Fanfare interview with Jens E. Christensen on ABJ Organ Music
March 31, 2017
The Danish label OUR Recordings, run by recorder-player Michala Petri and guitarist Lars Hannibal and distributed internationally by Naxos, continues its campaign on behalf of the music of the reclusive composer Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924–2012) with an album of his organ music (6.220617). It turns out to be organ-plus, in that as well as three works for solo organ, there are also two for organ and percussion (opening and closing the album), one for alto and organ, another for bass voice and organ, another for organ and harpsichord, and also one for two organists. In Fanfare 40:2 I spoke to the pianist Erik Kaltoft in conjunction with his recording (6.220616) of Borup-Jørgensen’s piano music. Now it was time for another Skype chat with one of Borup-Jørgensen’s musician friends, this time the organist Jens E. Christensen, who is the mainstay of the new release. He is the organist of Vor Frelsers Kirke (“Our Saviour’s Church”) in Copenhagen, where this album was recorded. In 1978–87 he was organist in Holte, outside Copenhagen—and Borup-Jørgensen lived nearby. I began by saying that Erik Kaltoft had painted the picture of a very private person.
Certainly—very discrete and modest. And he was very afraid to hurt us, the artists. He was very careful. When he came on his bicycle and I was trying to play what he had written to me and talk about it, if I didn’t play it well, then he thought that he had written it wrong. So he went home to change it. It was very important to be careful to play as well as possible for him, because he would always think that he was the problem, not the other people.
I see from the booklet that he was married, although he got divorced in his thirties, and that he has a daughter, and so he was obviously socialized to some extent—he wasn’t one of those complete obsessives who see no further than their music.
Well, maybe he was divorced because he lived for his music! But his wife is a very fine pianist and harpsichordist. The piece on the CD for organ and harpsichord [Für Cembalo und Orgel] was written for his wife—but after the divorce.
Do you think he might have been difficult to live with?
Well, maybe he was too polite and diplomatic. It’s good if we can sometimes quarrel in a marriage. He was a very fine and discrete person.
He also generated loyalty. Lars Hannibal speaks of Borup-Jørgensen’s music almost as if it is a religious mission for OUR Recordings. And from what Erik told me before and from the way you are talking about him now, he seems to have generated really solid friendships.
Yes, certainly. We became friends for life when we got to know each other. He never forgot me. And when we were rehearsing his pieces, he was very interested, and he did everything to support us.
And he was a man of his time, whose music speaks as discretely as he did.
Yes, he was a very fine lyrical modernist, and he was very much inspired by Webern, the miniature pieces by Webern, and I feel that one can hear this lyrical modernism in all his works.
One thing I find difficult to square is that there is the passionate attention to detail that Erik Kaltoft talked about, and yet there is on your CD an op. 141 and an op. 182. How did he manage to write so many pieces?
You know, he used the same material very often. If you listen to the piano CD and the organ CD, we have the same formula very often. But then, of course, it changes because of the sound of the instrument. In a tonal system you have a lot of chords that are common, and in Axel Borup-Jørgensen’s universe you will have the same formula saying things in different pieces.
Do you think that if you had come to the music without knowing the man, you would have been as devoted to it as you have been?
It is very difficult to learn the pieces, so maybe it helped a lot that I knew a face and a personality that gave an inspiration to work with the pieces. But, of course, I have always been very interested in modern music, so I think I would give it a chance!
To turn to the new CD in particular, for all the Webernian stasis of the pieces and what I might call their sculpted quality, there’s quite a lot of variety in the music here: winter music at the end has a degree of violence, Kalligrafier has a rather strange, almost impish sense of humour …
… A delicacy, I would say…
… and as one progresses though the program, lots of unexpected aspects of his personality are revealed almost despite the restricted expressive range.
In his sheet music, too, he also writes that things can be a little different, that you can leave something out or put something in. Maybe he approached the aleatoric attitude where you can do different things. What may be a little different in the future is that people might play his music a little too extrovertly. I had many discussions with the percussionist [Mathias Reumert], who’s a fine percussionist, but he’s very extrovert, and I remember that when we were performing this piece (winter music) earlier, he made a lot of effort—but it couldn’t be silent enough for Axel!
What was his attitude to the organ as a receptacle for his music? With a piano, the instrument and the sound it makes are more or less given, but with an organ the range of possibilities is much wider.
I think I have been very much inspired by his delicacy, and also the indications of p, mp, pp, ppp, so that I don’t play it too loud; maybe in the future there will come interpreters who will make it much louder.
Was he prescriptive of things like registration?
Yes, he would write things like, for instance, “very soft 8’,” “very soft 4’,” “a little stronger”—he gives indications in the music of little steps and gradations.
Did he call for specific stops?
Well, yes, maybe he could write “Gedeckt,” but what was important was that he wrote very clearly the gradation of the dynamics in the music.
But not the colors?
Yes, also, the colors—maybe a Principal sound or a Flute sound, for instance, or a reed sound, that kind of color. He was aware of that.
What explains the bunching of so many of the pieces on the CD in the mid- and late 1980s?
He had a very good co-operation with a colleague of mine, a fine organist, Eva Feldbæk. She had a church on the outskirts of Copenhagen with a very good organ—that’s why all these pieces occurred at that time.
When was your closest co-operation with him?
That was a little later, but then he wrote this piece for orgel IV for me, and I started playing winter music and Kalligrafier and so on. We celebrated his birthday every fifth year and I think it was in 2009 that we had a concert here in Our Saviour’s Church, and Axel was still here. Portal was written for this celebration of his birthday; we performed a lot of these pieces then, while he was still alive.
If you were to try to persuade colleagues to play this music, where would you suggest that they begin to look at it?
Well, of course I would talk about the pieces here on the CD, but I would also tell my organist colleagues that I have learned a lot from Axel Borup-Jørgensen about playing other organ music. If you listen to the beginning of for orgel IV, you hear an arpeggio, and then the notes are released in another order. That taught me something about how we should listen to the organ as we practice. The attack, of course, is important, but the release is just as important, when you release a chord or phrase.
Have you played it much outside Denmark, and with what kind of reception?
Yes, of course: I always play it abroad! I don’t play a whole recital of it, of course—just one little piece. It’ s just like walking in nature and finding butterflies or cicadas—this music is very much like that; it’s very fine, delicate, silent music. And it’s a great pleasure when you play Bach or loud Romantic music—you have this little section of softness.
Indeed—I imagine that if you program the Bach C Minor Passacaglia and a Vierne organ symphony…
… you play Axel in between and it’s a wonderful relaxation.
find you, it’s quite intense in its own way.
Of course, when you get into that universe—for orgel IV is nine minutes of that universe, for instance—you really have to listen to it. Before this CD came out, I would give the score to friends, and they say you really have to concentrate on it. And a whole CD is a long time to listen to Axel’s music, although I am proud of the order: I like having the different soloists helping me.
Well, as I said, there is a lot of variety in the modes of expression. The piece with bass [Trilogi], organo der due for two organists, the piece with harpsichord—they’re all very different.
Certainly. And the piece for harpsichord and organ is very interesting because it shows the difference in sound, with the harpsichord buzzing like a bee and the organ a kind of blur, and so in a way you can clearly hear the soundscapes like that. What interested him very much was if, for instance, in a forest you see the moss on the ground; in the beginning you think it is all the same, but if you study it, you see it has very different shapes. And Axel was interested in what something alike and was different from, all the same.
[I show Jens Christensen a recent photograph I recently took: A simple transection of a purple cabbage, but also a whirling universe of Mandelbrot fractals of dizzying, dazzling complexity.]
It could be a piece by Axel! What interested him was the minute differences in what he did.
But, of course, he expected you performers to be alive to these tiny differences in color and tone and weight.
Yes. For instance, it’s a great challenge to make these arpeggios sound lively behind the surface.
A big virtuoso piece like Liszt’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen requires one kind of technique; does it call for a similar degree of control to master the degree of finesse that Borup-Jørgensen requires?
You mention Weinen, Klagen—you remember about two-thirds of the way through there’s a tune [sings]? That’s a typical Liszt melody; Webern and Ligeti were very interested in that feature of Liszt.
It’s a variant of a tune in Mazeppa [sings]—that’s essentially the same melody.
Yes. It’s funny: Borup-Jørgensen was also very fond of Ligeti, and Ligeti wrote the organ piece Volumina (which I play), and in Nordwall’s book [Ove Nordwall, Ligeti—Dokument, Stockholm, 1968], Ligeti says that in Volumina Liszt is a sleeping beauty, where trees and forests have grown over this music. I think Axel loved this idea of vegetation, and you had to dig into the vegetation to find the jewels of the music.
Did he have any unlikely musical enthusiasms?
He was crazy about going to recitals! You would always find Axel in a concert in the evening, and then he would go home, and then he would compose during the night. And he listened to classical as well as new music: If I played a concert with Bach, he would certainly be there.
One thing I discussed with Erik Kaltoft was the ritual quality of the music—you almost have to come into it, to accept it on its own terms.
Yes, that’s right. What was important for Axel was that he loved stillness, silence; he loved the idea that his music would occur from silence and disappear again into stillness.
I remember Lars Hannibal saying to me a couple of years ago that now that Borup-Jørgensen was dead, he could begin to do something for the music. Was there a reluctance to let it go?
No, it was that Axel was very polite and he would never bother us musicians with his music, but he was very happy if we played it. And he was also very happy that we were faithful to him, as friends and colleagues and musicians.
In conjunction with these recordings, the music itself is beginning to be more widely available. You play it because you knew the composer, but anyone else’s chances of getting to know it before now were fairly slim.
I think so, yes. He published it himself, and his daughter has taken over the publishing-edition firm. There are similar personalities in other countries. In Norway there was Fartein Valen, for example.
It’s extraordinary that a composer writing music as good as Valen’s can be as poorly known—it’s as good as Schoenberg, I think, and has qualities that Schoenberg’s music lacks.
I would say more of Berg and Webern in this context, in connection with Borup-Jørgensen also.
For a long time Valen lived in isolation on the family farm, and Borup-Jørgensen’s family owned an island. Do you think that played a role in his outlook and his music?
Yes, as a boy he grew up in Sweden and then he went to live by this lake where his family had an island, and he also lived by a beautiful lake here on the outskirts of Copenhagen called Furesø, and that reminded him of his childhood island in Sweden. But he was also a great diplomat: He could dress as if he were an ambassador if he were going to a party. The Swedes are more well-dressed than the Danes, maybe, and he would dress as if he were a Swede …
… going to the Nobel Prize ceremony?
Yes, exactly—that was Axel!
And that formality was an important part …
… of his politeness. A telephone conversation would take three-quarters of an hour, because we should address each other properly and discuss the important matters and then when I would be going to say goodbye, he would say: “Oh, don’t misunderstand me, Jens, don’t misunderstand me.”
The Fanfare readership of this interview will be largely American, but Borup-Jørgensen’s minimalism is a very different kind of minimalism from the kind that American audiences are used to.
You’re right: I was afraid to mention minimalism, because it’s quite a different approach to minimalism. He doesn’t want to repeat anything in his music; there should always be a difference in any musical sentence. If some things looked a bit alike, he wouldn’t be happy: It should be different all the time. But what I would hope of an American audience is that their love of nature, of ecology in nature, of how a sound appears in silence in nature—that would be very much Axel.
BORUP-JØRGENSEN Portal, op. 182.1 for orgel IV, op. 106. Strophen, op. 39.2 Kalligrafier, op. 116. Für Cembalo und Orgel, op. 133/2.3 Organo per due.4 Trilogi.5 for orgel XI, op. 141. winter music, op. 113/21 • Jens E. Christensen, 4Lars Sømod (org); 1Mathias Reumert (perc); 2Pia Rose Hansen (mez); 3Mahan Esfahani (hpd); 5Jakob Bloch Jespersen (bs-bar) • OUR 6.220617 (SACD: 74:54)