Norwegian composer Henrik Hellstenius studied musicology at the University of Oslo and later composition with Lasse Thoresen at the Norwegian State Academy in Oslo. In 1992-3 he studied with Gérard Grisey at the Conservatoire Superieure in Paris, and he also studied computer-supported composition at IRCAM in Paris. Hellstenius´ output encompasses a large range of works: chamber music (Five Imprents of time, 1994) orchestral works (In Memoriam, 2012 and A Quiet Space, 2008/2015), opera (Ophelias: Death by Water Singing, 2005) electroacoustic music (The Law, 2014) and music for theatre, film and ballet. His music is frequently performed in concerts and festivals aorund Europe. Hellstenius´ music is lively and animated and the listener experiences an immediate sense of an underlying melodic, even lyrical, sensitivity, either directly or indirectly present. Hellstenius is also a professor in composition teaching at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo.
Imprints of sound – in time
Henrik Hellstenius loves sound. At the risk of stating the obvious, the composer’s love of sound defines his work. Hellstenius is a composer who writes music for his own times, with all the hunger for knowledge of a researcher, the playfulness of a child, and a performer’s instinct for the sensuous in every strike, stroke and breath.
For this reason, this essay will take the composer’s own composition Essais sur le temps double(1998) as its starting point. This work embraces the instrument it is written for, the double bass, in the same way that the musician does. Throughout its five movements, the composer puts his ear to and explores the sounds in the main body of the instrument, fascinated by the many possibilities in a single tone, and playing with the listener’s experience of time. Figures giving different perceptions of tempo are combined in a mosaic of ruptured lines and surfaces of many colours and textures. In this way, the composer strives to create several layers of rhythm in one, in a basically unified compositional form.
Hellstenius’s titles are frequently connected with time, rhythm and movement. He has written three suites – for saxophone quartet, percussion trio and harpsichord – called Imprints of Time, in which he establishes shifting feelings of time against both multi-spectral harmonics and silence. This is important; the composer is just as concerned with the impression music creates on its listeners through pauses and intervals as with that created through sound itself.
The titles also reflect the composer’s characteristic mixture of self-assurance and humility. The essay is both an established literary genre and a word that denotes an attempt, and if it is Hellstenius’s wish to make a mark – to make an impression – then his imprints are far from postulates. The composer is sufficiently secure to allow curious and untested aspects into the finished work. During the composition stage, he likes to work with the musicians he is writing for. As Hellstenius himself remarks, “They have something I don’t – an intimate knowledge of their instruments and ideas about how it can be used. This is extremely stimulating for me.”
Essais was written in close collaboration with Bjørn Ianke, who worked as double bass soloist in the Royal Danish Orchestra. The violin concerto By the Voice a Faint Light is Shed (2001) grew out of several years’ cooperation with prize-winning violinist Peter Herresthal, in three stages. Much of the material comes from Hellstenius’s music for the Norwegian National Theatre’s 1999 production of Jon Fosse’s Dream of Autumn taking shape in Dream of Late in 2000. The most recent version was performed at the Ultima contemporary music festival in Oslo in 2001.
It is perhaps Hellstenius’s clearest substantiations of one of his earliest theories: that sound in itself can be meaningful. In the violin concerto, the listener is swept up by the violinist’s bow as it creates a flood of subtle nuances in the high register, sometimes faint, sometimes demanding the listener to go with it, even if they do not know exactly what it is they are listening for. The composer, however, knows exactly where he wants to direct the attention of his listeners – not to the long melodic phrases and gestures that the romantic ear has been trained to anticipate, not to the moving conversation between soloist and ensemble in the manner of the classical solo concerto, and not to the virtuosity in the cadence at the end of the work. It is sound and the differences within sound that propels the piece forward. The concept of virtuosity takes on new meaning in the subtle shifts between the feather-light touches created with the tip of the bow and the pianissimi created along its length and breadth.
The sound universe of string instruments is close to Hellstenius’s heart, but his collaboration with his performers yields other results. Readings of Mr. G. (2003) for percussion solo and chamber orchestra was written for Hans Kristian Kjos Sørensen, who has made theatre and performance part of his musical activities. Not only did the percussionist acquire a complex virtuoso percussion part in the process, but also the task of reciting three texts by Peter Ospensky alongside the performance. The texts are concerned with philosopher Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, and in the programme note accompanying the first performance in 2003, Hellstenius talks about the inspiration he got from his paternal grandmother, who was closely involved with Gurdjieff’s philosophy of self-creation and of daring to live in a pact with one self. The musical unfolding of this developed as an artful mix of speech, somewhat roughly hewn percussion sounds, and softer string sounds. This is a rare reference to his personal life or his feelings; Hellstenius insists on understanding music as sound, on deriving impulses from beyond and beneath, as well as from other art forms, particularly the theatre. For him, it is not unusual for a theatre assignment to provide the basis for a violin concerto, or for a philosopher or author to inspire a percussion concerto. His collaboration with the well-known choreographer Ingun Bjørnsgaard over her Book of Songs, moreover, resulted in a work for the violin and cello bearing the same name, and Roy Andersson’s film Songs from the Second Floor inspired Songs from the Outside, an ensemble piece.
In an age when several composers make connections with, quote from or otherwise emphasize their break with European musical tradition, Hellstenius allows himself to draw inspiration from the expressions of his own time. His poetics arise only to a limited degree through a dialogue with musical history. The composer neither actively pursues atonality and serialism as a system, nor does he set himself up in opposition to modern aesthetics, as he considers the post-modern use of material from the music of previous centuries to be of limited interest. Hellstenius’s language takes shape during his investigation of sound, movement, rhythm and silence, and in his meetings with instruments and his working partners.
From piano to Pling-Plong
Ever since childhood, Henrik Hellstenius has stubbornly insisted on exploring music on a freer basis than merely mastering the classics. As a young student of the piano in Bærum, just outside Oslo, he always wanted to improvise and make his own compositions rather than practise the Mozart pieces his teacher gave him. Fortunately the same teacher gave him room to do so. In his teens, he dedicated himself to jazz and rock instead of symphony music. Keith Jarret’s My Song is the record he has listened to the most in his life, and the saxophonist, Jan Garbarek, was his great Norwegian hero.
At that time, his ambition was to become an actor. And then he heard Witold Lutoslawski’s Musique Funebre and Krystof Penedereckis’s Threnos during a high school history lesson. This sparked off a completely unexpected change of direction. He had no idea that music with such massive levels of sound and such strength in light tones and dark patterns of movement even existed, and he decided to become a composer.
His acting ambitions were quickly shelved (one of the smartest decisions he ever made, he says) and Hellstenius took up the study of music at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. It was there that he came under the influences from Olav Anton Thommessen and Lasse Thoresen’s classes in sonology, a phenomenologically-based method of musical analysis, which sees music as sounded rather than written notes. No less important was his acquaintance with the French Spectral School, which aims at generating harmonic and melodic material from the analyses of overtone spectra in the acoustic tones of instruments.
In 1990 he heard Gérard Grisey, whose Partiels was performed at the ISCM World Music Days in Oslo. Grisey left an indelible mark on Hellstenius. His work gave the young student of composition insight into a completely new world. Its appeal was enormous; between 1993 and 1996 Hellsenius studied under Grisey in Paris.
At home, along with Ragnhild Berstad and Jon Øivind Ness and others, Hellstenius is identified with the so-called Pling-Plong generation of composers. The name came into being when the three of them, along with five others, released the record Absolutely Pling-Plong in 1994. This nickname represents freedom from aesthetic traditions and ideologies coupled with a user-friendly orientation. With this album, they hoped their message that the new Pling-Plong music was not that stringent or as dangerous after all would reach a broader public.
Henrik Hellstenius’s contribution to this is Stirrings Still – the title is taken from a text by Samuel Beckett. It is an ensemble piece from 1993 playing on the categories of stasis, movement and spectral harmony. The terse-sentence, repetitive mode of composition, characteristic of the renowned author, is a constant, recurring source of inspiration.
Another name that has been a decisive influence on the composer is Luigi Nono, with his focus on the meaningfulness of silence in music. Hellstenius’s Ombra della Sera (2004) for percussion and double bass includes arrangements of fragments of Nono’s music. Readings of Mr. G. is a free transposition of Grisey’s Vortex Temporum. Hellstenius seldom makes reference to any music older than that. Even if Beethoven and the rest of the Western canon are part of his musical baggage, he refers more frequently and more warmly to other sources of inspiration from the 20th century, from jazz and rock to Morton Feldman’s extended minimalism and Salvatore Sciarrino’s unassuming yet intensely emotional universe.
Henrik Hellstenius is an extremely curious, playful and open composer, the love of sound lying at the heart of his work. The clearest, most humorous and imaginative expression of this can be found in Sera, which the composer defines as a modern opera buffa.
Hellstenius’s brother Axel wrote the libretto for an opera whose action is concerned directly with sound. Lilith, a malevolent angel has succeeded in reaching God himself to discuss the possibility of gathering up and obliterating all sounds in the world. For her, human sounds represent nothing but chaos and noise. The angel Sera, on the other hand, who is to transport sound from earth to heaven, provides a few recordings to the hero Abel, who adores all the sounds of the earth. Together they try to fend off the coming, great silence.
Sera is a veritable laboratory for all kinds of musical impulses: French sounds and microtonal movements, electro-acoustic traces, improvisation, slapstick, traditional vocals, and choral passages. Everything is spun together into what is in many ways a simple tale about sound and silence.
In his next opera, Ophelias: Death by Water Singing (2005), Hellstenius chooses a different narrative mode. The action is conveyed through dreamlike images and symbolic moods in a deliberately obscure time frame. The scenes encircle Ophelia’s frame of mind and fate: Ophelia the young woman who is used and dumped by Hamlet, and is so devastated that she drowns herself. These two, as well as Gertrud, Hamlet’s mother and three wood nymphs – a combination of young girls, witches and wily women, are the dramatis personae in this chamber opera together with the mute ghost of the murdered king.
Ophelias was from the outset a collaboration between Henrik Hellstenius, the librettist Cecilie Løveid, director Jon Tombre and selected singers. Løveid, also a poet, wanted to write a libretto free of the traditional demands of linear narrative; Tombre brought in non-realistic, stylized media from theatre and dance.
The way his partners on this project thought and worked was a challenge, one Hellstenius relished. Tombre was allowed an irreverent relationship with the score right up until the last week before the opening night in October 2005. The composer had allowed the director to make changes to the strings, to change the order of scenes and repetitions of individual sequences, and is proud of these changes. Opera, after all, must abide by the rules of the theatre, he says. Music can insist on its own laws, but they are meaningless if it is performed in a theatrical vacuum.
Paradoxically enough, he felt that as a composer he was freer when he rose to the challenges of the librettist and the director, and wrote the scenes as much as self-contained movements as carriers of a linear narrative. It lent greater weight to the music. Ophelias thus at the same time became both more and less traditional than Sera. Among other things, the extended moments, moments in which the main characters dwell on states of mind and situations, are given more room. In this way, the work arrests time in order to say something important, in the way that opera tends to do through the use of arias, duets, overtures and interludes. This is mediated in what is becoming signature Hellstenius language, with the characteristic sounds from strings and woodwind, percussion, at times is unashamedly rock-inspired, legato singing and a wide spectrum of other voice sounds.
The precise interpretation of Ophelias will be left to its audiences. In the same way that Hellstenius considers that it is possible to create meaning in the pauses in music, meaning can also occur in between the events on stage, in the text, as well as the music, when the various elements do not run in the same direction in unison. Opera can open itself up to association, con-creation, and a variety of interpretations, without ever coming apart at the seams.
Ophelias bears witness to a composer who succeeds in bringing together his exploration of sound, rhythm, and movement with increasingly overtly emotional force – in close dialogue with other languages in time, and with honesty towards his own language.
Astrid Kvalbein, 2005