How Long Does It Take to Write a 14-Minute Orchestral Masterwork?

Classic Arts Features   How Long Does It Take to Write a 14-Minute Orchestral Masterwork?
 
New York Philharmonic audiences discover the voice of Bent Sørensen, whose provocative sound premieres this month.
Bent Sørensen
Bent Sørensen Lars Skaaning

Bent Sørensen took the whole of 2016 and the first week of 2017 to write Evening Land, his first piece for the New York Philharmonic, although he anticipates that the upcoming World Premiere will last less than 14 minutes when it premieres November 30. “I write by hand,” the composer explains, “so it takes a long time.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear the precise and careful calligraphy of Sørensen’s handwriting in his music.

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He emerged in the 1980s as the outstanding pupil of Denmark’s compositional figurehead, Per Nørgård (who received the New York Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music). Since then, Sørensen’s voice has remained consistent, his journey as an artist proving more a process of distillation than development.

He has written works for chorus, chamber ensembles, and solo instruments, as well as operatic and orchestral scores. He has also written pieces that fit none of those categories. His scores may ask musicians to walk off the stage, sit in the audience, sing, or play secondary instruments. They may call for gargantuan orchestras that make such little noise that they aren’t likely to wake a sleeping baby.

“I dream in melodies,” Sørensen said. His music can feel like the product of a dream—at once vague and precise, present and intangible. In almost all his works, he allows himself to be seduced by traditionally shaped tunes. Melodies might be fragmented, obscured by harmonic smoke, suffocated by silence, or ultimately too fragile to exist in the “real” world, but even when a Sørensen tune appears to have dissolved, it may somehow still be present.

For a time, the crumbling fragility of those melodies led some to compare Sørensen’s music with processes of decay and decline, a musical counterpart to evocative photographs of abandoned ballrooms and crumbling palaces. Many of his works contain drifting allusions to past traditions: ghosts of fugues or folk songs, fragments from old masterworks. But, in truth, Sørensen is a modernist who speaks of the here, the now, even of the future. His music is a close and sorrowful reminder that we ourselves are all destined to form the past.

Evening Land underlines that sentiment. Toward the end of the piece, the melody surfaces on an oboe, in something of an homage to Sørensen’s father-in-law, Frederik Gislinge, a well-known oboist in Denmark. “He became very ill recently but he really wanted to hear this piece and was talking about coming to New York,” recalls Sørensen. “The oboe solo was a tribute to him—a way of saying, ‘You have to stay alive at least one more year, because this is for you.’ Sadly, he died in May.”

Such personal impulses are as important to Sørensen as rigorous craft. “I can’t really separate my private life from my music,” he says. The dual magnetic poles of his language—warm, Romantic tonality in one corner; strong, Schoenbergian atonality in the other—are born as much from feelings of pleasure and pain as they are from the ideological quandaries of 21st-century music.

“I have a picture in my mind when I start writing,” Sørensen explains. “I’ve heard the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, so that was the picture in my mind in this case, starting with an incredibly soft violin solo.” He speaks of “this sound that comes all the way from Bernstein” as uniting his concept of the score with the Orchestra’s past. To unite it with its present, he has used the same orchestration as the Brahms symphony with which it shares the program.

“It’s a city piece,” the composer continues. But don’t expect Evening Land to jive to the rhythm of the city that never sleeps: His music is becoming increasingly aware that silence is an opportunity for a composer, rather than a threat. Sørensen’s quiet cityscape may offer a glimpse of the nighttime as one of the wonders of urban life. But it will do far more besides.

Andrew Mellor writes journalism and criticism for publications in the U.K. and across the Nordic and Baltic regions. With a particular interest in contemporary music from northern lands, he is Scandinavian correspondent for Opera, Opera News, and Opera Now.

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