Seadrift (after Walt Whitman)
Bente Vist (soprano); Thomas Sondergí¥rd, Casper Schreiber, conductors
This was my first acquaintance with Danish composer Per Nǿrgård (b. Copenhagen, 1932), and I had no preconceptions. All three works are song settings to poetic texts, so I have no idea if his preoccupation with the organic applies equally to his more formal works, his sonatas, quartets and symphonies, though I should not be surprised if it did. In Nǿrgård’s music, seeds of rhythmic and melodic motifs are continually being developed and transformed. “Fractal” is a term sometimes applied to the way in which Nǿrgård develops fast melodies from related slower ones. Add an interest in major harmonics and minor subharmonics, plus a fascination with musical proportions based on the Golden Section or on Fibonacci numbers (1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34, etc.) and we have an impression of the composer’s technique in the mid-1970s, when he composed the three works on this program. “I stand with one foot in western rationalism,” Nǿrgård has said, “and the other in eastern mysticism, yet I feel both are alien to me. I am, so to speak, a kind of third point in the picture.”
Nova Genitura (of new birth) and Fons Laetitiae (Fountain of Joy) are both settings of Marian hymns, and as such the emphasis is on rhapsodic expressions of joyful feelings. Seadrift is a setting of two Walt Whitman poems based on the poet’s observations of a pair of seagulls on a rocky desolate beach. The first, “Being Together,” describes the joy of their “marital” bliss, the second, “Torn Apart,” the pain the male bird suffers when he is abandoned by his mate. With the Exception of Fons Laetitiae, where the solo voice is accompanied only by the harp, the other song settings are supported by a “Pierrot” ensemble consisting of violin, cello, harp, Baroque guitar, lute, recorders, crumhorn, harpsichord, percussion, and crotales (miniature finger-tip cymbals). They are used sparingly for best effect, so that the emphasis is always on the soprano voice.
Nǿrgård calls for the singer to cultivate a highly expressive, mystical quality. Because of the fractal manner in which he develops his vocal material, it is not entirely correct to refer to “melody” in any conventional sense of the word. Tones, taken ever higher and distended in the process, take the place of the normal tone progressions we usually think of as constituting a melody. Even prior familiarity with Whitman’s poetry, and with the poems readily available in the booklet, I experienced difficulty following Nǿrgård’s unique equation of sound-and-sense, and continually found myself at a loss as to just where I was in a given text.
It may take some familiarity for the listener to feel comfortable (which I confess, I do not) with this sort of music. It also requires just the right sort of vocalist. Bente Vist is ideally suited to Nǿrgård’s needs. Her extraordinary voice seems to dwell forever on the very uppermost limit of the normal soprano’s tessitura. It has a luminous quality, incredible lightness, particularly in the head tones, and a seamless ability to follow the composer’s organic tonal transformations. I only hope the dear lady does not burn out her vocal cords singing much more of this sort of thing. (Oh, by the way, Nǿrgård’s use of the crumhorn at the moment in “Torn Apart” when Whitman’s avian hero realizes his desolate state, helped crystallize for me something I had previously never found the words to describe, namely the unique tone quality of that Medieval instrument. It sounds like a strangled seagull.)