Music as process or as a schizoid howl of pain, two of Norga
Christopher Culver | 07/07/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This Point disc featuring two of Per Norgard's symphonies captures the composer in two very different stylistic periods. Jorma Panula leads the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra.
Through the 1960s Norgard experimented with his "infinity series", a method of serializing melody that has fractal-like properties of self-similiarity and unending richness to explore packed into a simple course of events. Every fourth, eighth etc. note recreates the series, but slower, while a faster series can always be found in between the notes of the fastest layer ad inifintum. For most of the decade, the infinity series was only one tool in Norgard's toolbox, but in "Voyage Into the Golden Screen" for chamber ensemble (1968), he used it to shape all facets of a work. Knowing something about "Voyage" is very helpful to understanding the infinity series works in general. In the second movement, a given melody is played by the flutes in what can be called "normal time", while the oboes play every fourth note, the trumpets every 64th note, and tubular bells, trombones, and piano every 256th note, and so on for 1024 notes. All music is generated from one simple process.
The "Symphony No. 2" (1970) can fairly be described as an expansion of "Voyage", playing 4,096 notes of the infinity series with the instrumentation of a symphony orchestra. But it's much more than that, since while "Voyage" was entirely automatic, the symphony contains a clear development. Before the series is introduced, divided among the instruments, one single note begins the work and all proceeds from it. Then, every 1,024 notes of the series, the trumpets interrupt in a striking fashion. All this gives a sense of growth before the symphony fades out at the end. All in all, however, the symphony is somewhat limited and impersonal. Norgard hadn't yet thought up harmonic and rhythmic analogues to the melodic infinity series, which came to be the natural overtone series and the golden section respectively. These three were united in his glorious third symphony of 1975, which many consider his masterpiece. The second symphony, then, hovers between two worlds, being either "Voyage" enlarged or the third symphony in miniature.
The disc passes over Norgard's music of the 1970s, where his "composition machine" reached maturity and he was exploring ever more glorious realms of cosmic unity. But then an encounter with the work of Adolf Wolfli changed everything and brought him to a complete reevaluation of his writing. The Swiss artist, a schizophrenic locked up in a Bern asylum from 1896, produced hundreds of remarkable drawings in a superbly original style. Typical of his art is a succession of tiny, self-contained cells with no overarching unity. Wolfli, thought Norgard, showed that the heady epiphanies of the infinity series were too far removed from human life, which constantly goes between hope and despair.
In the Symphony No. 4 there is repetition of elements, and several little motifs are heard again and again, a good reflection of the psychotic art Norgard took as a model. However, the repetition is limited to one plane, there is no overarching, slower form. With this breaking of the unity of the whole, Norgard has gone from beautiful unity to fearful isolation, loneliness, torment, and despair, though with always a suggestion of new possibilities. In terms of sound, the warm, fuzzy cloud of the infinity series gives way to cold, crystalline blocks of sound. The first movement, "Indian Rose Garden" is slow and meditative, and marked by a motif based on the call of the European robin which gives rise to other motifs, hides, and then appears again in full. Among the idyllic forest of orchestration, there is an unmistakable howl of pain here and there. "Chinese Witch's Lake", the second movement, breaks in violently without a pause, and is an expression of rage and catastrophe. The falling apart of the natural order is symbolised by the incoherent mixing of quotations from popular melodies, Nielsen, and other Norgard works. The Fourth is powerful stuff, and contains an wealth of new ideas to explore with each listening. The orgiastic Third is often considered Norgard's finest symphony, and justly so, but I find this hommage to the tortured soul of Wolfli to be thought-provoking and poignant enough to merit more attention that it is has received.
The sound quality of this recording is higher than I expected--older Norgard discs tend to be less than satisfactory in that regard. Panula's conducting is generally satisfactory. I do feel that he leads the Symphony No. 2 too erratically, not keeping to the even keel that the work demands. I prefer instead the conducting of Segerstam on a Chandos disc. However, in the Symphony No. 4, however, Panula gives the second movement a fiery reading that works much more than Segerstam's on another Chandos disc (too bad both movements are on one CD track.)"