An Interview with Simon Steen-Andersen

By · Photography © Lars Svankjær · Date 3/8/2018

At one point during a recent performance of Simon Steen-Andersen’s Piano Concerto in Berlin, percussion sounds seemed to rise and concentrate near the ceiling of the concert hall, like hot air, and it sounded like the Pierre Boulez Saal might come crashing down. I met the Danish composer several weeks later at his apartment, a short walk away from the Berlin Philharmonic. His studio space was taken up with cellos, keyboards, dictionaries, and Legos. On his computer monitor were black and white videos of old orchestras performing.

VAN: Is this for a new piece?

Simon Steen-Andersen: Yes, a piece for orchestra, big band, and choir. This is all just archival footage—I’m using material from these old recordings and then with the groups live, going back and forth.

Have you adjusted the intonation of the recorded notes so the live groups know what pitch to play at?

I’ve deliberately left them as they are. That gives me loads of little in-betweens between the notes, which is a big part of the point. And the choirs often drift on the recordings, of course. So if I need microtones, I can always use a choir chord [laughs].

What part of the piece are you most nervous about?

I don’t want to ruin the surprise.

I respect that. I think composers often give away too much about their music.

Sometimes you say a lot about a piece and the biggest problem is that nobody can actually hear what you’re talking about, or they waste too much attention listening for it. And then there’s another kind of music, where I would almost say there are punchlines. That’s often the case in my music. And of course you don’t want to ruin it.

A common characteristic in your pieces is that they start with something normal, and then change into something very strange.

I guess that’s a personal preference. At some point I had this revelation which is so banal that it’s almost embarrassing: that you can only perceive something as being twisted if you know what the object is like “untwisted,” so to speak. In contemporary music, a lot of times you only have the distorted, fragmented, or alienated. For me the transformation—the experience of the difference—is the interesting part.

An excerpt from Simon Steen-Andersen’s “Black Box Music.”

How did you discover that technique?

In a way it’s almost too banal to be called a technique, but I simply found less and less satisfaction in mainly abstract experiences, and intuitively moved in directions that lead to more explicit experiences of the same sounds and elements. At the same time, I was looking for stronger links between the music and the real world.

Let me give you a very simple example. Take a recording of a cymbal, and then downsample it two octaves, revealing all the overtones. It sounds spectral, beautiful, like music from another world—but it’s completely abstract. Now add a video of somebody hitting the cymbal in slow motion. You experience the sound completely differently; you experience the interval between what it was, and what it became.

Have you always cared about the audience’s perception of your music?

I think for a while I pretended not to care. Then, slowly, I admitted that I did. But I always see myself as the audience as well. I’m writing for me and the audience, with a focus on the experience.

You mentioned punchlines. Do you try to be funny in your music?

No, and the first time peopled laughed at a concert of mine, I was completely surprised. But maybe funny is just the wrong word. I do aim for humor, but that’s a wider, more complex field. Those moments that I deliberately called punchlines are often just surprises, but with limited material. You could have seen it coming, but you didn’t and then it came. It’s a kind of logic that’s established.

Isn’t that how jokes work?

That is a joke, just put in an abstract or theoretical way. Or if you create a strong expectation towards one thing and then go in the other direction—that’s a joke, too. I mean…what’s the English expression for the disappointing minor instead of the major chord in classical music?

A deceptive cadence?

Huh. That’s rather strongly put. Actually, in Danish the word we use is “disappointing.” You’re looking forward to this major chord, and instead you have this sad cadence [laughs].

I saw your Piano Concerto recently, and there was a moment where the video of the falling piano was put in reverse, and it went up. That made me laugh.

That’s funny because it’s playing with gravity, but also because it makes you look at the piano in a different way. You humanize it, it’s like the legs are dancing.

I try to make shifts in perspective, put things in different lights. And that very much overlaps with what we understand as funny. In general, I’m looking for those moments where we get small amounts of endorphins released into our system. It’s this joyful moment where things fall into place, or you experience something familiar anew.

Did you ever experience resistance to that idea of composing for endorphin release?

Well, I guess the critique of creating a clear expectation is that it’s too predictable. It’s rather closely related to something that used to be—and maybe still is—considered a little banal. But it’s the predictability that you use to come up with a surprise.

I’ve actually worried about this myself, though. I said before that I didn’t want to reveal too much about the new piece. So I’m already admitting that it’s a bit like a joke, which stops being funny after you hear it a few times. And a lot of great music is the opposite: you hear it over and over, and it seems to grow on you. So some of these “punchlines” are more effective the first time.

Still, I’ve been surprised to see that they haven’t worn down as fast as I thought. People have seen some of my pieces quite a few times; I’m always there for “Black Box Music,” so I’ve seen it every time. And even if I’m biased, I also listen carefully. And many of the things I worried about still work, for me. Besides, this is still just one small aspect of my work.

You’ve said before that your “material is energy.”

I think that was in a program note for my String Quartet No. 1, which I wrote in 1999 [laughs].

Simon Steen-Andersen, String Quartet No. 1; Silesian String Quartet

Is it not true anymore?

It is, but in a different way than I thought at the time. Back then I meant it quite literally. I had an image in my head that I was writing with dots of energy: I could move them around, add energy or change the state through which it was expressed. I imagined it a little like a particle chamber.

That metaphor fit quite well to the String Quartet No. 1 and a few other pieces. I remember working on pieces after that, trying to obtain something similar, and I’d get really disappointed: there was this inflation of volume, gesture, activity, and complexity. A certain inflation of the senses. I’d think, it’s not really working for me anymore. Could you do it louder?

Then I had this long period where I figured out that the next step was not to get louder, but to be extremely soft and very active. I discovered the state of pianissimo furioso for myself. Then I’d amplify, and then that could not be amplified enough—not the volume, but the microscopic effects of the friction that are a big part of soft sounds. Again, there was a kind of inflation. To have an incentive to write another piece with that approach, I wanted to make it more extreme or take it one more step in some direction. That also hit a wall.

And then I was just back to rock’n’roll. I was interested in that bodily energy you have if something is loud and often in unison. Unison is kind of a big thing for me.

What’s your favorite unison in the repertoire?

I think it’s the power trio in rock’n’roll. I used to play myself—and if you listen to these rock songs, bass, guitar, and drums are playing essentially different versions of the same thing. It’s one organism but with different elements complementing each other. And that’s pretty much what I do.

What are you like in rehearsals of your music?

I like when a rehearsal turns into a workshop. In some pieces, that happens automatically; in others it never happens. But through many pieces I have come to the experience that a certain kind of energy is only obtained if that particular action can become natural for the player. Rather than forcing some fixed idea about how the piece should work on a particular player, I found out that solutions that are natural get much better results.

Many of my pieces have a kind of flexibility, a composition of functions. Rather than, It has to be this exact thing, saying, It has to fulfill this function. The pieces really develop sometimes.

Simon Steen-Andersen, “AMID”; Nadar Ensemble

Does the sound have to stay the same?

No, it can change, but the function remains the same. The function could mean getting from a low note to a high note, but what happens on the way there is flexible. Or it could also be the components of a certain complex or composite sound, where the exact sound or instrument doesn’t really matter. It still has to fill out its role with the other instruments, but it can vary. The main thing is that it balances and blends. ¶