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Interview in Fanfare with composer Poul Ruders

Interview with Poul Ruders in Fanfare
“Without the beauty, patience and insight of art … there’s nothing left but barbarism.” An interview with Composer Poul Ruders
By Robert Carl
First of all, since this interview has been occasioned by the release of this new disc of your chamber music, could you fill us in on how it came to be? What has been your relationship with these performers, and with the OUR Recordings label?
The Rudersdal Chamber Players are no relation whatsoever to my name. Rudersdal is the name of the region where they’re based. “Dal” means: valley. It’s a nice coincidence, though. I’m not complaining. We were looking for a label that could whip out a release inside a relatively short time span, having it ready for their summer festival in August 2022. It just happened that OUR Recordings could do it, even with time to spare. I wasn’t a complete newcomer to the label. Earlier in the year it released, as a digital EP, my Harpsichord Concerto with Mahan Esfahani—a splendid and quite novel idea, so I’m very happy to now have a “foot in the door” with OUR Recordings.
Speaking of recordings, I must say that I’ve been colossally privileged to have no less than 16 solo albums out on Bridge Records, starting with Volume 1 back in 1992. David and Becky Starobin, the team behind the label, have been, and still are, an invaluable support of my music. It’s mainly due to them, that my music has become ... let’s say ... universally available. It’s really quite remarkable and I’m deeply grateful.
I know some would have wondered from the name if this ensemble was dedicated to performance of your work. I knew it was not the case because of the booklet notes, but it’s good to clarify here. And I agree with you about Bridge. It’s been an extraordinary gift to you as a composer to have had their sustained commitment. From what you say, it seems there are still more Bridge projects in the pipeline. Can you let us know of any, if they are not secret?
These are troublesome times, but I’m confident there’ll be other recordings in the future.
Going back to the disc at hand, two of the works on the program are in some of the most substantially explored genres in the repertoire, namely clarinet quintet and piano quartet. Are there any works that you may have looked to for inspiration or stimulation, or is it just the opposite—do you want to willfully avoid too much contact so as not to cramp personal expression and invention?
I know that it’s asking for trouble, poaching on that particular ground. I knew, needless to say, the Mozart and Brahms—and the Reger—pieces for clarinet and string quartet, but not inside out. This is an advantage, I’d say, especially for me, as I am very selective in what I choose to listen to, and that for one reason only: All music I hear, the pieces I like in particular, stays with me and often takes over completely. It’s the old “ear worm” syndrome. In any case, being quite intrepid as a composer, I just went for it and wrote the pieces you hear on the CD. Mind you, both works are commissions, which means that the work was cut out for me beforehand, as it were.
One thing in particular struck me very strongly in these works: the slow movements of both the quintet and quartet. Especially in their openings, they feel so stripped down that there’s almost nothing there. But of course there is! Could you give us a little insight as to how you conceived of these movements?
A straight answer to this would be: for the sake of variation against the more hectic movements. True enough, but the older I get, I realize how little—in terms of “sound and fury”—you need when composing. That’s rich, I know, coming from a composer who at the same time goes full throttle whenever he feels like it. Simplicity is a virtue, generally speaking, and simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean slow and soft. But in the two cases you mention, I could “hear” in my inner ear the alluring and mysterious music I could conjure up between soloist(s) and ensemble—a music toward “... far horizons.”
When we first made contact I reminded you that we once met 34 years ago in Hartford (which you remembered!). I recall at that time some of your music was exploring more “generative” approaches, such as bell change-ringing patterns. Has a taste for process-driven music continued as a theme in your work, or have you relinquished it? If it’s still there, how does it manifest itself now?
My change-ringing days are now well and truly a thing of the past, but employing this particular, slightly quirky, permutation method was a major help when generating large, seamless stretches of music, like, say, Manhattan Abstraction and Symphony No. 2.
I have always felt that even when “abstract,” your music always projects a strongly dramatic quality. One senses characters and narratives, even if they are veiled and mysterious. Obviously, you have a strong feel for the musical stage, as your opera on The Handmaid’s Tale has been a great success. How, if at all, does such an approach and attitude guide your composition of a piece, albeit without text or program.
In a recent interview I said that there’s no limit to how low I’ll stoop to get what I want in my music. In other words: I’m not squeamish. I know only two sorts of music: good and bad. It’ll probably raise a few eyebrows, narrowing of nostrils and pouting of lips in certain highbrow quarters, when I readily admit that I’ve been more inspired by Morricone than Ligeti!
Having said that, I’m also a “law and order man,” i.e., I show no mercy to sloppy composition, poor technique, sloppy timing, and the piling up of notes just for the sake of ... piling up notes.
Again, I might be moving into tricky realms, but are there any particular contemporary musical movements that you feel have contributed to that sloppy product? Or conversely, others that lead to more positive outcomes? I’m thinking more generally here, I actually am not interested in specific composers’ names.
Tricky realms indeed, dangerous ground; I can already hear the ice starting to crack. So, let me put it this way: In this day and age composition is relatively easy. Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of musical notation and how the instruments work can get away with almost anything, even become successful. Now, there’s a reactionary roar from a composer of the old school! I know, but so be it....
I guess it boils down to whether the composer, regardless of age and gender, is prepared to put him or her self to a test, where self-imposed hurdles are there to be conquered. The subsequent satisfaction (and pride) is worth it.
I know our readers would love to have some insight into your process at present. Could you take one piece from the current disc and give us a brief tour about how it came into being? I know every composer is different, and sometimes unwilling to reveal “trade secrets,” but I’ve found listeners are genuinely open and eager to have some sense of the way a work comes seemingly out of nowhere. It may seem obvious to you, but it is a true mystery to many, a form of magic.
The easy—and arrogant—answer to this would be: No idea, I just do it. So, well, it’s partly true, but of course that won’t do. Let’s look at the beginning of the Piano Quartet. As far as I remember, I sat down at my keyboard-cum-desk, closed my eyes, and let my right hand play a tune coming from my brain into the fingers “on the trot.” For some reason it unfolded itself in D♭ Major. I stayed with the tune, first presented in the piano, the added the violin in unison, then viola, now an octave below (hence the tune now appearing in parallel octaves in the piano). When it was the cello’s turn to join the party, I knew instantly that if I unleashed the same tune, yet again, the whole thing would collapse. This is why the movement opens up in a new direction when the cello enters, playing something completely different, plotting a new course ... and the rest of the movement, soon to be joined by the remaining, more or less composed itself. I’m sorry, but there we are.
Here’s a question that you can feel free to bat away if you feel it is too general. I find myself thinking that some of the most interesting, advanced, but musically satisfying (to a range of audiences) music being written today as coming from the Nordic realm. Do you feel any connection to other composers from the region in terms of shared aesthetic or technical matters? And/or do you think there are aspects of your music that you feel are particularly Danish?
As a convinced “citizen of the world,” I have little time for nationalism (which in its worst form is the front-office of bigotry and eventually war). But of course, I was born in Denmark, which is not really a Nordic country, only linguistically (Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian share the same root: Old Norse). Copenhagen is on the same latitude as Glasgow! Anyway, I’m a Danish composer (not Dutch, which I’ve occasionally been pigeonholed as), and that’s perfectly okay. If Nordic, or rather Scandinavian, music has made a certain dent, that’s of course very nice and, given the colossal influence coming from our southern neighbor Germany (classical music is German!), it’s quite refreshing that a recent spinning of the bottle now points to Scandinavia.
As we near the end, are there any upcoming projects you can share with us? I can’t help but wonder if another opera is in the works….
We have this saying in Danish: “No one knows the day, until the pub has closed.” This could be my way of saying that there’ll be no more operas from my hand ... but you never know. As to current projects, I’ve just completed a piece for recorder and string orchestra: TRANSFIGURATIONS, commissioned by and written for the incomparable virtuoso Michala Petri. We’re at present looking for a string band—anywhere—who’d be tempted to pick up the piece.
Finally, is there anything I’ve left out that you want to cover? A question to pose to yourself?
One question to myself could be: Poul, is there any point in writing nice, more or less introverted, concert hall music in these awful times? After having hesitated for a couple of seconds, with a little sweat starting to form on my forehead, I’d say: YES! Of course, without the beauty, patience, and insight of art (and philosophy), there’s nothing left but barbarism.