When first approaching the music of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, one hears it described in terms of what it is not: anti-expressive, anti-virtuoso, anti-romantic, the work of an “established outsider”, gleefully thumbing his nose at the conventions of the concert hall and frequently challenging what others would consider “good taste”. Yet, underlying Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s provocative oeuvre is a passionate life-affirming spirit, an irresistible figure with a child-like sense of wonder, leavened with a dark sense of humor that embraces all of modern life’s absurdities and contradictions, combined with the ability to craft extraordinary and thought-provoking works of sound-art.
Now in his 83rd year, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s artistic vision is as vigorous as ever, and as the famous 2008 video clip revealed, he is content to continue dancing to the polyrhythmic beats of his own drums. (See PGH dancing to “Triptychon” (1985) www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCBUUx13CM)
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was born in 1932, the son of the sculptor Jørgen Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. Following a traditional musical education at The Royal Danish Academy of Music, where he studied theory, musical history and composition with Høffding, Westergaard and Hjelmborg, he made his début as a composer in 1955 at the Music Festival of the Scandinavian Conservatories with Variationer for cello solo (1954).
His earliest works were influenced by Nielsen, Holmboe and Bartók. In 1960, Holmgreen attended the ISCM Festival together with the Danish composers Per Nørgård and Ib Nørholm. This experience would lead to Gudmundsen-Holmgreen to make the final break with the Nordic symphonic tradition of Sibelius and Nielsen and to his experiments with Darmstadt serialism. Important works from this period include Chronos (1962) for 22 musicians and theSymphony (1962-1965).
By the mid-1960s, serialism had run its course for Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and he began to seek new inspirations. His breakthrough would come in his now classic, proto-minimalist work, Frere Jacques (Mester Jakob) (1964), inspired by the collages of Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Dadaist paintings of Jasper Johns. Also decisive for Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was his encounter with the works of the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett: “I was immediately captivated by Beckett when I saw his Endgame at the end of the 1950s ... Beckett is preoccupied with meaninglessness, which has the strange power of releasing new ways of experiencing the world.”
From that time on, Holmgreen’s music has single-mindedly set out to rid music of affects and affectations, seeking instead radical and sometimes even silly solutions, stripping off the superficial niceties to explore the possibilities of what he has termed “concrete music”.