Lars Graugaard

The Danish language has a brilliant word for ‘draft’ (in the sense of drafting a piece of work). The noun is ‘udkast’, and translates literally as a ‘throw out’.

I have always understood it more as a throw at – to throw ideas at a blank wall or a canvas. Some will stick, some won’t. What remains will need a fair bit of tidying-up.

This blog exists to extend the discussion of Nordic music and musicians initiated in my book The Northern Silence. I hope it will also prove a useful home for those bits of ‘udkast’ that, for whatever reason, couldn’t be included in the final edition.

One of them, deleted on the grounds of continuity, was a brief look at the music of the Danish composer Lars Graugaard.

Graugaard’s music has fascinated and enchanted me since I got my hands on Engage and Share in 2018, an album he recorded with the Grup Intstrumental de València.

When ‘udkasting’ the chapter Scandinavian by Design, I originally allowed a discussion of the improvisatory qualities inherent in some of Sibelius’s music to lead to a brief word on Engage and Share. A slightly tidied-up version of it is pasted below, together with some thoughts on the album that originally appeared (in Danish) in the magazine Klassisk.

Graugaard’s music is full of thrills. There is plenty of it to explore on the composer’s own website here.

Lars Graugaard (photo: Manuel Alberto Claro)

Cause and Effect: Lars Graugaard

Even if they didn’t want to replicate Sibelius’s sound or aesthetic, plenty of composers after him clocked the structural implications of his reactive, quasi-improvisatory designs. Some borrowed his techniques. Others attempted to achieve the same ends using the opposite means – writing music that feels less organic, more induced.

Lars Graugaard, born in Denmark, has produced a series of works employing almost mechanistic principles of cause and effect. What emerges is lucid and impactful music that remains true to functionalist principles in keeping its form clear and treating instruments as essential parts moving in sympathy with one another. Inevitability remains, but in a less gravitational, more forced form.

Slonk (2017) is an onomatopoeic title for a piece whose spasms and waves push it forwards like a musical caterpillar, hugging the ground at predominantly low pitches. Despite the mass of proximate, grinding sound, all is clear. This is nature music from the street – adventures not on mountaintops but in backalleys. It has the consistent feel of an improvisation, even if you know it can’t be.

Slonk‘s form is always clear and the instrumentation fresh and uncluttered despite the forest of sounds – the intense drilling of individual instruments and the low brass that offer up moaning roars like faltering girders.

Blind Lemon (2013) is more theatrical, as the villains of low woodwinds conspire against their innocent siblings higher up, the former burning themselves out before the piece ends in cleansing lightness. A little cosmic tune on the celeste appears to form the turning point, coming after the naturalistic chattering rhythms that are half John Adams half Richard Wagner.

Engage and Share (2014) tells of Graugaard’s musical ideals in deeds as well as in the words of its title: lyrical fragments in clarinets drag the music upwards from its clanging depths towards a tundra consisting of beautiful but barely audible etching. A sense of adventure is built in from the start, with the help of those exceptional dark colours.

Listening to all three works is akin to observing the insides of a fantastic contraption or machine, in which every moving part serves a purpose and operates in sympathy with the others. Part of that comes from Graugaard’s background as an improvising musician – the guys who don’t play a note unless it’s as a reaction to a note someone else has just played or is still playing.

There is a consistent sense of direction – of forward motion – in Graugaard’s scores and in these three, the journeys are as clear as they are rational (in the case of at least two pieces, up from the depths towards the light via a process of construction from low notes to high ones). At both ends of the spectrum, Graugaard’s exploration of tone colour is special.

Accordingly, Graugaard’s music sounds like it is being written as it is being played. Rhythm and motion combine with that remarkable sense of colour to form highly functional and very Nordic sound journeys in which mostly inaudible rhythmic underlays tease the music along (again, see Sibelius). On top of that, expressive melodies emerge, often on two instruments operating as a team and tied by a specific interval. Colourful lyric threads ascend and descend over long distances. Just bit players in an enchanting musical display which is all Graugaard’s own.



The first paragraphs of The Northern Silence – from the opening chapter, Tapiola

From the glass walls of Helsinki Airport, Finland’s forests resemble a dado rail separating the horizon from the sky. But the country’s ancient woods are different. They are altogether more inhospitable, inaccessible and unkempt. They don’t start or finish; they come into being and drift elusively away again. The deeper you venture in, the more their base rhythm shifts. Those neat forests harvested for timber and pulp in suburban Helsinki are clipped and consistent. Finland’s old-growth forests are sprawling and unruly, littered with glacial boulders and standing pools.

            I am clambering through one such forest with two Finns, Pekka and Esa. We are on the outskirts of the town of Pietarsaari, high on the country’s west coast in the district of Ostrobothnia. It is late November, around midday. The sun has emerged, but will remain visible for a few hours at best and will cleave resolutely to the horizon while it does. Its position there actually makes the forest lighter: rays filter sideways through the trees, particularly near the forest clearings where no canopy can interrupt them. I have not experienced this particular kind of light in a wood before. It illuminates millions of tiny particles in the air. It is bracing and embracing, a visual equivalent to submersing yourself in lake water.

            Pekka Hako is a musicologist, folklorist and educationalist from Helsinki and wants to talk about this distinctive late autumnal light. He is a bear of a man, unmistakably Finnish from the drooping legato of his spoken English to his high cheekbones and Nokia gumboots. He mentions the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, born not far from here. ‘Aalto tried to recreate this effect in many of his buildings,’ Pekka half-shouts as he walks some metres ahead, negotiating rocks and dodging squelching mud, gesticulating with his left arm to signal he’s speaking. ‘He considered the sun’s position at latitudes like this and tried to find ways of getting its light to infiltrate buildings in the same way, using latticing and panels. He wanted just the quality of light we have here.’

            Aalto wasn’t the only one. This lustrous, piercing sideways light leads me to music – to the last major piece for orchestra by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. In Tapiola,[i] Sibelius created what seems on the surface to be an orchestral depiction of Finland’s spirit of the forest, as set out in the country’s folkloric poetry. At its simplest, Tapiola can be interpreted as a journey deep into one of these woods. It carries with it the heaving undertow of forest winds and creaking trees. It makes oblique references to mystery critters lurking in the half-darkness. It saturates your ears with a sense of the unseen and the unknown. It disorientates at macro and micro level: underneath the orchestra’s elusive twists and turns, the entire musical structure sits uneasily in its own key.

            Despite the fear and foreboding, Tapiola eventually comes good. In the score’s final bars, the orchestra reaches outwards in an almost physical embrace. Its string sections divide and spread-eagle, alighting on notes just far enough apart to affect the musical equivalent of a damp, luminous glisten. The music shifts key for the first and only time – into the major. As an evocation of autumnal Nordic light momentarily filtering through forest trees, the final bars of Tapiola get closer than Alvar Aalto ever would. We are left with the reassuring impression of the forest as a foe turned friend.

            After those crepuscular chords, Tapiola disappears into the silence from which it emerged. Sibelius would do the same. For more than thirty years following Tapiola’s first performance in 1926, the composer wrote little he deemed fit for public exposure. Were the warning signs there? Tapiola has only one half-melody, itself built mostly from repetitions of a single note. Despite that valedictory shift from minor to major, the piece effectively remains within the confines of a single key, a design feature almost unheard of in music at the time. The whole score is alarmingly short on actual musical material. Little wonder silence followed Tapiola. As one musicologist has written, ‘Sibelius reduced his music more and more until, in the end, there was none.’[ii]

            Silence, it’s tempting to speculate, had proved itself too intrinsic a part of Sibelius’s musical language for him to resist embracing it fully. Or perhaps, from his home in the woods, he let it embrace him. The composer had explored the eloquence and energy of silence in plenty of works before. In some, he uses it more obviously. But in Tapiola, silence is the natural state over which each and every sound treads discourteously, right from the rumbling kettledrum with which it sneaks into being. Here, Sibelius uses silence not as a rhythmic lubricant or a dramatic device pitched in counterpoint to extreme noise. Rather, it lies under each and every note, like the inaudible breathing of the forest. Playing the silence, the best conductors know, is how to play Tapiola.

            Silence is more prominent in the northernmost reaches of Europe, in urban as well as rural environments. Sometimes it is real and pure. Sometimes it lingers despite the noise – the deafening silence of poetic fantasy; stasis charged with ferocious thought. Like the forest of Tapiola, it can exist internally as well as externally. Sibelius’s life after Tapiola was filled not with silence, as legend dictates, but with attempts to fill it – with a world of stillborn noise ultimately suffocated by a silence more powerful.

[i] Tapiola refers to the realm of Tapio – in Finnish mythology, the god or ‘spirit’ of the Forest.

[ii]  Goss, Glenda Dawn (2009). Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.