Synne SKOUEN (b. 1950)
“Une soirée d’été…”, for solo violin (1991) [6:59]
Hils Domitila!, for piano (1980) [4:41]
Nattstykke, for orchestra (1987) [6:01]
Fair Play – Pocket Music for Percussion (1) (1992) [3:01]
“…à travers les paroles”, for solo violin (2007) [7:33]
catchme!, for cello and piano (2007) [5:46]
Fair Play – Pocket Music for Percussion (2) (1992) [2:15]
O Vilhelm, Vilhelm, for string quartet + 1 (2007) [13:44]
Vent!, for piano (2004) [2:54]
Scenes from Volven, for alto and orchestra (1989) [15:11]
Fair Play – Pocket Music for Percussion (3) (1992) [3:52]
Geir Inge Lotsberg (violin); Ellen Ugelvik (piano); Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Christian Eggen; SISU; Johannes Martens (cello); Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer (voice); Oslo String Quartet; Tone Kruse (alto)
rec. NRK Store Studio, Oslo, 16 November 2009 (Nattstykke); 7 June 2010 (Volven); Sofienberg kirke, Oslo, 23 January, 22/23 June 2010 (the rest)
AURORA ACD5062 [72:02]

This is an important CD, but the presentation is so dour that it’s difficult to imagine anyone flicking through the CD racks being tempted to take it out and investigate it further. Open the package and things improve, but only a little. The second page of the booklet adds to what appears on the back of the box, but with the titles and timings presented in a type face both ugly and difficult to read. Quite an achievement! We then turn to the long and detailed essay by Erling Sandmo. It’s title, “Distances of Being”, forewarns the reader, and sure enough, it turns out to be a detailed expose of the philosophical, political and sociological forces that inspire the composer. Here is a mild example: “The composer’s agreement with the musicians is accompanied by another, more complex contract that neither part signs, namely that between the old and the new music, where the latter promises to care for the former, allowing it to resonate alongside the new…in return for the use of the old instruments; the same strings and the same musicians who have played so much other, older music.”

Let me turn to the music. Synne Skouen is a Norwegian composer and musical journalist. This disc is my first encounter with her work, and very rewarding it has proved to be, for the most part, but it certainly takes some getting into. The two pieces for solo violin were both inspired by Marguerite Duras’ novel LesYeux bleus, cheveux noirs, and indeed the titles are quotations, “Une soirée d’été...” from the opening and “…à travers les paroles” from the end. Duras’ novel, which I have not read, is concerned with distances, those separating objects and those separating people, and the composer follows the lead in thinking about the distance in time that separates her two works for solo violin. Small utterances and silence play an important role, and there is the question of human interaction and contracts, in this case the contract that commissions a musical work from a particular composer for a particular performer. Knowing all this has little or no effect on the listener’s appreciation of the music, which in each piece is generally slow moving, with a fair amount of pizzicato included. It is often quite tonal, and is creates a powerful atmosphere, particular the close of each piece.

Almost all the works here feature some kind of extra-musical association. Hils Domitila! is a short piano piece in homage to a Bolivian feminist freedom fighter. Beginning with a bang and ending with a whistle, the various special effects in between only increase the power of this hugely atmospheric and successful piece.

Nattstykke requires an open mind on the part of listeners resistant to a particular kind of contemporary music. It features a collection of sounds so unusual that one frequently wonders which instrument is producing them, and this in the course of music made up of fragments so short that the word melody cannot be logically applied. Nor is there any rhythm to speak of, and certainly no pulse. And yet I would urge the sceptic to stay with this highly effective piece: it is without a doubt the product of a probing mind and a remarkable aural imagination, and this impression is gained not only because of the striking, repetitive rhythmic figure that occurs a minute or so before the end and which, gradually slowing down, closes the piece.

I found catchme! less arresting initially, but as it draws to a close one is once again conscious of something serious, carefully thought out and dramatically effective. The allusion to the romantic cello and piano music of Beethoven at the outset, as mentioned in the notes, is fairly easy to perceive, but I was less certain about the notion of the destruction or dissolution of the idea of a “duo” that comes about, supposedly, by instruments that “do not play to each other, do not support each other but seek the attention of others, talking past those closest to them.”

O Vilhelm, Vilhelm is written for string quartet +1, the “1” being a singer who only enters half way into the piece and who, in the first performance, launched into her Romany song from a seat in the audience. I can’t be sure if Skouen set the words to her own original melody or whether the sung melody here is the original folk tune, but I suspect the latter. The melody is slow and sombre, and made up of regular, repeated phrases. The accompaniment frequently consists of long, held notes, thus directing the listener’s attention completely to the vocal line. The preceding music for string quartet seems quite different in nature, slow, almost static, but with varied textures and twice coming to a halt and starting again. It feels rather like two pieces tacked together, but yet, once again, it is curiously effective and affecting.

I found less of interest in Vent!, and by that stage was also becoming allergic to exclamation marks! A telephone directory is placed on the lower part of the keyboard, thus allowing the strings to vibrate in sympathy with the rhythmic and melodic fragments struck by the fingers. The booklet notes are remarkable here, finding significance in the stipulation that only a telephone directory may be used. I have read this passage several times and it seems to be serious. The piece isn’t funny either.

Skouen’s largest work is Volven, a ballet based on Nordic myths. Three extracts are presented, the first featuring highly atmospheric synthesised sounds, the last rising to a spectacularly noisy climax, and all three featuring an alto who only occasionally really sings. The percussionists of the Norwegian National Opera Orchestra were impressed enough to commission a work from the composer, and the result was Fair Play, Pocket Music for Percussion. The three sections of this short work are placed at different points on the disc. The first, on wood blocks of all conceivable sizes, is hypnotic, the second, more rhythmic, adds sounds from instruments unidentifiable by normal human beings, and the third, which rounds of the disc, once again in a mood and atmosphere so powerful that one is surprised that music so economical of means can create it, is played mainly on filled wine glasses.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on the performances, but something about them makes me think that the composer could not have wished for anything finer or more committed. They go a long way to convincing a sceptical listener, and certainly more than any amount of pseudo-philosophical discourse.

William Hedley

Challenging, innovative and ultimately convincing music with many moments of rare beauty.