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Fanfare (US)"Interview with Frederik Munk Larsen"

January 15, 2019

Martin Andersson


Although this is the third Fanfare interview I have conducted to talk about the music of the Danish composer Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924–2012), all triggered by recordings of his music on OUR Recordings, he probably remains an enigmatic figure, even to Fanfare readers. A brief characterization of his music may therefore be useful. Perhaps the composer closest to him among familiar names is Webern and, like Webern, what initially appears to be modernism is in fact an intense lyricism—brittle, even fractured at times, but still essentially lyrical.
In 40:2 I talked to Erik Kaltoft about the piano music (released on 6.220616), and in 40:4 Jens Chistensen spoke to me about the organ music (on 6.220617). Now the spotlight falls on Frederik Munk Larsen, whose album of guitar music by Borup-Jørgensen has come out on 8.220672. Four larger works—Tristrophoni, Op. 163 (2000), praeambula, Op. 72 (1974–76), the five morceaux that constitute Op. 73 (1974–75) and für gitarre, Op. 86 (1978–79)—are framed by five of the ten aphoristic floating islands which make Op. 169 (2000–2). I gave Munk Larsen a Skype call at his home in Århus to talk about this sphinx-like music.

Erik Kaltoft told me that he had known Borup-Jørgensen for some forty years; you are from a younger generation, although you reveal in the booklet that you, too, knew him personally.
Yes, Erik knew him more intimately than I did; he knew him for a bigger span of years. I knew him roughly for ten years, and during that time I collaborated with him maybe five or six times, on different works, both chamber music and solo works. So I didn’t work with him on all the solo works that I have recorded here.
It’s my suspicion that all the major composers were somewhere on the autistic scale: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Alkan, Janáček, Prokofiev—take almost anyone you want, and there’s a degree of social dysfunctionality. And Borup-Jørgensen seems to fit that profile pretty convincingly, too.
Well, he could appear shy, but he also had a strong will. And when you played a concert in the Copenhagen area, he was always there, you would always see him, always dressed the same white clothing. And in his music, too, he seems to be somewhat stubborn. He doesn’t stop using his material; instead, all the time he finds new ways of dealing with it. He’s adventurous in the way that he uses those building blocks, but he tried to put them together in different ways; and so in that sense I feel that his music is personal. He cared about the music, he cared a lot about the language he had found, and then he stayed with it for at least a number of years. You will see in some of the music for the guitar—like praeambula, which is one of the first works, or in morceaux, and in another work which I didn’t record, Praeludien, which is a kind of condensed version of praeambula—he doesn’t use the material up in one piece; he re-uses it and refines it in various ways.
One of the particular characteristics of Borup-Jørgensen is that, whereas almost all the traditional composers—Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Sibelius, Nielsen, say—take their basic building blocks and expand from them, Borup-Jørgensen seems to burrow into his material, as if he were putting it under the microscope.
Yes, he was interested in more sparse music, you could say that. Some of the pieces I was almost afraid to record were these floating islands, because the material is only natural harmonics, and at first when you start to work on them, it’s difficult to find a structure. But for me these were the pieces that grew the most on me—and a few of them I really find hauntingly beautiful.
One can imagine this music being conceived on a calm summer night—it has an essential stillness about it, but that makes it so much more exposed than something which is more energetic.
Yes, the intimacy in the music is something closer to how I see him as a person, even though I knew him only when he was quite aged. But that was when he also wrote this music. He was really devoted to the guitar—well, to a number of instruments, but including the guitar. As a singular composer, he was not so easy to influence. He was a singular voice on the musical landscape of Denmark, at least, and I don’t find many like him in general. He seems to be both knowledgeable and coherent about what he does, and at the same time writing in a way that is distinctive.
There’s a quotation from Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen in Josh Cheek’s booklet notes which set me wondering: “He has a Swedish quality in his music, and one can almost hear the Swedish forests and the special melancholy which is found in Swedish art”—but I find the music so pared down that I can’t find that kind of local color in it at all.
Maybe it’s because when you go to Ystad, you find these landscapes that are quite bare! Of course, it’s difficult for me to know what Pelle meant. Pelle’s music is also sparse, and he was also a special character and composer, of course. But they shared the same kind of qualities, even if Pelle was working in the orchestral mainstream much more than Axel was. Of course, we can’t now ask Pelle what he meant [he died in 2016], but for me it is more an absolute music. Axel really has this music inside that he wants to express, and he has this well of given material that he is dealing with to make it work even better. But even though I feel that he really knows what he wants to say, some of the things he writes are very ambiguous, like “forward, but not too much,” “still, but with movement,” that kind of thing.
The booklet notes mention one instruction: quasi un poco crescendo—how do you play that?
Yes, there are a lot of things like that. He wants something, but on the other hand you have to be careful. It’s not like someone saying I want it but I don’t want it; it’s more like he wanted it but you should be aware. There’s a carefulness. He was a neat, little man, and the way he spoke was very precise and accurate.
Did he have any kind of regional accent in his Danish? Could you tell that he had spent part of his childhood in Sweden, for example?
Yes, he had a peculiar accent, actually—he was very singular also in that sense! But I think he liked that; I think he liked to stand out a bit, since his habits were as they were.
It strikes me that, for all the qualities of the piano and the organ works, music of this intimacy is suited to the guitar best of all, because of the delicacy it can offer.
Yes, he was certainly very intimate with the guitar. You’ve probably seen the images of him with his own kind of fretboard that he worked with. He really loved the guitar, and this kind of static, soft, intimate soundworld that subtly evolves, at least in the later music—there it really fits the instrument.
Well, one can’t imagine Fabergé working with steel or concrete.
No, that’s for sure! I was very happy to be asked to make this recording, and both to rediscover and to discover some of the works I had heard briefly but I hadn’t played before. So it has been great for me to take on this challenge for OUR Recordings.
What percentage of the guitar music is here? Is it most of it, half of it…?
It’s most of it. There are a few works missing. There’s something called Fabula, but it’s very closely related to the floating islands; and then there’s the Praeludien, which is basically a revised (shorter, condensed) version of the praeambula. So you couldn’t say that all the opus numbers are there (there are these two that are lacking, and a few of the floating islands are not there), but I would say that all the material is there, so it’s about 85 per cent of the music.
How much of it had you played before you took it into the recording studio?
I had studied the big one, praeambula, before, and I had played morceaux and für gitarre, but I didn’t play Tristrophoni or floating islands before. I had played Praeludien, which I didn’t record, but I thought it was more interesting to plunge into his first major attempt with the guitar, praeambula. There are a lot of qualities in the piece, though it’s also unpractical to play, and quite demanding.
A lot of composers have trouble when they’re faced with a guitar, since they’re not exactly sure how to write for it. How idiomatic is Borup-Jørgensen’s writing for the instrument?
Well, I wouldn’t say that he wrote in a very idiomatic way, but he always knew what he wanted. And he was always carefully checking that it was possible or feasible to play something on the instrument. You still have to work with it, and work with the fingering. He certainly knew the instrument, and I feel that his music is written for the instrument but it’s still his music, it’s absolute music—it’s not like he changes his way of writing because it’s for guitar, as some composers tend to do.
On my relatively superficial acquaintance with the music, I’m not sure I could identify a developmental path in these pieces if I were handed them out of chronological order, Can you hear an evolution here?
In the sense that the material is so very specific and partly identical in praeambula and morceaux, and these are the earliest pieces. Then there is some material in common with für gitarre, which is also an earlier work, but that’s the next step, and there he’s using other elements also. But then certainly I feel that the newer works—Tristrophoni and floating islands—are more related, much more softly spoken. They don’t contain the same harshness. Tristrophoni is still gestural, but it’s more controlled, it’s made with a finer chisel. Both have a lot of details and have a larger form. In that sense I feel a development. And also, like you said, maybe the most significant development is that he uses a microscope to zoom in on it. In the floating islands, if I recorded them all, there would be something like half an hour of natural-harmonic pieces, mainly consisting of the same elements. It might be an interesting record, but it would be quite static. So my idea was to place these pieces, well, like islands across the recording to tie it together. That was the basic idea.
In my experience, the best albums are those that maximise contrast within their basic parameters, and that can’t be so easy with this music.
Well, I did aim to get some kind of curve in the recording, some kind of linkage. I was thinking more that I should have some places where I can link pieces and some places where the stillness of the intermezzi, the floating islands, is cut by something very abrupt, very loud or very gestural. That was my intention.
When you get something like the Bartók snaps of für gitarre, in this context they come across as almost violent.
Yes, they are quite violent.
I talked before about your taking the music into the “recording studio”—but the church of Fredensborg Castle is some studio! It’s the first time I’ve seen a CD with an acknowledgement to a king or queen among the credits, and there’s Queen Margrethe II listed with everybody else.
We had permission from her personally to do it there; I was very happy about that. We needed a place relatively near to Copenhagen that would be the most peaceful. There are lots of nice halls, of course, but with many of them you are close to traffic. Then we talked about the Slottskirke [castle church] of Fredensborg; Hannibal [Lars Hannibal, co-founder of OUR Recordings, whom everyone calls by his family name, since there are rather fewer Hannibals than Larses in Denmark] simply asked them and he got permission. They [the royal family] were there at the time, and we of course had to follow protocol so as not to disturb them. It worked out, luckily, even though at one point the grass needed cut with a lawnmower.
How do audiences react to Borup-Jørgensen’s music?
Very differently. It depends on the audience, of course, but mainly very positively.
I imagine it needs careful planning—if you were to put it on after, I don’t know, Barrios or Villa-Lobos, it’s so different that people might not know how to react.
Yes, it is very different. Maybe I would rather put it next to Bach or something more of an absolute character. You mention Barrios and Villa-Lobos, which is very good music, of course, but it is conceived very much more with the instrument. Even though I like to mix programs with older and more accessible music and modern repertoire, I’m always a little bit careful. But in general I’m not afraid to put in some of his works—of course, the miniatures and something like morceaux—and these pieces can work really well. I played them last year on a tour of Colombia, and the audience really liked it. But a piece like praeambula both takes a lot of courage, because it’s a really demanding piece, and it’s long, and the difficulty is to be clear enough to hold the attention of the listener for that long span.
When I was talking to Erik Kaltoft, I mentioned that I found the piano music had a ritual quality, and the kind of formal elegance you get in a Japanese stone garden. It’s a pity there isn’t guitar music by composers like Ockeghem—it would sit quite well with music from that late-Medieval/early-Renaissance period. It might go quite well with Bálint Bakfark, for example.
Yes, that’s true. I know that music, of course, but I never played it in concert. I was thinking about programming it with some of the fantastic music that was written for the Renaissance lute or the vihuela, or some of the fantasias by Luis de Milán—music that also has a kind of flow but that is quite still.