Jexper Holmen (b. 1971)
It may be unfair to label Jexper Holmen's music with his own term 'Chamber Punk' because, as all labels, it only accentuate certain aspects of certain works and not the variety of it all. It does, however, make sense to begin with this term, as it seems capable of describing some essential impulses in Holmen's aesthetics. His approach to composing for classical instruments seems to be infused with the energy of punk and postpunk rock music – an energy based on brutal, ecstatic, noisy and abrasive impulses.
Often, Holmen is recklessly pursuing one extreme idea, pushing the sound and the musicians over the edge, hammering brutal tone clusters from the orchestra at the highest possible volume. This has given him the image of an enfant terrible, which he himself denounces. He explores extremes in order to extract ambiguous beauties and energetic ecstasies from them, not to play rebel in a world of self-content subtleties.
To explain this strategy, he has used the dialectic image of slicing a tomato. If you use a blunt knife and press gently, the tomato will be crushed, while if you take a sharp knife and make a full-forced chop, the tomato will be divided in two perfect halves, retaining its structure. The brutal cut becomes the gentler.
The taste for the extreme can be illustrated in one of his early pieces, the string quartet Intend (2000). Here the dynamics are dominated by extreme fortissimo and extreme pianissimo, brutally played on the strings without any vibrato, but with a strong, almost painful sense of the physical friction, beginning with the same chord repeated over and over. This is quite typical for Holmen, and for this reason some has dismissed his music as primitive and crude. But beneath the surface of hammering monotony lies constant rhythmic displacements, disappointing the tempting urge to head bang, creating a more organic gesture. Other subtle variations lies in tone-exchanges between the violins and microtonal modifications.
A common denominator in Holmen's works is a gesture in which everything seems to slither askew. It sounds like microtonal glissandi within a cluster harmonic, even though the effect is often achieved without actual, notated glissandi, but by side effects of pushing the instruments to their limits, impeding tonal precision. Much of the intensity of Holmen's music lies in these slithering frictions.
Some of Holmen’s works are not brutal at all, but rather atmospheric, meditative, ambient. This could be said of ‘Night Pace’ (the long middle section of the CD Night Pace, 2006) with its slow, Feldmanesque repetitions and soothing harmonic; Oort Cloud (2008) which comes out as a sort of dissonant ambient music; and Laughing out Loud inhaling the SCARLET SPLEEN (...fade to black) (2004), his most melodic piece, a simple tune on an accordion. In order to understand his different types of expression and the way they are connected, one might address Holmen’s own idea of the three catastrophic stages – not successive stages of Holmen’s development, but rather types of expression and conception within his oeuvre
The Pre-Catastrophic works are the most melodic and classical. No catastrophe has stricken, but something could easily go wrong and everyone would be able to hear it. These types of works are the most fragile. They include the stunningly beautiful XP for clarinet and tape (2003) as well as the aforementioned ‘Night Pace’ and Laughing out loud....
The Catastrophic works are the most frequent and the ones that gave Holmen his initial reputation. They are violent, aggressive and repetitive and the ‘catastrophe’ occurs again and again when the instruments are pushed to boundaries where they are partly uncontrollable. Among the catastrophic works are Intend, Ascend (2002, for string quartet and celeste, combined in the work Intend/Ascend), Prefer for accordion and electronics (2001), his only symphonic work Transcendental Preference (1998) and the quintessential chamber punk work, Attempt.
The Post-Catastrophic works has the catastrophe as a premise, but have moved away from the simplicity and focus of the catastrophic stage towards entropy of diffused chaos. Here, chance is important and the expression is often more soft and mellow, pointing towards the ambient, highlighting spatiality. Oort Cloud and Lullabies (2009) are two examples of this, representing a tendency in Holmen’s more recent works.
Oort Cloud for saxophone, two accordions and live processing is a proof that complex music, which is extremely demanding to play, does not need to be difficult for the listener. Probably his most appreciated work; Oort Cloud uses the extreme reverberation of a cathedral to deliberately blur the sounds, creating a surround sound ambient experience of highly dissonant chords and harsh timbres. Due to the atmospheric character and the long, floating gesture the harshness is made milder and the music appears as a cosmic state of sound.
Lullabies is also a work based on chance. Numerous automatic children's music boxes are accompanied by accordions and electronics. They merge into a microtonal cacophony induced with the frequent noise of the winding of mechanical toys. The infantile sweetness and banality are integrated with eerie sounds to form a horror-tale nursery.
From chamber punk to nursery chamber, Jexper Holmen's music is a thrilling experience, be it brutal or gentle, expressive or ambient, the intensity is remarkable.
By Torben Sangild 2011