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Composer Portraits: Hans Abrahamsen

Schnee (2008)

Scored for two pianos and percussion with trios of woodwinds and strings, Schnee is an hour-long set of gradually crystallizing canons that are also musical portraits of snow: its flurries, how it blankets and blanks out the landscape, its delicacy, its cold. There are ten canons in pairs, and though all are based on a modal melody, the piece is by no means white-note music. Indeed, microtonal retunings made during the course of performance are crucial to how it sounds, beautifully blurring the counterpoint as the canons shift in and out of focus. At the same time, this snow music is pure white in its objectivity besides being as clear as glass in its textures.

The ten canons are also variations at different levels. Every second one is directly related to its predecessor, and all of them have the same ideas and processes floating in slow similar spirals, as if seen in mirrors. Time is simultaneously standing still, splitting, revolving and accelerating away—standing still because of the layers of repetition and the omnipresence of the basic melody; splitting because layers will move at different speeds; revolving because the same ideas are constantly being refracted and reformed as layers knock against one another; and accelerating away because the movements get shorter and shorter, from nine minutes down to one.

At the pristine beginning, the tune picks itself out right at the top of the piano as one of the string instruments keeps repeating a superhigh harmonic, almost pitchless, creating gasps of intensity—fire in ice. The tune is repeated and then overlapped in the first intimation of the kind of interference pattern of past and present that is one of the most remarkable features of the work. On a larger scale, the entire first movement (for piano quartet, sounding as no piano quartet ever did) is embedded in the second (for the full ensemble).

The first canon of the second pair, scored for lowish woodwinds (alto flute, cor anglais, clarinet in A) and piano, has the former in quick figures that seem to repeat the phrases “Es ist Schnee!” (“It is snow”) and “Es ist Winternacht!” (“It is winter night”). Then, in the first of three intermezzos, these woodwinds and the string trio all retune a sixth-tone down, after which Canon 2b provides another setting of the same music, for the complete nonet.

Canon 3a is just for the strings and woodwinds, and 3b just for the pianos and percussion, so that these two canons are fully in tune, though not, of course, with each other. They are decelerated—the marking is “Tempo des ‘Tai Chi’”—and condense the material into phrases of two or three chords, nearly always falling.

The second intermezzo has the violin and viola tuning down a further sixth-tone, to produce delicately fuzzy harmonies in the fourth pair, rushing music at once clear and misty. Both canons are scored for the full complement—that is, with flute, clarinet in B flat and pianos all in normal tuning, cor anglais and cello a sixth-tone down, and violin and viola a third-tone down.

In the final intermezzo piccolo and E flat clarinet go down a sixth-tone, to prepare to take part in the glistening, high-treble world of the last two canons, which are scored for these two woodwinds with upper-register pianos plus violin and viola harmonics. From winter scenes, the music reaches its destination in focussing on snowflakes.

Finally, some words from the composer:

“In the early 1990s, I arranged some of J.S. Bach’s canons for ensemble—in total seven self-standing works from his entire life-span. I became totally absorbed in this music, and arranged the canons with the intention of them being repeated many, many times, as a kind of minimal music. Obviously, I didn’t know what durations Bach had in mind, but by listening to his canons in this way, a profound new moving world of circular time was opened to me.

“Depending on one’s perspective on these canons, the music and its time can stand still or move either backwards or forwards. 

“In my own work, an ongoing idea has persisted: writing a work consisting of a number of canonic movements that would explore this universe of time. And when I was offered a commission for ensemble recherche and the Wittener Tage, it seemed like the right time to do this.

“In Schnee, a few simple and fundamental musical questions are explored. What is an antecedent? And what is a consequent? Can a phrase be answering? Or questioning? 

“The guideline or rule for the canons is very simple: We start out with an answering antecedent, followed by a questioning consequent. Throughout the time of the piece, these two are intertwined more and more, in more and more densely worked canons, until, at the end, they are interchanged. Now the question and then the answer. The two canons are identical, like a painting in two versions, but with different colors. And where the first one does not include space, the second one does, as well as containing more canonical traces.

“The nine instruments are divided into two groups: the first one situated to the left consists of piano 1, violin, viola, and cello, the second group, on the right, of piano 2 (upright piano), flute, oboe, and clarinet. In the middle is the percussion.”

Program Notes by Paul Griffiths