I was supposed to meet the Danish composer Niels Rønsholdt at the SPOR Festival in Aarhus. There, his recent music theater piece “Gaze for Gaze” received a new production, performed by Denmark’s SCENATET ensemble, with whom Rønsholdt has worked closely for more than a decade. But events got in the way. I have cystic fibrosis, and at short notice I needed to go to the hospital for two weeks of intravenous antibiotic treatment—meaning that I would miss SPOR and my meeting with Rønsholdt. Instead, we arranged to talk via Skype, me at home the day before I became an in-patient and two days before SPOR began. Nevertheless, we did manage to talk about “Gaze for Gaze,” Rønsholdt’s “method” approach to composition, his interest in theatrical elements, and how to turn yourself into a chanson composer. At the center of Rønsholdt’s musical aesthetic is the human body, and particularly the breath. Since my own lungs had thwarted our planned meeting, I had to ask him about this too.

Rønsholdt with his duo partner, the visual artist Signe Klejs. 
Rønsholdt with his duo partner, the visual artist Signe Klejs. 

VAN: “Gaze for Gaze” begins while the audience is still in the foyer outside the performance space. The pianist enters and delivers a short speech that begins, “Music is a dark world of meaningless abstraction. Of memory and longing. That’s why I prefer theater to music. Theater is much more like the real world…” What does “reality” mean in your music?

Niels Rønsholdt: That speech is an outline of the whole thematic set-up. It’s very clear that the piece is in two acts. The first is kind of the reality. We sit in the light, we can see each other, we are as we are. The second act is in darkness and there the music starts, so to speak. So in the first act we are in the world of reality, the world of language, and in the second act we are in the abstract world of music, the world of song. What is sung in the second act is a lot of the same text material as in the first act, but instead of being spoken by ordinary people in the audience it is sung within a world of unreality.

This dark world of abstraction is the world of “unchosen lives.” Each time we make a decisive choice in our life, you could say we split in half. There’s the Niels who chooses A and the Niels who chooses B, but I can only choose one of them. If I choose A, then B is a sort of non-existence. And the idea is that all these unchosen paths exist in this dark world, in the world of music.

I approach every piece differently. Ideally I create a situation where the craft or the method that I use for a piece is only used for that piece. So each piece creates a single craft, a single conceptual construction. Then when I write a new piece it’s completely different. Of course, I have some methods of my own, but this is my aim.

The way reality and music collide may well be a basic theme underneath all of my music. A lot of the conceptual approaches that I choose have a root in some kind of reality—which might be political or aesthetic. In “Me quitte,” for example, I use the concept of the French chanson tradition. This isn’t a type of music that I relate to personally, but through the composition I compose myself nearer and nearer to it.

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What drew you to French chanson then, if not personal reasons?

Of course there is some aesthetic attraction, but that’s not the main reason. The main reason is always a link to my overall theme. In “Me quitte” this is the theme of love. And I chose the French chanson because it represents the city of Paris and this whole cultural way of dealing with love between two people. It’s like this salt core around which the theme can materialize.

In that specific case my idea is that love is a demonic force that destroys us more than it elevates us. Love is certainly a beautiful feature in our lives, but it is also the cause of a lot of pain and destruction. And I needed material that summarized some of these aspects.

There is some found material in the form of the text of “Ne me quitte pas,” the long Jacques Brel song, and the text of all my 10 songs derive from this one single lyric. But there are no musical quotations as such. This is what I call “method composition.” I try to eliminate the distance between me and that material. As a composer I’m not a songwriter, but I really try to eliminate that gap, so that in the process of writing I become a sort of chanson composer. It’s really important to me in that way of working that I’m not ironical, I’m not trying to distance myself from the material; I’m trying to do the opposite, to work my way into it and to become the material.

How does that process work? Are you deconstructing the chansons and pulling them apart analytically, or are you writing your own songs over and over until you feel like you’ve entered that world?

In “Me quitte” it was the latter, but in “Gaze for Gaze” it was definitely the former. In that piece I approached baroque recitative by first trying to find a musical motor within it, that also had a meaning that was larger than just the music itself. Then I isolated one element, which is the way in which a cadence onto a minor key often moves forward by changing the minor chord into the relative major, but with the third in the bass. And that was the specific motor that I continuously used in “Gaze for Gaze”: always minor chords that change to major chords. And then of course I composed with it so it is not so rigorous…

And then I also had a motor that had a different meaning. We have these two acts which are light then darkness, reality and abstraction. And then these minor and major chords, which are the only musical material. So it has a conceptual link into the rest of the piece.

Like the whole piece is a hugely blown-up version of that minor-major relationship?

Yes, exactly.

“Gaze for Gaze” is also being performed by SCENATET, with whom you have a long collaborative relationship. How did that relationship begin?

It began the way every relationship between a composer and an ensemble begins, with them playing some of my pieces. And then they commissioned a piece from me—and that was “Me quitte.” What was decisive for me was that it was a very open commission. That extreme trust from an ensemble to really open up in terms of length and stylistic approach gave me the sense that I could go really far with them.

That’s the problem with commissions. They often derive from something you did before—because someone likes what you did and they want you to do something similar. And it’s really a problem for a composer’s development. In “Me quitte” I actually thought I had gone way outside what was expected of them as an ensemble and of me as a composer within the contemporary scene, but somehow it succeeded and we’ve played it in a lot of places.

Did they have much input into “Gaze for Gaze”?

In “Gaze for Gaze” I worked very closely with Anna Berit, who is the artistic director for SCENATET. We worked a lot on the concept and especially the text. I am no writer, but it was important for me to always have the text in my hands in order to fulfill this whole structure. We also consulted a dramaturg and a director and so on—so we had a larger community around the text.

Were you discussing musical aspects with the players as well? You speak in other interviews about the importance of the physicality of performance to you, for example. Were you trying out how things felt, how they moved, how they looked and so on?

Yes, a little bit. In the first act there is a little continuo group of cellist and portable organ sitting on a rotating stage in the middle of the audience. And I worked closely with the cellist on that because it’s visually very important because there’s no scenography—the musicians on the rotating stage are the whole first act, along with the audience, of course. Besides that, I would say that I know them so well—they sing while they play, they throw and handle all kinds of objects, fireworks, balloons, concrete blocks. I know how they react to stuff like this, which is very open-mindedly.

You mentioned that there is no scenography as such, so the reality of what is happening is musicians doing things. It makes me think a little bit of Lachenmann: presumably you’re drawing out the connection between the physical action and the sound that it makes?

It depends on the piece. In “Gaze for Gaze” it derives a little bit from baroque instrumentation, too. You have, for instance, the harpsichord with a very noisy attack with almost no decay. And I blew this up out of proportion. So the attack of each chord is very forceful. By the end of the second act it’s fireworks, really big things falling to the ground and so on. But these actions also link to the story of the piece: that the world is falling apart for the two figures who find themselves in the darkness. That’s the reality of the breaking glass and china, the metal chain, the concrete blocks that fall onto the floor and so on. And then underneath that there’s a really abstract layer of quasi-recitative music that is the harmonic structure of the piece.

You studied with Helmut Oehring, whose music is interesting in this context of acting in different ways upon instruments and different ways of just doing things.

What drew me to him was the idea of music not being perfect. Sound production and the act of music are not the result of a search for perfection, but may be the result of an imperfection—so when he tunes down the drums, when he tunes down the strings, when he asks deaf-mutes to speak and so on. It’s not about putting imperfection on display. On the contrary I think it is a display of the human attempt, that I think is extremely beautiful. Seeing someone who is perfect at what they do can be fascinating, but it is also what they do. So approaching the music from a different point of view, that there are actually obstacles, obstacles, obstacles all the time, but you overcome them; that’s very human, that’s how we live our lives.

He told me once that I composed with a scalpel, and asked me what would happen if instead I composed with a butcher’s knife? What would that mean? I have a tendency to control every element, and sometimes I have to leave the scalpel and pick up the butcher’s knife, and compose in a more raw way, or approach the material in a more careless way.

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Definitely. Because you can also see music as an ideal world of beauty and perfection, but that’s not so interesting for me. As audience members we can stop relating to what is going on. I see music and art in general as a mirror in which we can see ourselves. And therefore we can idealize what is reflected back: “Oh, that’s not our lives, that’s not how we are.”

One of your biographies mentions the particular importance of breath in your music. Given my own condition, and the reason we’re not speaking face to face today, I have a particular interest in how breath manifests itself artistically. What does breath signify for you, and how do you use it compositionally?

This relates to your first question. For me breath is a link between an abstract musical idea such as rhythm, and a very real object such as a body.

If you have a stick and you beat a drum with it, it is a real gesture. But it is also an abstract sound that we categorize as having a musical purpose. Yet if you take the same stick and the same movement and you hit a piece of meat, for instance, then there’s a whole variety of associations and meanings that immediately pop up. But the sound is still the same sort of sound. So there is the aesthetic abstraction of music, but there is also what I call the “associative space” around a sound, which can be very small if it’s a drum, or it can be very large, if it’s a piece of meat, or a whip on the floor. Even though it’s the same gesture.

Breath is so beautiful because it’s just a rhythmical element, but if you compose it in great detail you can go from anxiety to joy to lust—you can compose very different associative spaces around a sound that is almost the same.

Of course breath has all these possibilities, but it can also be a site for those obstacles that you mention…

There’s the saying that the eyes are the window into the soul, but for a musical person, a person who is more into sound, your breath is really what reflects how you are. ¶

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