Interview: Hans Abrahamsen

First published in The Herald on 14 January, 2014

It’s mid-morning when I telephone the composer Hans Abrahamsen at his home just outside of Copenhagen. These days he composes early and often, and on this particular morning he’s been working on a new left-hand piano concerto for the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud. “When you called I was writing a very slow second movement,” he says, measured and thoughtful. Like his music, Abrahamsen’s conversation is concise and poetic; he wastes no words and doesn’t overstate.

At the age of 62, Abrahamsen’s biggest project at the moment is his first opera, due to premiere at the Royal Danish Opera in the autumn of 2018. That it’s a setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak fairytale Snedronningen (The Snow Queen) will come as no surprise to those who know his music: so much of it – from maverick early pieces like Winternacht (Winter Night, 1978) to major recent scores like the evanescent Schnee (Snow, 2007) – is about, inspired by, preoccupied by or somehow reminiscent of winter. As Abrahamsen talks to me about his life and music, he constantly returns to imagery of frozen landscapes, stillness, silence and especially snow. When I ask whether he had a good Christmas, he replies, “well, we had a very short winter. The snow came on Christmas day and three days later it was gone.”

Explaining his fascination for all things winter, Abrahamsen says it’s to do with “the light and the whiteness, like a blank piece of paper. Snow can transform a familiar landscape in a couple of minutes and it dampens all the usual noises. It allows us to imagine something different. Seasons are very basic in our lives and winter is a time of slow transition. I like that.” He acknowledges that countless artists have been inspired by the other seasons: the new life of spring, the sultry heat of summer. “But I keep coming back to winter.”

This Saturday the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra devotes an entire evening to Abrahamsen’s music – it’s the latest of the orchestra’s live recordings for BBC Radio 3’s contemporary music show Hear and Now. The concert opens with the Danish String Quartet playing one of Abrahamsen’s landmark early works: the First String Quartet, written in 1974 and a testament to his leading role in the Danish New Simplicity movement. Hefty tomes have been penned about this and similar stylistic movements in Germany and elsewhere; boiled down, Danish New Simplicity was a reaction against the über-complex modernism of the 1950s and 1960s. In that sense, it was akin to the American minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass, though Abrahamsen and compatriots including Henning Christiansen, Ib Norholm and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen prioritised space, clarity and objectivity in their music – “we did it to find more expression,” says Abrahamsen, “which is of course a kind of contradiction.” He laughs as he says this, perhaps at the memory of his earnest younger self. “We tried to make our music as cool as possible, but we also wanted to come as close as possible to it. Maybe a little like going out into the snow.”

The First Quartet could stand as a blueprint for New Simplicity. It’s a group of ten preludes that open in atonalism and end in neo-baroque tonality. The pivot point is the fifth prelude, in which the cello plays a single repeated note – “like a clock standing still,” says Abrahamsen, and over the phone he picks out the note on the piano. This repeated figure returns again and again in his work: maybe it is the fresh snow, the clean piece of paper, the new beginning. As the Quartet’s fifth prelude progresses, chromatic lines gradually build into a chord – Abrahamsen calls it ‘an object’ – which sounds totally new after the ground zero we’ve just experienced. From here, Abrahamsen works backwards into tonality.

The concert closes with a reworking of the same piece, this time for full orchestra. Arranging and rearranging, orchestrating and re-orchestrating – the revisiting of old material is another recurring theme across Abrahamsen’s career (Saturday’s programme also includes his recent orchestration of Debussy’s Children’s Corner). To understand why, it’s worth mentioning that in 1988 he stopped composing new work altogether. “I was no longer able to find what I wanted,” he explains. “It was hard and very sad; I felt like a singer who had lost his voice. I grew increasingly afraid of the blank piece of paper.” For a time he kept trying to compose, then he quit altogether – “a very, very heavy decision”. But throughout the subsequent decade he never stopped reworking, and eventually that process produced a new piano concerto made up of recycled material. From there, “I started discovering new things again,” he says.

Now Abrahamsen describes that long break as a fermata, a musical pause, and speaks of it respectfully as an enriching experience. “Tempo can be fast or slow and perhaps life has the same thing,” he says. “We can be living seemingly quickly, but under the surface something moves more gradually. Sometimes we have to acknowledge this and wait it out, like living through the winter.”

After that fermata, something about his music inevitably shifted. The voice was the same, but the language had moved on. In earlier works like Winternacht or the First String Quartet, Abrahamsen’s polystylism is audible and can be jarring; now in a piece like 2011’s Double Concerto for Piano and Violin (the final work on the BBCSSO programme), there is a new sense of synthesis. Abrahamsen talks about his own changing language as if he’s discussing the work of another composer. Cool, but close.

I ask him whether the term ‘New Simplicity’ is any longer relevant. “No, I don’t think we can talk about New Simplicity any more,” he replies. “It was to do with reaction in the 1960s. Terry Riley in the States, Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra in England – these were movements of their time. Ligeti and even Stockhausen pared down their complexity in the end. The need for that kind of reaction has passed.”

It would be foolish, too, to mistake the succinctness and natural, almost naive imagery in Abrahamsen’s music for any lack of technical sophistication. Take the Double Concerto: on the surface it sounds simple, organic and clean, but its construction is glitteringly intricate. Tonality mingles with atonality; conventional tuning slips into just intonation; two tempos coexist and tropes from as far back as Bach filter into the mix. This isn’t simplicity at all, but it is all part of that calm synthesis I mentioned earlier. Terms like ‘magical’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘elusive’ are often used describe Abrahamsen’s music, and for good reason. Like a fairytale or a winter landscape, he takes what is familiar and transforms it, allowing us to experience it, and perhaps ourselves, afresh.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra plays the music of Hans Abrahamsen with the Danish String Quartet, Baiba and Lauma Skride (violin/piano) and conductor Andre de Ridder. January 17, City Halls, Glasgow