned 70.

Mind you, the sense of quiet energy he exudes hardly suggests a septuagenarian. With his tanned, weather-beaten face, unruly wisps of blonde hair and disdain for formality, you'd be more likely to take him for a well-worn tour-group leader. Yet the casual manner obscures one of the most original thinkers in music alive today.

Norgard is neither traditionalist nor modernist - in fact, he's a fusion of both, with a deep admiration for the cohesion of Sibelius and a habit of pushing ever outwards the degree of expressive complexity that music can achieve. Even at the very outset of his career, Norgard was never an explicitly "Nordic" composer. What his work has in common with Sibelius's, and with Nielsen's and Holmboe's, is a central concern with energy, with music as a form of natural, organic growth.

The means with which he has realised his aims have evolved as a Hegelian thesis, antithesis and synthesis across the half-century of his career. At the end of the 1950s, Norgard discovered what he called the "infinity row", an extension to music of the hierarchical relationships found in nature, in scientific theory, in social relationships. It enabled him to generate a theoretically infinite number of pitches from a given musical unit - a melodic scrap, a tone-row - by projection of their intervals, to produce music in ever-expanding structures.

The results were first heard in fully developed form in the orchestral work Voyage into the Golden Screen (1968) and the Second Symphony (1970). The endless variety produced by the infinity row seemed to threaten manic profusion. But the row simultaneously generated discipline. It sounded like a tightly controlled chaos, some boiling life-force that nonetheless obeyed natural laws.

At the time, Norgard had no idea he was applying a sequence first articulated 60 years before by the Norwegian mathematician Axel Thue, nor that he had independently discovered the basis of fractal theory developed by Benoit Mandelbrot, who devised the infinitely expanding patterns known as Mandelbrot sets. Indeed, Norgard roared with amused delight when he discovered that Voyage into the Golden Screen is accredited in the mathematics literature with the first adumbration of a particular theoretical principle.

The antithesis to this world of uneasy order came in 1979, when Norgard discovered the paintings of the schizophrenic Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli (1864-1930), whose fantastic, disorderly visions suggested to the composer that his music lacked spontaneity - another illustration of the productive tension that draws him between chaos and control.

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