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15 Questions to Morten_H

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I am well and living in Copenhagen, the city of small, old houses and bicycles – all of which is a blessing. Small is still beautiful – except for small-mindedness, which is a curse.  

What’s on your schedule right now?

My schedule is filled with digital appointments, architecture in 3D,  presentations in Flash media, websites, digital education projects and animations. This is how I make my living. Music is what I do when the time is right. Then I cancel my appointments and rearrange my schedule – a privilege of a one-man-company.

On my floating, wishful schedule right now, is more songs for choir, strings, percussion and electronica, a chamber opera, gathering material for a CD – all to come in good time.

Would you say the music scene is in a state of crisis?
Some part of the music scene is always in crisis and it is not necessarily a curse. It is more than a cliché that the crisis is where transitions are going on and where conditions can be improved. And since I do not live from producing series of CD's but composing for live concerts, live performers and live audiences, I can't feel pity for the major record companies and their crisis. New ways of distributing have already emerged and musicians are taking the scene instead of being enslaved by institutions.

Depending of the eye that sees, you may find crisis or growing seeds. I prefer the latter.

How hard (or easy) has it been for you finding performance opportunities and audiences for your music?
As a composer for scores I have felt the privilege never to have written a piece for the drawer. All my music has been performed and heard by people. And I am not an artist who can't help doing what he does, or who gets sick and restless if I don't do music. In fact, I may not be an artist at all – in the romantic sense in which the word is normally understood. This is probably because I create all the time in one way or another – if not music then something else.

My musical base has for almost 10 years been a society of composers called Komvest, Vesterbro Composers Group (Vesterbro is the Westend of Cph.). Our main goal was to claim the scene for vocal music and choir. We assemble our own ensemble of performers and arrange our own concerts. Neither the performance opportunities nor the audience is a major problem. If there is a problem, it is making the world of funding aware that there is a unique level of professionalism among so-called amateur choirs in the State of Denmark. The crop is very sound but there is something rotten elsewhere ...

What do you usually start with when composing?

I start by listening to the composition. It is not there yet of course, and yet it is. It is a sound that can be heard with the inner ear. Maybe ‘heard’ is not the right word, maybe ‘felt’ is a better word, sometimes maybe even ‘seen’. A musical piece is an energetic phenomenon before any tone is present. My main interest is in vocal composition, choir music and combinations of instruments and voices. Good lyrics are for me therefore essential and moreover a gift. The musical offspring is the sound present in the text - like the sculpture already present inside the raw stone. It is my freedom that I can listen to the lyrics and do not have to invent everything from scratch. It is de-horrifying.

When the energy reaches a certain point it bursts out. It is important – for me - not to disturb it for some time but instead to walk around with it. Before chaos starts to organize into form, I need to listen. Anything can happen. I also need NOT to listen to music already written – neither by me, or others.

I am satisfied when I afterwards think: This is obvious, it couldn't have been different. Therefore it must have been there all the time. Knowing of course that this is an illusion :-)

And then hard work, technique, patience, more listening, technique. And a computer! A was taught to use pencil and piano. But although I can play most scores on the piano I use it less and less for composing. I have seen too many bad results from vocal compositions with too many built-in limitations dictated by what 10 fingers on 2 hands prefer.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Paul Berliner gave an anthropological defininition of music that is very beautiful: “Music is humanly organized sound, and soundly organized humanity”. Since I compose with a computer not for a computer, there will always be a living, sounding voice behind. The music will not happen without this voice. The “happening” is the moment when the sender, the performer and the receiver are “online”.  

Music can therefore not be the score, the media, the idea, the gear. Music is the moment of resonance and all composing and rehearsing and interpretation is a preparation for this moment. The singing-listening-playing-again circular unit must be present at all stages. First in the laboratory of the composer: I play/sing and listen. I am my own audience. Then the performer does the same-same but differently, it is a re-creation. From here the audience takes over the third step of re-creation. The audience must be, and is, as musical and sensitive as the composer and the performer. Respect the audience. Then the sound is very close to what the composer heard before any tone was written. This is sound for me.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I don't distinguish. I can only see the difference on the surface. The process of maneuvering in chaos is essentially improvisational. It is the wu-wei of musical creation – a Chinese concept for going with the energy before you can bend it. Wait before you bend – or be bent against your will and intention.

The ambivalence of improvisation is, that you have to be extremely well prepared to be able to let go. So you spend years preparing.

But the media I work in and the expression is not a directly improvisational one. Complex structures performed by larger ensembles call for controlled components. This is the security line for the performers. It is highly structured. The main problem – and this is the same for a jazz pianist performing and for me composing – is not to get the ideas, they come all the time. It is using the few good ones to the last drop. Anyone can pour new ideas after new ideas into play. But studying all phenomena of nature, you will find a very rigid structure, leaf by leaf, branch by branch, cell by cell. The structures can be fractal, metamorphic, hierarchic, layered, serial, imitational, circular, geometrical ... and in-time. As for dancers, stand-up comedians and film actors timing is essential.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?

Both – of course. But it is more complex than that. There may be dissonance on a tonal and harmonic level and harmony and balance on a meta-level. I definitely go for harmony in the overall form and the larger proportions. Balance is also a must for me in the handling of the ensemble. In that sense I am a medieval composer – a very late one.

But a piece of music that only wants to please with harmonious prettiness is inauthentic – it may quickly turn into a lie. I live in this world, it is in many ways a filthy place, the human beings are more or less trash cans with two legs – me inclusive. We are impure – except for those very few who have realized their full spiritual potential. They do exist on this planet, but I have only met very few in my life.  

Dissonance and complexity often go together. I have a homemade dogma in the back of my head: complexity should be a result of the interaction of musical voices and not a battlefield for each single voice. When complexity is put into all parameters of music for the performer it becomes a show-off and a hell rejecting both the performer and the audience. This seemed to be the main problem of hardcore modernism. It lost its audience, so here you can actually speak of a crisis for the musical scene.  

On the other hand: a huge audience cannot be the goal in itself. That is why the 20th, and probably also the 21st century’s “opera light”, the musical, makes me want to puke. It is a genre that with its big, wet dog’s eyes is begging: pleeeease love me!

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: “The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy.” What are your thoughts on this?

If I have understood this statement correctly, Danilevski is implying that all tonalities have been tried out and there is nothing new under the sun. If this is correct I agree. Everything has been tried and Stockhausen's “Sound never heard before” is an illusion today. It shows how ‘late-romantic’ the modernism genre was on this issue: the constant striving for originality and continuing the cult of genius from the 18 hundreds.  

In the writing moment, I am listening to Danilevski's 3 Inventions for Melodic Instruments. It brings out a calm, meditative beauty. The tonality is somehow Bach-like with a medieval Russian twist. And yet the sound is totally fresh and “in-time”. It shows that authenticity has nothing to do with the hi-score on the avantgarde-o-meter.

As for developing new forms and dramaturgy you can also agree. In what ways remains to be heard. I am sure we will soon experience an interactive symphony where the limits between composer, performer and audience will loosen up. But may I remind you, that this in fact has been the practice for thousand of years in African music. Nothing new essentially, but forms and settings: eternally!

In fact: this makes expressions like “modern”, “contemporary” and “developments in music history” irrelevant.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?

If you dare not work together with performers you end up as a coward or being arrogant. If you, on the other hand, dare not let go of your baby, the “master piece”, you will end up as a paranoid control freak.

One of the main problems with complex music for scores is, that the composer does not involve himself with the performance – Himself! Yes, there are far too few women in this part of music creation as well as the conducting business. When the head, the heart and the moving limbs are separated, monsters can be created. They end up being disproportional in the sense of too much work for too little satisfaction among audience and performers.  

Some of the best composers of all centuries were performers of their own music. For me, working mainly in a vocal context, it is very important to know this old-school, un-plugged, retro media with my own ears, hands, voice, body-and-soul. When I do a musical piece for this media, I must have been there before them (the performers). I must be ready to “pay the bill at the cashier” before checking out. I must take the responsibility for performance-ability. I must know that the human voice is not a piece of mechanical machinery but a living organism among other living organisms creating a meta-living-organism.

Josquin Desprez knew that (as did any skilled composer in his days). That is why this “old” music – to give an example of the phenomenon – is immortal. The composers were brought up as singers, they composed for the media they knew so well and were responsible for the performance. Therefore, you might say, that they composed for the ‘ever-present’ ensemble. When this ensemble finds their score 550 years later, it will be fresh and “contemporary” again.

The composer should participate. He/she should know the media from within. Respect the idiom!

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
For me, the strongest power of music is that it is a spiritual thing. One of the most gifted improvisers and style-crossing talents of our time, Bobby McFerrin, has said it very clearly: A musician has great responsibility. Music has direct access to the human soul, so don't you mess around with it!

Music is never just a personal sensation. It is not merely subjective, nor is it objective. It is inter-subjective and subject-transcendent. I don't even own the right to interpret my own music. I make it accessible and will often be surprised when it returns.  

Music is an exchange of consciousness. It is part of a network that can transcend boundaries of language and cultural differences. There are many examples of music being able to express both feelings and even thoughts, which are fully understood by the audience, but not by those of powers-that-be. So if you see politics as collective consciousness, I would definitely say that music can have political implications. But for me this is not the main concern. And music that explicitly claims to be political is something I often find quite dull. But a social aspect: yes please! Any good performance is a social event. And the better and more ‘fulfilled’ it is between composer and performer and between the performers, the better it will be for an audience.

Would you say that a lack of education stands in the way of audiences in their appreciation of contemporary composition?
The language of music is intuitive and direct, and everyone can hear and decode it. Most people can respond to it and quite a few can speak it. So my first answer is no.

The main obstacles are twofold. The first is the esotericism of some of the music that is created. It can only be appreciated by an audience that is willing to return to the piece and hear it again. It is not self-guiding or self-instructive, it closes the walls around itself. I must admit that as a trained and highly educated listener I do find some of this music very rewarding when I give myself the time and energy to dig deep into it. It often needs the presence of the score. But I know that the difficulties can be to overwhelming for others.

I find an even bigger obstacle to be the level of noise in this world. The noise is everywhere, it never stops, it doesn't respect walls and personal limits. It is produced by machines, vehicles, electricity, screens and loudspeakers. Then it is reproduced by the human voice in kindergartens, schools and institutions, games and media. The child grows up screaming and shouting to be heard, and the teacher shouts back. The noise creeps through windows and apartement walls. On one hand we bathe in noise, on the other we stick our finger in our ears.

With this constant stress of noise a lot of people lose their ability to listen. There is a constant level of noise in their brains like a tinnitus you can't escape. The silence is one of the most important ingredients in music. Without this music has to over-emphasize itself, insist too much to be heard or avoid what may be feared to be boredom. You see the same thing with film and other visual media.  

You might call this “anti-education”. What would education be then?  

My second asnwer is yes. There is no doubt that a society like the Hungarian society - which had an extremely important cultural figure, Zoltan Kodally, the famous composer and teacher who was so highly respected that the state reconstructed the school system around music - did a very wise thing. It has had a major impact, not only on the level of music but also on the holistic development of children. Well-documented tests have shown significant progress also in subjects like mathematics among children who were systematically trained in music. This is “soundly organized humanity” nursed by “humanly organized sound”. Thus the concept of musicality becomes synonymous with creativity.

In opposition to this is the Danish school system, where children only have music as a subject until the 5th year of primary school. After this they may get  only one more year – maybe – in high school. With so little ballast young people are easy victims of a scrupulous, ‘infantalizing’ entertainment industry where the music is secondary as MUSIC but primarily a matter of lifestyle, attitudes, badging and sending tribal signals. Furniture muzak for teenagers. Entertainment becomes a strong dope instead of a field of emotional deepening and expression - or the expressions that are possible are the most noisy and one-dimensional ones.  

I don't have the golden solution for how to remove the weight of mental noise pollution for future generations, but I am sure that the need to go against this kind of pollution as well as the environmental and physical kind will become more and more acute.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without sacrificing their soul?
Step down from the high stool, drop the reservation and the fear and meet serious musical expressions from all medias. In my city there was a festival in the shape of a concert series where they came in pairs. Let me explain. A jazz singer-composer was joined up with a string quartet, a hip-hop artist met a small big-band, an art-pop songwriter collaborated with a wind ensemble.

Another initiative from my hometown. Classical concerts in pop-rock environments. Black suits were forbidden, all musicians had to stand up (I don't actually remember what the cello player did...) people were allowed to drink beer.

A third initiative: stand-up opera. Only the imagination sets the limits. What I mean is that I am quite sure, that a major obstacle for a broader audience is the dust of the institutions, the ritualistic stiffness of the performers and the performance situations / locations. And if the breakthrough can be a success in the easy-listening area of composed music, it can also be done with the not-so-easy.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kinds of people and institutions.
True and false are Boolean statements. There are two more: either…or, both…and. Personally, I prefer the last one. It is highly relative, because governments can be a blessing and a curse. Listening this moment to Keith Jarrett’s brilliant recordings of Preludes and Fugues of Dmitri Shostakowitch reminds me that the subsidies to composers in the Stalinist, paranoid society in his days was all about controlling and subduing all creative energies. The same with the Nazis. They knew the strong force of art as a direct access to the right brain half as opposed to logical persuasion and reasoning. It operates in the same field of consciousness as symbols. They knew that a heroic-emotional piece of music in the right dramaturgic setting was as powerful as the hammer-and-seal and the swastika for the communist total-theatre of modernism and the nazi neo-gothic project. It is all about control of souls.

This, of course, is quite far from the normal situation today. But it is not an either-or, it is a-degree-of. In Denmark, where I live, there are extensive subsidies for artists, as opposed to societies where funding is more common. Or rather: we have both working together. There is a tradition for a principle called “the arm’s length principle”, meaning that the government supports the culture without setting conditions or asking whether the results will bring direct benefits to society.

It used to be entirely like this, but there is a tendency for neo-liberalist governments to want to be in control and measure everything in usability and pay-ability. You find the same trend with the attitude to scientific research. Scientific creativity is typically at its best and comes up with ground-breaking discoveries when it has free hands. What the Danish neo-liberalist government supports more and more instead is goal-oriented research in technological development that will pay-off in the nearest possible future.  

In art and culture you see the same trend going regarding support for the parts of the culture industry that seem to guarantee an income in the second round. Therefore the government started what they called “the war of culture” trying to implant neo-liberalist values in cultural life, education and media and thereby in all corners of society. You may call it a ‘Berlusconification’ (buying all the medias so no one could contradict him). In DK it is not so easy to do that because of the profound democratic tradition where politics neither can be directly threatened with Mafioso methods nor bought for money. Instead you can manipulate medias and teach yourself a neo-language where direct criticism can be avoided. An example: Mr. Fogh Rasmussen lied about the Iraq war and weapons of mass destruction as did Mr. Blair and – first of all – Mr. Bush. But all criticism seems to slide off like water on a goose.

What I am trying to say is: Brainwashing the people has always been the means of those in power who wanted to hold on to it. And what was once a fascist / totalitarian tool can be found in much more sophisticated ways today, also in non-totalitarian societies. So there is a tendency to subsidize with strings attached. Luckily politicians of today’s totalitarian societies do not understand the subtle subversive force of music and focus instead on censorships of writers and medias.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?

I would find a good theme for a cross-over event involving vocal and instrumental music, dance, lyrics and theatre – or some of it. I would not feel restricted to invite people that play from notes and scores. I would try to find ways of enhancing collaboration.

If you listen to the musical score of movies, you will often find sounds that the film audience would never listen to in themselves – too strange. But when the music is experienced in a visual environment it is fully comprehensible for the “uneducated” ear.

Multimedia today is very advanced. I would use the possibilities. One of the best new opera performances I have experienced, was done as a collaboration between a multimedia artist Jakob F. Schokking and the grand old man of Danish composition music, Per Noergaard called “Nuits des Hommes”. On the stage: two singers, two cameras and a hanging sculpture. Behind the stage: a screen showing the same actors/singers and the French lyrics by Guilliaume Appolinaire in 3D setups.

And of course: the music has to be good. No gimmick can fix-it-in-the-mix. But this was not a problem for Noergaard.

This could be what Alexander Danilevski was aiming at. The future is already present.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?

- a very slow dance

- a kaleidoscope

- the longing for …

      - an owls wing


Morton_H at MySpace

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