Talking about Gunnar Berg: quarter-tones on guitar
“Gunnar Berg’s compositions are not ‘knowing’ music; they are a music that listens as closely as it possibly can: a wondering music that searches longingly, obsessively and unyieldingly for its own secret, perhaps for a vanished dream.” Rudolf Kassner
Gunnar Berg (1909-1989)was one of the pioneers of serial music and one of the most important representatives of European musical modernism in Denmark. At an early stage he adopted an international orientation and in 1948 he travelled to Paris to study with Arthur Honegger. He joined the circle around Olivier Messiaen, met john Cage and Pierre Boulez, and made the acquaintance of the music ofWebern and Varèse. In 1952 he attended the international summer course for contemporary music in Darmstadt, where his meetingwith Karlheinz Stockhausen served as a confirmation ofhis own musical experiments. The ten-year stay in Paris was of crucial importance to Berg, who from 1950 on uncompromisingly, consistently and personally adhered to the complex gesturality of musical modernism as well as the theory and aesthetics of the serial composition method – but without becoming dogmatic. Along with his wife, the French pianist Béatrice Berg (1921-1976), he returned to Denmark in 1957 to introduce the avant-garde music of the period to the Danish folk high schools, and the Bergs came to play an important role in the Danish musical life of the next few years, although there was never any great public response to his music (as you would expect by a real modernist composer).
From first to last his experiences at the piano had a determining influence on Berg’s musical oeuvre. The piano works for Béatrice Berg comprise many small instructional pieces, four virtuoso orchestral works – Essai acoustique, Prise, Pour piano et orchestre and Uculang- as well as the two major solo piano works Eclatements 1-13 and Gaffky’s 1-10, both in formats that piace them among the major manifestations of Danish piano literature in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Encounters with female musicians were highly stimulating for Berg. For the Swiss recorder player Anita Stange (b. 1926), who had trained at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis with the legendary Ina Lohr, he composed two recorder works – Triedra for recorder solo and 9 Duos for recorder and cello. Both works are dedicated to Anita Stange, who gave them first performances at Hermann Gattiker’s “Hausabende fur zeitgenossìsche Music” in Bern, where Berg, with a total of fifteen performances, is on the top-ten list of just under 400 composers played (Doris Lanz: Neue Music in alten Mauern, 2006; the chapter on Gunnar Berg has also been published at http://www.gunnarberg.dk).
For the German guitarist Maria Kamrnerling (b. 1946) Berg composed several works. In 1971 she had married the Danish guitarist Leif Christensen (1950-1988) and settled in Denmark. Both as teachers and as musicians, this couple were pace-setters in Danish musical life, and they were greatly respected on the international guitar scene with concerts and a considerable CD production of both classical and modern guitar music.
For more information about Gunnar Berg, you can read Jens Rossel’s biography in: http://www.edition-s.dk/composer/gunnar-berg
I agree with Christoph Jaggin, when he wrote in 2008 that “Gunnar Berg’s guitar works, apart from a re-instrumentation of an early Lied composition in the 1960s, were written between 1976 and 1985. In number, diversity and variety they form an astonishing totality that is not oriented towards the traditional guitar repertoire, yet still seems to have listened thoroughly to the instrument and to have grown organically out of it. How much ‘unheard’ and what great independence one discovers here! But more than anything, these compositions are characterized by a profound seriousness and sincerity that is far removed from any superficial amenability.”
The inspiration for this rich process of creation was the meeting with the guitarist Maria Kiimmerling, in whom Gunnar Berg found his ideal listener and interpreter. After Fresques [I-IV, the monumental first work, the others came in quick succession: Hyperion (1977) for guitar, soprano and nine instruments, various reworkings of the piano Lieder(1977/1978), Melos I (1979), and after a pause due to the composer’s emigration to Switzerland, the re-instrumentation of the 9 Duos for recorder or f1ute and guitar (originally composed for recorder and violoncello), and finally Ar-Gotll (1984-85) for two guitars.
Gunnar Berg’s guitar works are:
– Fresques (1978) for solo guitar
– Hyperion (1978) for soprano, guitar and nine instruments to a text by Friedrich Holderlin
– Melos I (1979) for solo guitar
– 9 Duos (1957/1984) for recorder and guitar (originally recorder and cello; the recorder part can also be played on a flute)
– Ar-Goàt (1984-85) for two guitars
– A small collection of early songs where the piano has been replaced by the guitar
I was able to find two cds of Gunnar Berg guitar music. The first of which I also have the first edition as LP is “Fresque our guitare seule” performed by Maria Kämmerling , produced by Paula Records. The second is Melos, produced by Dacapo Records in 2009, and where the guitarists involved are Bolette Roed, Michael Norman, Per Dybro Sørensen.
These two cds have excellent leaflets with interesting essays made by Jens Rossel and Christoph Jaggin, where I have found all the informations and quotes you can read in this blog article.
Fresques (1978) for solo guitar
You can find this music in “Fresque our guitare seule” performed by Maria Kämmerling.
The encounterwith the Danish music scene was a surprise for Maria Karnmerling. She had undergone her musical training in the Cologne of Stockhausen and Kagel and at the Hochschule fur Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna, and not much was known there about Danish composition music and the tendencies towards simplicity that carne as a reaction to complex international modernism and became known under the overall designation the New Danish Simplicity – a movement that with some justification can be compared to the attitude behind the famous Danish Dogma films ofthe nineties. As a member of the chamber ensemble Sub Rosa, which played both Baroque and contemporary composed music, Maria Kammerling participated in first performances of several Danish works – including, in 1976, Per Nergàrd’s Nova Genitura (we can find this music in the LP “Den Himmelske Og Den Jordiske Kærlighed (Nova Genitura Og Seadrift)”).
It was on that occasion that she first heard music by Gunnar Berg, whose Triedra and 9 Duos were played by Annette Friisholm, recorder, and Hans Erik Deckert, cello. Maria Kàmmerling visited Berg and invited him to write for her instrument. Berg had no experience of the guitar and refused with the (in)famous words: “Berlioz, in his Traité d’lnstrumentation, is supposed to have said: If you do not play the guitar yourself, don’t write for this instrurnent”. However, Maria Kammerlìng insisted, and Berg was persuaded to let her introduce him to the instrument. Berg had special interest in the guitar’s quarter-tones, which can be executed in practice by pulling or pushing a string aside, but which were a relatively new phenomenon in the guitar literature of the time. Without regard to ordinary, normal playing and composition style, Bergwent to work using quarter-tones, not only as individual notes, but also in chords, and sometimes in combination with harmonics. The new, unusual and different, boundary-breaking tonall and scape that arose reveals Berg’s profound familiarity with the physiognomy of the tones; but technically Berg’s scores were a great challenge to Maria Karnmerling, who had to write small arrows into her music to mark the direction in which the string had to be displaced so that the chord notes on the adjacent strings would not be prevented from souncling.
In 1978 this unusually fruitful collaboration between composer and musician resulted in Fresques for solo guitar, which with its array of quarter-tones, previously unheard combinations of harmonics and an extreme spectrum of dynamics and stroke types is one of the most concentrated works that modern guitar music has to offer.
Maria Kammerling gave Fresques its first performance in 1978, and the next year she recorded it for the label Paula Records – a recording that stands as striking testimony to an extraordinary musician and an unusual ability to realize complex scores.
Ar-Goàt, 9 Duos for recorder and guitar and Melos I for solo guitar are in the “Melos” cd.
Ar-Goàt (1984-85) for two guitars
In 1980 Gunnar Berg left Denmark and returned to Switzerland, where he was born. In Igis, some 100 km south of his birthplace St. Gall, he concluded his guitar chapter with 9 Duos for flute and guitar and Ar-Goat for two guitars. Ar-Goat was first performed on 2nd February 1986 at the Royal Danish Academy of Music by Maria Kammerling and Leif Christensen.
With this title, Ar-Goàt, although he pointed to a Celtic connection: Argoat is the Breton name of the wooded in land region of Brittany where Berg spent the summer of 1949.
The dominant character of Ar-Goat is pointillistic. In all three movements single notes in changing textures and density predominate; notes from the two guitars rarely coincide, although they both play all the time, and the use of chords is limited. The first movement’s shifting metro nome speeds, time signatures and dynamic range from ppp to f, along with the frequent use of quarter-tones, create a fluctuating character. Sometimes the movement comes together in a swinging pulse, solidifies and begins anew. There is a surprisingly alien contrasting section with tremolo glissandi in both guitars, which ends just as suddenly as it began. The fast second movement is a tour de force with dynamic shuttling between ppp and f .The metronome speed and time signature remain the same throughout the movement, but one guitar part is notated in 4/8, the other in 5/8, and this has an electrifying effect, creating a rhythmic drive that at some points recalls free jazz. In a very few places the notes are supplemented by rapping on the guitar body. The third movement is one long fade-out; there are no dynamic markings, but there are changes in both metronome speed and ti me signature. The pulse is slower, sometimes coming together march-like in a more stable tempo, sometimes coming to a complete halt. A few chords are allowed to sound fully – as the concluding note D does, when the two instruments finally meet.
9 Duos for recorder and guitar
9 Duos for recorder and cello from 1957 is a typical example of Berg’s works in the latter half of the fifties with several short movements or variants of differing characters and idioms. In a letter to Herman Gattiker in 1957, Berg implies that the work posed problems: “The duos for recorder and cello were a bad business, gave me a lot of trouble “. Whether this work succeeded for me in the end remains to be seen.” The interval of the third provides the common structural factor in the nine movements, which exhibit varying degrees of complexity and intensity, all the way from unison passages to polyrhythms, great intervalleaps, changing time signatures, many notes tied over the bar line, and entries in unaccented times, with the last and longest movement as a Synthèse. The cello part, thoroughly reworked in 1984, has been tailored to the playing techniques of the guitar, and the work has the feel of an independent composition, in no way of an arrangement of something else for the guitar. On 18th january 1987 the flute version was performed for the first time at the Winterthur conservatory in Switzerland by Susanne Huber and Christoph jaggin.
On 23rd February 1987 the recorder version was given its first performance at the Royal Academy of Music in Àrhus by Anne Mette Karstoft and Maria Kammerling.
Maria Kammerling premiered Melos I on 13thJanuary 1980 in the rehearsal hall of Folketeatret in Copenhagen during Danmarks Radio’s ‘Music New Year’ 1980. Kammerling herself wrote in the programme that “the composer uses, in condensed form, some of the instrument’s most distinctive but rarely used possibilities: quarter-tones – both individually and in chord structures – extremely high harmonics and harmonic chords, passages for the left hand alone.” Berg makes use of a total of seven different stroke techniques and positions, yet the piece never takes on the character of a display.
Berg did not reveal much about the background of the title of the work, or the motto-like sentence he wrote on the inside of the manuscript cover: Das Verschwiegene oder die Legende vom Nichtsein – ‘the unspoken, or the legend of non-being’. Melos is the name of the Greek island where the Venus de Milo was found, but it is also the Greek word which from the time of Plato on was used to designate both the ordering of different pitches into a melodie progression and the connection between language, rhythm and harmony. Berg’s Melos I is one long monodic progression – a tone-colour melody ~ borne up by harmonics and quarter-tones, with the relatively few chords as ‘coloured’ notes.