Like objects in a dark room

By Tom Service

Hellstenius’s compulsion to revise his pieces is even more pronounced in his orchestral work Like Objects in a Dark Room. He says he has reworked this piece ‘maybe four times’ since 2007, always striving to make the best version of it possible; the latest version was made last year.

The title is Hellstenius’s own. ‘The formal idea is in the title: I had this image of composing sound objects that really have the presence of physical objects – the snare drum idea, the horn chords. My image was a merry-go-round, with the different objects circling around at different speeds. They return, but not at the same time, sometimes they collide, sometimes they expand, so that it’s something in between a static and spiral experience in time.’

Hellstenius says that ‘some of the objects in the piece are clearly inspired by other composers: there’s an inspiration from Sciarrino in the rhythmical string tremolo [Sciarrino is also an influence on some of the gossamer-fine violin writing of In Memoriam], and the snare drum idea is clearly inspired by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, one of his beautiful pieces that is very seldom performed, Stille und Umkehr’.

But what you will hear in these ten minutes – a span of clock time seemingly contra dicted when you listen to the work, since it creates an experience that seems vaster in scope and scale and space – is a spiralling sonic sculpture is something that is distinctly Hellstenius’s own. He also speaks of Luigi Nono as an influence – ‘his language, especially in his later pieces, is really crystal clear and very condensed’, he says – and yet Like Objects in a Dark Room is far from compositional homage. ‘I tried to be naked in this piece. I tried to do as little as I could, in a way.

In fact both of the works on this recording are trying to do things that are fragile but which also have forward motion, but all done without trying to dress up too much’. Like Objects in a Dark Room is about the exposure of its sonic ideas in as concise form as possible, but it amounts to a heightened experience: a merry-go-round it may be, but this a musical carousel of existential ideas.

And thanks to this recording you can realise at home the performance conditions for the piece that Hellstenius has always dreamt of, but never yet managed to create: that it should be played in total darkness, with the orchestra surrounding the audience on all sides. Now though, we can all enter Hellstenius’s mysterious Dark Room of strange and wonderful sound objects with only our ears and curiosity to guide us…

By Henrik Hellstenius

Music moves in time, like a landscape passing while driving. Parts of the landscape appears up front, passes by and disappears, while new things appears in front. Sometimes one moves slowly through the landscape sometimes fast. As spectator one can change between focusing on several of the objects in the landscape passing by, or just one object. One can return to a place which already has been passed. Returning one experiences the place differently, because this time one has seen more of the place´s surroundings. Seen what came before and after the  place.

Like with the passing landscape, music always exists in a ”before”, ”now” and ”after”. Past, present and future. Music can not be seen or read in different orders as you can with a picture or a text. Music is tied to it´s own flow in time, from something to something else. But it can pretend to create a place or a room and not events in time. It can dwell on something, insist on something and not move away from this. Music can attempt to create in the listener an experience of objects moving circular in a room, rather than the music being a linear journey. This is more or less how I thought when I wrote LIKE OBJECTS IN A DARK ROOM.

I wanted to present a certain amount of musical objects; a pulse played by percussion, some oblique brass chords, an intense shimmering in the strings, a tipping melody played by winds, piano and harp which goes thru a small transformation every time it returns, rhythmical breathing in the instruments. These are all pieces reoccurring in the music. The pieces are never totally similar on their return, they change both in colour and shape. They rotate around and in relationship with each other.

The chosen objects are both mine and quotations from other composers I hold in high regard. So the objects do not pretend to be all original. It is the circulation that is the point more than the objects themselves. Ideally this piece should be played in the dark with the audience surrounded by the orchestra, giving the listener a real experience of a dark room with moving objects on all sides. If this is not possible, the listener can always shut their eyes and pretend that the music defines a place where musical phenomenons arise and disappear, rather than a stretch of time.

9 Minutes
Edition Wilhelm Hansen Copenhagen

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