Jørgen Plaetner (1930-2002)

Jørgen Plaetner was one of the pioneers of electronic music in Denmark and in the period of 1960 to 1974 he created most of his 57 electronic works. However, his composing activities also included a large number of works for orchestra and smaller ensembles, piano sonatas, a prolific output of songs and works for children and youth orchestras. Plaetner's electronic works have recently aroused a dawning interest among Danish "electronica" composers, music writers and other observers.

Plaetner was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 1949. There he trained in composition and music theory and in organ and carillon with the organist Rung-Keller. His role models during his time at the Academy were the composers Vagn Holmboe and Niels Viggo Bentzon, who according to Plaetner represented "the rigorous and the simple" and "intense, outward-surging power" respectively. Plaetner's interest in the electronic idiom that the German Elektronische Musik scene cultivated had already been aroused by this time. This was due not least to his presence at the post-war bastion of contemporary music, the so-called Darmstadt courses, which Plaetner attended three times - the first time as early as 1950. There he studied theory and acoustics with the composer Hermann Heiss and sat in afternoon discussions with composers of the same age, like Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as Herbert Eimert, Werner Meyer-Eppler and other German pioneers of electronic music.

It took a while before Plaetner himself began to work actively as an electronic composer. Not until 1960 had he saved up enough to buy the necessary electronic equipment which, even viewed with contemporary eyes, constituted an absolute minimum - a microphone, a couple of reel-to-reel tape recorders of the Danish make Movic as well as a sinus wave generator. With this equipment, in the years that followed, Plaetner realized his first experiments and proper works, including Alpha and Beta, which are both represented on this release. Plaetner's works, like those of the German pioneers, were based on synthetically generated sound (sinus waves) extensively manipulated with tape recorders, where the tapes with the electronically generated sounds were subjected to speed changes, backward playing and meticulous editing into small fragments, followed by combinations in new configurations and orders.

An electronic music composer in the Denmark of the 1960s was not exactly someone who commanded respect. Like Else Marie Pade, Plaetner struggled against the prejudices of his contemporaries. One reason for this may have been a provincial know-it-all attitude among the musical performers, critics and audiences. But it is also conceivable that electronic music was very unfamiliar, indeed almost frightening to listen to in the early 1960s, and that - like electronic music manifestations abroad, even in the centres Cologne, Paris and New York - it therefore usually only managed to get through to a relatively narrow, "insider" audience. The national broadcasting corporation Danmarks Radio and the most open-minded music critics did try to make room for electronic music, which had now begun to spread among the younger composers all over the world - including the Nordic countries. But this did not alter the fact that Plaetner and Pade were often regarded as fantasists or musical assassins who tried to use noise to cover up their incompetence in the more traditional composition disciplines. Plaetner himself has commented on his fascination with electronic musical creation as follows:

To put it a little simplistically, I felt that there had to be further possibilities of musical expression than those for which our tonal system lays down the framework. So other sound material had to be investigated: components, symbolic values, combinatory possibilities and so on. The primary thing for me was to explore materials and their musical qualities, not to outmanoeuvre other music.

However "wrong" people may have thought Plaetner and Pade to be in the past, in electronic circles in recent times they have more and more been perceived as absolutely "right". Just as DJs, sampling-oriented producers and laptop composers - who have been appearing all over the world in a steady flow since the early 1990s - have had an increasing need to look beyond their popular-music traditions to the roots of electronic music, Danish musicians too have had a special need to look back and see whether there were any local pioneers they could learn from and be inspired by. This has turned out to be the case. As for the judgement of Plaetner and Pade by their contemporaries, it must in all fairness be said that throughout the ages new music has, as we know, only won recognition and a wider audience long after it was created. This is particularly true of post-war music, where the many new revolutionary sounds were often only understood and appreciated at a temporal distance of some decades. The increasing attention given to early electronic music among musicians and audiences on the new, more "alternative" scenes is a clear expression of this.

As an electronic composer, the loner Plaetner was paradoxically from the outset one of the warmest advocates of the new collective way of working that typified the electronic music milieux in western Europe, the USA, South America and Japan in the 1950s. In the 1950s the high cost of procuring the necessary sound and editing equipment tied the electronic composers to places where this equipment was already to be found, for example the national broadcasting companies or the universities. These conditions made the composing process difficult, because the radio studios could only be used outside broadcasting time at carefully apportioned times that often had to be shared with other composers. The same conditions applied at Danmarks Radio. So in an article in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift from 1960 Plaetner proposed the establishment of a "cooperative electronic studio" where composers would be able to pool their studio technologies in one large studio, help one another to operate the technologies and - not least - inspire one another in a shared forum that could be used 24 hours a day. But this cooperative studio came to nothing as a result of the lack of interest and willingness among Danish composers, and Plaetner had to continue more or less on his own, and in some periods with his own scanty economic resources. His electronic works were almost exclusively produced either in his private studio in Kalundborg (probably Denmark's first home studio) or in the now closed-down Holstebro Electronic Music Studio (HEMS), which he managed in the period 1967-1977 and of which he was well nigh the only user (with the exception of a few visits from Fuzzy, Bent Lorentzen and Per Nørgård).

For much of his career Plaetner also functioned as a music teacher at various upper secondary schools, music and art colleges and private summer courses. From 1957 until 1967 he was employed as a teacher at the National Institute for the Blind in Kalundborg. At first the teaching was based on the Orff method, and Plaetner later developed it to include rehearsal principles for both new music and electronic work with tape loops. From 1967 Plaetner - besides his work at HEMS - was "city composer" and head of the music school in Holstebro, and from 1979 until his death in the summer of 2002 he lived in Kårahult in Sweden, where he was a member of the composers' group Media Artes in Växjö.

By Henriette Moos and Henrik Marstal 2003
© by dacapo records. Reproduced with permission.