Bjørn Fongaard and the microtonal guitar on #neuguitars #blog


The exponential growth of Northern European artistic music, at the end of the twentieth century, had not yet seen its end: the achieved European and US political, economic and social stability had contributed to increasing the production and awareness of Nordic artistic music. Astronomical technological advances in the last decades of the century also had an impact on this growth. Most of the Nordic musical activity during this period can be attributed to the numerous Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Icelandic composers born during the twenty years following the Second World War: a seemingly large and varied group like that of Nordic born composers. between 1880 and 1940, moreover, the Faroe Islands also saw the birth of the first significant composers during this period. In the early 1960s, a new phase could be observed in the ongoing modernization of musical language in postwar Norway. The dominant hegemony of neoclassicism was followed by a period of time in which expressionism and a kind of neo-romanticism gained importance. This phase was not just about a change in musical styles, but also about a profound reorganization of the role of music in society. Primary activities of the Norwegian government, after the Second World War, were the formation of a modern society, with the reconstruction and modernization of the nation: in these projects were also included plans concerning the arts and music to offer better conditions for artists and l expansion of established institutions, as well as creating new ones. This included, among other things, the development of the opera, the music education system, symphony orchestras, etc. The realization of these plans took quite a long time, as it was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that many of these began to be implemented or launched. Society had changed significantly during these years, so that the goal of developing musical culture was no longer the only concern of these projects. The first projects were based on the idea of ​​having the main musical institutions located in the capital, Oslo, to serve the rest of the country. It was thought that in this way musical education, opera, orchestras and ensembles could reach even the most peripheral regions through individual and group tours. There were changes in public opinion, with strong political controversies on the relationship between the center and the periphery. This led to a growing concern about making peripheral regions similar to the situation in the capital. The government began to pay some attention to art and music, encouraging more widespread distribution, investing and professionalizing local institutions such as conservatories and orchestras, and offering better opportunities for professional experiences in outlying districts. Central institutions were still considered to be of the highest level, but the result was an improvement in professional culture and institutions both locally and in Oslo.

The music and style of composer Bjørn Fongaard (Oslo 1919- Oslo 1980) were born in this cultural ferment. Fongaard studied at the Oslo Conservatory of Music where his teachers were Per Steenberg, Sigurd Islandsmoen, Bjarne Brustad and Karl Andersen. A skilled musician, for many years he was better known as a guitarist than as a composer. Influenced by modernists such as Hindemith, Schoenberg and Webern, Fongaard managed to develop a very personal style of experimental composition, extremely related to the electric guitar. A style so advanced that when it came to performing his composition Uranium 235 for orchestra in 1965, none of the musicians were able to read the new and unknown notation.

Disappointed by this situation, Fongaard decided that he could just as easily compose his music on the guitar, an instrument he had studied for experimental purposes for a long time. He found a Framus electric guitar (model 5/131 Hollywood, solid-body with two pick-ups), he radically modified the fretboard, adding frets capable of producing quarter tones. Fongaard positioned the guitar horizontally to play and prepare it in an atypical way through the use of small bows and various objects. From this point of view he was perhaps the first to explore the potential of the prepared guitar. For this instrument tuned with microintervals he composed a series of works, both soloist and in combination with percussion and narrator. The titles reveal the composer’s interest in philosophy and astronomy: Galaxy, Homo Sapiens, Genesis. His Microtonalis Symphony represented Norway at the 1970 International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. He also attempted to transfer his microtonal principles to orchestral works including Orchestra Antiphonalis, Symphony of Space, Universum and Mare Tranquilitatis.

I met Fongaard’s music by chance, buying this LP a few years ago, “Nordiska Musikdagar 1968 Nordic Music Days Vol.3”, made in 1969 by EMI, where Fongaard is present with his piece “Homo Sapiens”.

The notes on the back cover of the record say “The composer writes on his work: Homo Sapiens was composed in 1966 and first performed by the Norvegian Broadcasting Corporation in the same year. This is a purely instrumental work, composed for and performed on a micro interval guitar. These sounds sources, which resemble the electronic tonal qualities, are produced solely by means of a specially worked out instrmental technicque: and as they are very weak they can be ampplified by the use of ordinary loudspeakers. The source of inspiration for this work is the man’s own history of development and progress. The work as a whole is animated by the wish that peace and brotherly love may continue to fine dmore and more room in people’s hearts. The formal division is apparent in small episodes and rhythmically monotonous beats which symbolize humanity’s restless course in the future,until we stop questioningly at our own time.”

A very interesting piece that prompted me to deepen. Unfortunately, Fongaard’s music is not very performed and is little known, so it took me a long time to get my hands on this double cd, Galaxe , of new recordings by Norwegian guitarist Anders Førisdal, released in 2015 on Aurora Records.

A really interesting monographic collection, an excellent taste of his music, waiting to be able to find the cd box “Elektrofoni: Works For Micro Intervallic Guitar 1965-1978”.

Particularly striking are “Galaxy” op. 53 (1966) for three electric guitars, one of Fongaard’s best known works. The title reflects Fongaard’s strong interest in nature and modern science, something that is also highlighted by such titles as Kosmosyntese (Cosmo-Synthesis) and Science Fictions. The piece is made up of twelve sections with very different characteristics, connected with a sort of motivic writing: generalized patterns that can be extremely short or extended beyond the recognizable, which represent an extremely heterogeneous musical vision. Fongaard had previously employed morse code in Uranium 235, and it is not unlikely that some of the material in Galaxy also refers to that coded language.

In the Improvisations op. 81 (1968) the material is much less opaque than in Galaxy, more like a classic movement. The fourteen sections of the work are all based on a sentence with a similar shape: two-tone, three-tone, two-tone and a concluding wave pattern. Due to the arrangement of the instrumental sounds and the variety of textures and tempo, this simple form seems to increase the possibilities for exploring the tonal variations rather than limiting their expressive possibilities. The overall form displays a clear balance of connections and contrasts, and after the free expression of the first seventh sections, the extended resonances of the eighth section set in motion a development that extends into the orchestral finale.

Perhaps to pass the time between Galaxy and Improvisations, Fongaard wrote several small works in three movements: Aphorims op. 61, Novations op. 62 and Aphorism op. 63 of 1967. The arrangement of sounds and instrumental techniques is an important element in these works and varies from movement to movement in the different pieces. Unlike the other works on the double cd “Galaxe”, these pieces are all annotated in a traditional score format with annotated on a sound separator system or the techniques used (sponge, metal stick, bow, strokes on the instrument, etc. ). Aphorisms 61 and 63 are written for a single interpreter, while op. 62 is meant to be made on tape. In op. 63, the percussion instruments and the voice of the performers are included in the instrumentation.

Symphony Microtonalis no. 1 is the exact opposite of op. 62 and indicates the numerous pieces for solo instrument and tape that Fongaard wrote in the 1970s. Characterized by a relatively extended shape, it is related to Galaxy, although it features a sound from the first composition. The piece is written to be made in the studio with the use of tape at double or half normal speed, and the score is designed to give an overview of the form to help the technician assisting in the recording. The notation provides verbal instructions for what kind of sound or technique to use in a given section of the piece for the four different tracks.

It seems that Fongaard intuitively understood how the electric guitar, due to the microscopic sensitivity of the microphones capable of amplifying otherwise unrecordable sounds and nuances, is a properly electronic instrument and not just an extension of acoustic stringed instruments. Fongaard’s music therefore represents a space in which “terrestrial” and cosmic “harmonies meet without ever having been united.

Anders Førisdal proves to be an excellent interpreter, capable of thoroughly analyzing all the characteristics of Fongaard’s music and very skilled in managing the electric guitars involved. The double CD is well completed by the presence of three other songs: “Renvoi-Shards” by Brian Ferneyhough, Krav by Ole Henrik Moe and Guitar In The Mud composed by Øyvind Torvund.

Norway has never been so interesting.


Sergio Sorrentino, La chitarra elettrica nella musica da concerto: La storia, gli autori, i capolavori, Arcana, 2020

Frederick Key Smith, Nordic Art Music: From the Middle Ages to the Third Millennium, 2002

John D. White, New Music of the Nordic Country, 2002