Someone asked me recently, at a bookshop event for The Northern Silence in Copenhagen, what Danish composer I had been most effected or enlightened by. Easy: Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen.

I adore Pelle’s music. There’s plenty of it discussed in The Northern Silence (Plateaux pour Deux, Moving Still, Run) and there’s a whole lot more that isn’t (Moments Musicaux, Og, Three Songs with Texts from Politiken, Eksempler, Konstateringer, Symphony and Antiphony, the string quartets…the full list is a long one).

In 2014, before I lived in Denmark, The Guardian newspaper sent me to Copenhagen to interview Pelle. We met in a café overlooking Blågårds Plads. What ensued was one of the most thrilling and enjoyable interviews I have experienced, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we talked about none of the subjects I had written down in my little notebook. It remains the only such meeting I’ve never been able to bring myself to delete from my dictaphone – perhaps because Pelle died two years later, the year after I moved here, and I never got to see him again (though we did correspond by letter, and on email through a third party). I remain sincerely grateful to Cecilie Rosenmeier for setting it up and introducing me to Pelle.

Bits of the interview made their way into The Northern Silence and a few more into The Guardian article. Here is a transcript of (almost) the whole conversation, slightly tidied up. There is barely a sentence from Pelle that isn’t full of wisdom.

AM: I was at a performance of Plateaux pour Deux [1970] in London recently, your piece for cello and car horns. There were some people behind me and they couldn’t contain their laughter. Actually they were guffawing, as we would say in English.

PGH: …they are welcome to!

The thing is, it created a sort of tension with the people in the concert hall who were thinking, “this is serious music, you shouldn’t be laughing at this”…

It is one of those pieces that’s in the grey zone. If you go to the concert hall, you are supposed not to laugh unless it is Spike Jones or something. The concert hall is a ritual, where you agree to behave. You’ve got to have some manners. You are not coming in naked for instance. When I was at the Royal [Danish] Academy of Music, after a day at the Academy we would go for a beer and entertain ourselves by finding impossible interpretations. Sonata for organ and bicycle pump was one idea. But I soon thought, why is it only for fun we do this? Why couldn’t it be taken as a concept of composing? There is actually nothing wrong with the car horn. It’s OK. It’s a fine instrument. It has a very refined sound.

But it takes a while for the ear to come round to that partnership as a legitimate one.

Yes, and I knew then, of course, that people would laugh. And they have been laughing since, and they have scolded me because they think it’s a stupid idea, which it is as a matter of fact. But this is the temptation: to seek those areas that are called stupid. It has its own kind of innocence, like a child being naughty. As a child you say all those ugly words just to see how the parents react; to the child it’s a nice thing to do. It’s a primitive attitude in a way. But composers are childish under all circumstances, because to compose is very naïve. There’s so much music already made, so if you decide to be a composer you are childish. If you were very clever you wouldn’t do it, because you would see the problems and the impossibility of being together with Mozart and Bach.

Has that troubled you?

I have been in crises like that in my life, crises where I have decided to give up, because I thought, “you can’t expect people to listen to this”. So when I wrote this piece for cello and car horn, I didn’t expect people to be happy about it. I said to myself, “I’m kind of a child, so I’ll do it”. And people are still astonished and still offended. But I think it is a fine piece of music, since it develops very severely. The horn has its system and it gets out of the picture by degrees. The cello is left, and has a solo during the last minutes. So the piece has a story: the cello being born in the beginning and really not heard, but by degrees becoming more present. And when it then has a chance to be present in the last minutes, very reduced and almost silent, it’s as if the cello says, “well, it’s my turn now but I’ve got nothing to say”. That’s its narrative, in a way.

It’s there in other pieces you’ve written: you present an ostensibly illegitimate, unproven relationship, and you set out to prove, or to try to prove…

…that they can be together, yes. Out here [Blågårds Plads], in reality, the most impossible creatures are together all the time. So I wanted to bring this part of our life into music, to show that we have all these different kinds of behaviours and traditions and colours. It’s best to call them “objects” and “beings” and “creatures”. You have very tough materials, stone and metal, and you have the weak things also, the little bird, perhaps not weighing more than 5 grams. A little bird is 5 grams of creature, and you have an elephant in the zoo just 10 metres away. And then you have the children and the parents. When I was in the zoo as a child, I was mostly interested in the little sparrows. My parents would show me the lion, but I was running after the little sparrows. I found them interesting, those little birds.

Related to that, let’s talk about your very specific idea of sound – and perhaps this is as specific as a particular bird’s song. Do musicians ever find it difficult to deal with those specifics – to read your scores as naturally, as it were, as you’d imagined them?

Not any more. For most of my life, I have had troubles with conductors and musicians and audiences. But by degrees I think people are getting accustomed to new music and to my music, so they are now treating it as if it’s music to play in a fine and beautiful way. Good musicians get the solutions: the London Sinfonietta, Theatre of Voices, Kronos Quartet – they find it interesting and find the process of making decisions enjoyable.

Was the London Sinfonietta wrong-footed at all by your work?

I thought so. I didn’t ask them but I thought so.


I think in the beginning they didn’t know what to think – perhaps they were afraid of being in bad company. That’s my destiny, to be bad company.

But you’re surely in the company of people like John Cage – the ideas, in a sense, are bigger than music. To me they’re more about sound – the capabilities of an instrument, the social interaction of performance – even if music is a byproduct. The principle of ignoring display, that’s all over your work…

Yes it is. There are some new possibilities now, it’s coming back to the 1920s and Dadaism of course; then [Gérard] Deschamps taking things, completely innocent things, not connected with art at all, and putting them into a museum. So it began there in the beginning of the 1900s, and since then we have become accustomed to the possibility of using every kind of sound. But the difficulty then is to choose your sound: you can’t put every sound in one piece. So in connection with each piece you have to decide which sounds should meet each other, should circulate. These figures, these sounds, are often running in circles – not developing, not going anywhere but just being there.

Cage is long gone and Busoni even more so. These ideas about sound and music, nobody has taken them forward quite like you. Do you feel you’re on your own?

Well, each nation has its own tradition. If you’re in Germany of course you have Schoenberg and Stockhausen, who have made a strong impression on generations. Still, the German approach can be heard in the German composers and also in Boulez – even though he still has this big character, clarity and beauty in the sound, which I think is French. Not that I prefer Boulez to Stockhausen, I’m very fond of those two guys in fact. In the 60s we were completely overwhelmed by their music, but I’m still faithful to their expression. You can’t hear it my own music because I’ve found another way of doing it.

Sometimes I can hear it in your bigger works, maybe in your orchestral works.

Maybe, I don’t know. I think Ives and Varèse and Stravinsky are more there. Charles Ives was a fantastic, wild and strange composer, putting those things together. He was mad and fresh; his madness was fresh. But when I listen to Stravinsky I have this feeling that I only have when I listen to Stravinsky; it’s as if a hot electrical current has been put directly onto the nerves. This nervous rhythm, constantly moving without going anywhere. But at the same time he’s Russian and he also has this Asian quietness, calmness. Perhaps that Asian quality enables him to be nervous and calm at the same time.

Photo: Lars Skaaning / Edition Wilhelm Hansen

The piece we just heard being rehearsed, Og, I know it’s not structured as a passacaglia, but it feels like one in the sense that…

…things keep coming back…

Yes. And talking of national characteristics, do you feel there is a sense of organization in Danish music post-Nielsen, no wasted notes…

No, no, there should not be any wasted notes. I try to get rid of unnecessary notes.

Perhaps that comes from Stravinsky.

Yes it does. It’s not an improvisatory thing; a jazz musician has a lot of notes to enjoy. But I prefer to take away what is not necessary, even if there are a lot of notes. I like the feeling of chaos, of not being able to find your orientation, feeling a little lost, and then, by degrees, finding your way, if not the material. Many of my pieces are about this situation, being shocked by the multiphonics, and then by degrees, beginning to see what it is about.

As in, you have your parameters, and they’re very tight, and you can go crazy within those parameters?

I don’t like the chaos without any order, so it’s inside the chaos there is complete order.

In Danish society, there seems to be a constant sense of controlled rebellion that results in absolute order. There is never any possibility that things will descend into chaos because the chaos is nurtured and contained in one domain – the democratic public expression of dissatisfaction.

I’m not a fan of Denmark. I think we have so many bad qualities, notably being a little too relaxed when it comes to treating other people, the people coming into this country. I also think we lack a little respect for the tougher materials which make sophisticated art. Generally, I think we in Denmark are a little vulgar compared to Sweden for example. We are happy about being vulgar, as a matter of fact; we make a virtue out of it.

Haven’t Danish artists always done that – Carl Nielsen?

Yes, and Nielsen is one of my favourite composers. And I know why, because he has a freshness which is very rare, and is also odd. Much of his music is not accepted in France and Italy, because they do not understand this square and rude and fresh style…

…can you say ‘vulgar’ as well?

No, I don’t think he is vulgar. He is common – he’s not afraid of being common. But in being common he is still original. He’s an original guy I think. Sometimes I prefer him to Brahms, which I know is a ridiculous thing to say as Brahms is a fantastic composer. But everything is in the right place with Brahms. And you have this colour, sort of like this table here. It’s like a very deep brown, mahogany desk in the Ministry of Justice. Brahms is on the right side of the desk – so convincing, so right, so beautiful in his heaviness. Carl Nielsen is on the wrong side: a little out of tune, the naughty boy, not the cleverest in the class but definitely the most inventive. You couldn’t confuse him with anyone else. He has this innocence and he survives with his fantastic invention. They are very original these ideas [in Nielsen]. If you hear Nielsen you couldn’t think it was any other composer. Max Bruch you can easily think is another composer.

It’s about refinement I guess…

Refining your strangeness.

Is that a process at work in your own music?

I hope so. The older I get the more I try to refine it. Earlier in my life I wrote some pieces that I regret a little, which I think are too rude, too rough – lacking a little. Generally speaking, the pieces I’m rather happy about – you say that because you’re never completely happy – are the pieces in which the concept and the way of doing it has been clear to a high degree: knowing what to do, and doing it. The pieces I’m not so happy about have too many things in them, which means I’ve not been completely aware of what I was doing. What you want, ideally, is to know where your feet are, which ground you’re standing on, have some sort of feeling of what the piece is about. Then you do it as soberly as possible without jumping here and jumping there and without forgetting that original idea.

Often the idea has a wonderful simplicity, obviousness even – as in Three Songs With Texts from Politiken [1967]. It’s a delightfully simple concept.

At that time in my life, I’d been through several periods with different intentions. But I was very much thinking against what was generally done in musical circles, so writing songs was nearly impossible for me. Writing songs was about following words, giving them a kind of colour, a new meaning, or surroundings which would emphasize the deeper content of the text. But at that time I hated this kind of approach to a text, because I found a very fine poem had an extremely clear meaning already, together with the sound of it. So beginning to sing such a poem seemed to me, at that time, to be a bad idea. I couldn’t make sense of it.

So instead, with the Politiken songs, in which the texts are those mundane business reports, there is this ringing absurdity.

Yes because I couldn’t do anything else. The human race has a voice, and I couldn’t see the meaning of not using this voice. Why should we shut up? Samuel Beckett talks about stopping talking, because it’s impossible to talk but it’s also impossible not to talk, so he keeps going on.

“I have nothing to say and I’m going to say it”.

Yes, John Cage, that’s it. Those two guys have something in common there.

Going back to that performance of Plateaux pour Deux in London, the funny thing was that the atmosphere became very serious, because of the people who were laughing, and the people who didn’t want them to laugh, and the people who didn’t know whether or not they wanted them to laugh. Perhaps the only individuals entirely relaxed with the situation were the two musicians.

It’s a nice situation I think, it sounds wonderful, it sounds good – everyone not knowing what to do. That’s fine.

But suddenly there was something to think about.

That’s it. And that’s a good situation, and mostly good music has a little of this in it. Even if you listen to Bach, what the hell is going on? It’s so overwhelming that you find yourself astonished by this information, so this astonishment is part of the joke. It’s not just a reaction – it sounds beautiful – it’s that you can’t understand why it sounds so beautiful. It’s impossible to understand. But if you do not understand one thing, it’s a rather fruitful situation to be in. I think all composers know about not knowing exactly what they’re doing, and they feel the temptation of not knowing. If you knew completely what to do you would be bored. So the anxiety, the nervousness, is rather inspiring. I think all artists know this nervousness in relation to their material; whether they are on the right track or not, when every day a new question has to be solved and you do not know what’s going on the next day. I’m 81 now and I’m still completely unknowing of what situation I will be in tomorrow. Not completely unknowing, because I know a lot of things. But the defining things, the little defining things that make you say to yourself, well, that’s how it should be – you don’t know if they will occur.

Do you develop habits in that sense?

Yes, everyone does. I don’t want not to do anything, so I’m going to try to do something, to be aware of what’s going on.

Are habits bad for you?

No. I will have set habits; everyone has that. It’s a very great part of our lives. I think even the most eccentric person has his habits, and you get accustomed to those habits of course, you accept that they will occur and how they will look to a certain degree. But I think every sensible artist will have a close look at his habits. I have anyway; I am discussing every day if this is the best thing to do, and often I choose the unsatisfying and rude and impolite. I have a tendency to go in that direction because there’s a temptation to explore those things. It’s more inspiring to be on your own, to go into the jungle and find a way to survive; that’s more tempting than to travel first class and have a bath. To be a composer is dangerous as a matter of fact. You talk about the London Sinfonietta…with them perhaps, in that sense, it’s not easy to see what I’m looking for. People think, what is this about?

You can get into it, though, your music. It comes. It suddenly ‘clicks’ – and almost your whole oeuvre falls into place. It did for me.

There are some musicians and conductors who do not have that difficulty any more; they are willing to go further. They are accustomed to the surprises, to the bad manners of my music. The bad manners in my music will not be easy for the London Sinfonietta and I have a suspicion that they will find it too naïve, too clumsy. And who can we compare it with? A little like Carl Nielsen perhaps.

I think people have the same problem with Carl Nielsen. They expect his music to somehow remind them of Jean Sibelius’s.

There’s an enormous difference between Carl Nielsen and Sibelius, but I’m very glad personally, in my experience of those two composers, to be a complete admirer of both. In my younger days my music was inspired by Sibelius’s, but later on, you couldn’t say so.

Perhaps what makes Denmark different is its sense of humour, which is quite close to the British sense of humour – more so than the other Nordic countries.

I know. I’m very fond of British humour and American humour, the black humour of Monty Python for example. And I’m a big fan of Chaplin and Keaton. And of course Chaplin was from London, from a very poor background, but his humour is gorgeous. I don’t think that kind of humour is very German for instance, and not very French either. It’s northern, British and American, and Danish. We have had some fine humorists here and comic figures on the scene, and also in Anglo Saxon literature.

Photo: Jeppe Gudmundsen-Holmgreen

Yesterday I listened to Company [2010]. Something I’ve heard in your other pieces, Moving Still is one of them, is this idea of pulse and repetition – that if you repeat something enough times, its meaning will transform. It will twist.

Yes, that’s it, very much twisting; the same chords, the same rhythm, the same material, but most of the time changing. Company develops from a more complex situation to a peaceful consolation as the sounds become accustomed to each other. Changing it to major with very little dissonance, you get an odd kind of beauty. I’m not afraid of this old kind of beauty. In my piano concerto I take a Mozart piano concerto – as you know – and it ends with Mozart, in a clear A major. The voice of the piano is nearly 100% Mozart. The orchestra is completely nuts, but nevertheless comfortable with it.

There are those Mozart references in the piece we just heard Athelas Sinfonietta play, Og. Obviously the piece is tied up with Søren Kierkegaard. I just read Diary of a Seducer and was struck that even in this ostensibly lighter, narrative work, there is a deep lingering depression. A man obsessed with sexuality but without any love.

Yes that’s it. He’s a desperate man, but Kierkegaard is very sarcastic and wicked to his surroundings; he demands so much. I don’t think it’s fair to demand that much. I laugh when I read Kierkegaard. I read it before bed and my wife asks “why are you laughing? Kierkegaard is a philosopher and you can’t laugh at a philosopher.” But I think it’s fine that a philosopher can call for a laugh. Because he has those two figures A and B [in the book Enten-Eller, (‘Either/Or’)], A’s letters and B’s letters, the older one advising the younger one, and those discussions are so beautiful. He succeeds in putting forward his ideas by letting those two people see different things. So Kierkegaard’s mind is A and B, and by combining the two he puts his finger on a lot of human weaknesses. He’s squeezing it in a sarcastic way that I think calls for a laugh. It’s rather astonishing.

What’s the connection to Og?

I hadn’t read much Kierkegaard but I began because I got that commission, a commission for the Kierkegaard anniversary in 2013. One of the things we are discussing here is his dividing his thoughts in different voices, A and B, and that’s very much my own way of making music, having different paths or voices, different opinions, things to say, and in saying those different things, there might come a third thing that’s worth discussing. So in Og [the Danish word for ‘and’] the brass are only playing the D minor chords of the overture to Don Giovanni, and since Kierkegaard was very fond of Don Giovanni and Mozart, I thought it was an idea to come into the mind of this man, to have Mozart there as beauty, and then these other voices concerned with completely different things. The bassoon is a little creature having not so many notes, but talking all the time, trying to get through and being expressive, while the strings are making sounds from the Politiken songs, they comes from there, and the bassoon is making the same kind of music as in Frères Jacques [1964]. If you don’t know that work, it’s one of my favourite early pieces. The bassoon there is very much like the bassoon you heard here in Og. So I think these different utterances find a way out during the piece. Frères Jacques is the first piece of which I think I’m a little proud.

It’s a little like Company in that respect – the feeling that instruments are hatching out like small creatures from an egg. A stilted vocal flowering into a full voice.

Yes, yes, that’s it. In the beginning of Company the sounds are just spoiling each other, there are too many of them. But they get confidence in themselves and they begin to relax because they accept themselves and it seems to be OK. And the less there are the more beautiful it gets – the end of the piece is far more beautiful than the beginning. There’s not much left so it’s possible to deal with it as music – it’s not objective; it’s not completely reality. You have to make music out of those little things.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen dances to his own music (the score Triptycon, 1985)