Simon Christensen (b. 1971)
Like many 21st century composers who came of age in the closing years of the previous millennium, Simon Christensen has had an extensive background in a variety of musical genres, and as a result creates music that is deeply informed by all of them. But what sets him apart from most composers of his generation is that while all of his influences make sense once you know what they are, the resultant music he has been creating over the course of the past decade somehow transcends genre considerations entirely and is something completely fresh and new. While one might trace Christensen’s meticulously notated scores to his rigorous composition training (at the Royal Academy of Music in his native Copenhagen and the Conservatoire Nationale Superieur de Paris), attribute his careful attention to sonorities and a systemic approach to their manipulation to background in live electronic performance (as a laptop artist in the duo Mobile Soundscapes or his use of a variety of analog modules in the group Kundi Bombo), and assume his obsession with pulse is related to his activities earlier on as a rock drummer (in the band New Paragraphs), Christensen’s very complex looking scores tend to sound much simpler, many of his most remarkable timbral details are achieved with purely acoustic instrumental combinations, and his skewed rhythmic sensibility ultimately has little to do with most rock music.
A big part of the impact of Christensen’s music comes from his ability to harness the off-kilter. His rhythmic palate includes cascades of mismatched tuplet sequences (e.g. quintuplets followed by sextuplets then septuplets) as well as polyrhythms exploring the incompatible overlapping of such sequences (e.g. seven against three then six against five, etc.). He also frequently utilizes a much broader range of possible pitches (in addition to the standard chromatic scale in 12-tone equal temperament, Christensen not only adds quarter-tones but also eighth tones, a variety of harmonics and sub-harmonics, and sounds with imprecise pitches. Whether it is a small intimate chamber piece or a large scale ensemble work, Christensen’s recent music has an unmistakably identifiable sound.
The Acc’s Low Track (2005) is a good introduction to Christensen’s aesthetics. This brief laptop remix of accordion sounds (which was released on a Da Capo CD of recent Danish accordion music featuring Norwegian accordionist Frode Anderson) squeezes the squeezebox into something completely different—a rumbling, gurgling cauldron. In his recontextualization of this instrument, completely new possibilities emerge.
In a brief work like Grace-ReMix, completed in 2007, Christensen takes the seemingly innocuous combination of clarinet and piano and also does some completely unprecedented things with it. For starters, the pianist is required to go inside the piano and mute one of the pitches so that when the key strikes that pitch the resultant sonority is akin to playing on an electric piano that has been unplugged. Against these introspective percussive-like sounds from the piano, the clarinet uses a variety of fingerings while trilling on the same pitch to create an overall feeling of instability which is furthered subsequently by requiring the player to introduce each pitch slightly out of tune.
The opening of the percussion quartet Circuiting The Stroke (2008-09) has an almost martial quality, but it is music created for an army that has gone completely haywire. This is music that a troop would march to at great peril since before too long, any sense of pulse is completely eroded. Christensen’s clear infatuation with percussion instruments, undoubtedly from his years of experience as a drummer, is as much because of their specific timbres as their ability to clearly articulate rhythms.
But arguably Christensen’s most original chamber music composition to date is his string quartet Toward Nothingness (2008-09); it is also perhaps his most extreme. The work can be performed with or without electronics (microphones, small guitar combo amplifiers, PA system and a laptop running Max/MSP), but even without electronics—which is how it was recorded by the Silesian String Quartet in 2009—it is a tremendously assaultive listening experience. A relentless barrage of irregular bowing whose rhythmic instability is heightened by harmonic ambiguity as a result of quartertonal alterations as well as far more miniscule pitch clashes between harmonics which create an audible beating, Toward Nothingness maintains constant momentum despite its stasis through its sheer visceral energy.
In The 1971 Connection (2008), Christensen uses a jazz big band to create music that is not at all swing, yet it still totally swings. The composer suggests that the work should not be played jazzy, but his preference is for a performance by jazz or rock musicians. As in Toward Nothingness, Christensen keeps listeners on edge despite the music’s seeming stasis by exploring iterative sequences of events that are difficult to clearly discern—syncopations are completely skewed by repeated gestures occurring in different parts of the measure each time as well as by riffs including harmonics, quartertones, and even smaller intervals.
In The Elastic Track (2005), commissioned by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and scored for large symphony orchestra (quadruple winds, six horns, three trumpets and three trombones, tubam harp, piano, timpani, 3 percussionists, and sixty strings), Christensen has designed a fascinating ten-minute single-movement tableau that is informed by the manipulations of electronic music through purely acoustic means by densely layering multiple rhythms as well as through the use of microtones and extended performance techniques. After its premiere by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, no less a figure that the legendary Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, a revolutionary among 1960s European composers and now an éminence grise in Danish musical life, has declared that “One hears a new era in this piece.”
That new era is perhaps most clearly exemplified in the two large-scale projects that Christensen has been involved with thus far which might best be described as 21st century gesamtkunstwerk. In Closer (2007-08), which Christensen performs with his electroacoustic group Kundi Bombo, the ensemble’s cutting-edge combination of saxophone (1 player performing on soprano, alto, and tenor), electric guitar, percussion, and laptop-generated electronics is explored in a series of aural landscapes for an hour-long dance and multimedia performance piece. While much of the music is reminiscent of techno and trance, the breadth of its musical material hints at a much broader compositional language.
But as ambitious as Closer is, an even more significant undertaking which is perhaps his most important composition to date is TRIBUTES – Pulse (2010-11), a work created in collaboration with the American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison in whom he has found a kindred spirit. The way Morrison meticulously manipulates decayed film footage from the earliest days of cinema to produce surreal, otherworldly visual effects is very much akin to the way that Christensen creates a surreal sonic environment by bending harmonies and layering various rhythmic patterns. Christensen’s four-movement hour-plus score was also composed specifically for performance by Kundi Bombo, but herein the instrumentation is even more eclectic; the saxophonist—performing on four different instruments: soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone—is not only joined by percussion and laptop, but also violin and zither, creating a timbral palette that is completely not of this time or any other. The four sections of TRIBUTES – Pulse explore a variety of approaches to rhythmic pulse as is suggested by their individual titles: “Shifting” (slightest change), “Multiple” (simultaneously different), “Across” (different directions), and “Beat” (moving synchronized). Each of these sections was inspired by an important American music pioneer—Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails). Christensen explains, “I chose these composers because they have opened my ears to a particular way of dealing with pulse and they have all made music that really matters to me.” According to him, all four of them were pivotal in shaping his own musical aesthetic:
After seeing a performance of Ives's 4th Symphony, I changed my way of thinking music and dealing with rhythms. The distribution of the different bands in the hall and the very different music they play knocked me out. Since then I have almost always been using click tracks in my work in order to achieve multiple different pulses, and also taking the spatialisation of the music/musicians/loudspeakers into consideration. When I first heard Nancarrow I realized that extremely complex rhythms are possible on a "machine" and it trigged me into working with electronics and computers. I have over the years changed my attitude towards electronics; I prefer humans to play the complex stuff and use the electronics merely for "sound" and the laptop to control the overall time or the "synchronization" of tempos. Steve Reich's earlier works made me realize that complex music can be created with very simple material and here I heard the connection between my past as a rock/jazz drummer and my work as a composer. There's something magical about shifting and the idea of letting the music shift the slightest. And Trent Reznor represents constant beat/rhythm. The constant beat is always in front of my mind when I compose; in all my music I try to find a delicate balance of complex constantly changing rhythms and stable and "easily" perceptible beats.
Whether he is creating a meticulously-crafted piece for one or a handful of people, a broader sonic canvas for a large ensemble, or creating music for a larger-than-life multimedia experience, Simon Christensen has an unmistakable compositional voice—one which is very much a reflection of our zeitgeist but which ultimately transcends it.
By Frank J. Oteri (March 2012)