Interview with Lars Graugaard: «I am looking for an immensely old and unconditionally new music»


An interview by Ismael G. Cabral for Composer Speaks.

"Personal freedom is of the essence, and it must be pervasive, or it is not at all"

He is another one of those creators in the fringe. To meet Lars Graugaard (Copenhagen, 1957) but also to contextualize and understand his work we must go beyond the traditional spotlights in which contemporary music moves. Kairos has just launched Engage and share, a monograph interpreted by the Instrumental Group of València. Its content, of measured modernism, is also contumately personal. The Danish composer is distinguished from prevailing aesthetics and, if that were not enough, he develops with identical ease in the field of dance music.

1. Ismael G. Cabral: How was the contact and the recording sessions with the Grup Instrumental de València?

Lars Graugaard: Contact with El Group has been close throughout, and any challenge that the project has had, has come from the outside, primarily regarding support from institutions in Valencia, and from in Spain in general. This obviously had a lot to do with the economic and institutional crisis that Spain has experienced in recent years, but it meant that we had to overcome certain challenges, just as the residency had to be extended by an extra year. But it all turned out well in the end, and the artistic director and conductor, mr. Joan Cerveró, has been extremely supportive throughout. The fact that I speak Spanish is of course also an advantage. That said, it was important for me to have this music out on an international label of repute and with a solid distribution such as Kairos, not for the significant effort invested, but because of the sheer quality of the result. We needed to take the project to its logical end, which was to put it at the disposal of everyone interested in contemporary music.

2. Ismael G. Cabral: The term 'Sinfonietta' refers to the past (I think of Janacek). What is it that interests you about this format?

Lars Graugaard: Janáček is among the first to use the term, even though he did not adhere to the orchestration that we have become accustomed to. But the sinfonietta instrumental format as ‘one of each’ does not interest me in particular, it is the profile of El Grup and its director that had my attention. I have always preferred long-term collaborations, as it allows me to penetrate deeper into my artistic vision, and I was very happy to take on the composer residency with El Grup, towards which the Danish Arts Foundation also contributed substantially.

3. Ismael G. Cabral: How do the three works on the album relate to each other?

Lars Graugaard: Apart from the obvious - ensemble, instrumentation, period - they share several aspects of the compositional methodology. But there is no overt relation between them in terms of material, so no trilogy or anything similar. The shared methodology primarily concerns features such as ways to suspend synchronization of concurring time that is needed to reach certain emotion categories that a straight execution would not provide. And various types of event filtering as a way for the notion of time to become elastic, that sort of thing. But this is present in several of my works before and after these three, so it is not something that characterize or unite them in particular. Several ideas in ‘Blind Lemon’ hark back to ‘Tear of Dionysius’ which is a determining work of mine, whereas ‘Slonk’ opened up to novel aspects that I am currently expanding on, in my present residency with the Icelandic CAPUT Ensemble that will end in 2020, hopefully with another CD on Kairos.

4. Ismael G. Cabral: The music in these works is unstable, very changeable, but I perceive it in a "certain way in a classical way". Could we talk (or think) about postmodernity?

Lars Graugaard: Postmodernity as different from post-modernism? I think you are right to place me as an artist of postmodernity, of the postmodern era. Concerning the works on the CD with El Grup, I can say as much as that the music continuously folds into itself, hence unfolding on the basis of its immediate trajectory, and in this way the score develops in a very tight and “classical way”, whereas its unstable qualities perhaps are of a more modernistic and ‘broken’ nature. Technically, the works all have this continuity-and-disruption makeup, which is significant in providing progression, even as there are moments where the continuity or the disruption touches on stasis. But there is no attempt on my behalf to return to classical or traditional forms, and I am not afflicted by modernism’s particular charisma either. That said, what I do see is that there is a developing attempt on my behalf to enquire about a music that seeks out sounds, shapes and densities that feed from what an archaic music would have been like. This is present in large sections of ‘Slonk’, and it is the notion of a music that is pulled out from raw sound, from wood-and-earth-and-rock, of pure and direct sensuality, as unencumbered
exultation, as timeless sonic bodies… All things that connect to the evolutionary aspect of our listening capacity that take us back to a time before the advent of our Judeo-Christian culture. And to tap into that from a modern-day perspective, by peeking into our cognitive apparatus that holds the living features of an evolution that counts in the hundred thousands, if not millions of years. A music that is simultaneously immensely old and unconditionally new.

5. Ismael G. Cabral: I think that Simon Steen-Andersen is, for example, one of the most important young composers in his country, Denmark. Do you think that in the new generation there is a need to return to the avant-garde?

Lars Graugaard: With a career in Germany, Simon Steen-Andersen is by far the most visible Danish composer of his generation, but you can also mention Niels Rønsholdt, Allan Gravgaard Madsen (unrelated), Nicolai Worsaae Rasmussen, Niels Lyhne Lykkegaard, Christian Winther Christensen… Together with still others and viewed as a group, they share concepts that characterized the fluxus movement from the 1960s and 70s, which in turn harks back to dadaism, and then to the short-lived Arts Incohérents movement with origins in Parisian cabaret culture just after 1880, all in 40-year intervals. As was typical of these movements, these young Danish composers effortlessly blend their work with extra-musical elements such as installations and conceptual art on the one side, and stand-up and slapstick on the other. It can make for some striking art-work due to the formal make-up, and it can be very successful. They also touch on Duchamp’s notion of anti-art, which of course is much more pervasive and not an art movement per se, as it suspends the notion of art and makes just about anything into a potentially valid outcome, as long as it is contextualized appropriately. The results not always meet the criteria of traditional art-forms, hence can be seen more as critical commentaries or in certain cases even as entertainment, albeit of a very intellectual kind.
But the nature of that need you mention, apart from being a deliberate decision, I believe is probably also underpinned by the natural desire any subsequent generation has to set itself apart from the previous ones. The resurgence of a fluxus-flavoured avant-garde is, to me, for that reason on the scale of the generational pendulum that has artists of a very loose, generational grouping seek out that particular differentiation which will allow them to cut ties, and move on freely. Some external factors are at play here as well, in particular the changing landscape of the music institutions, where the ever fewer commissions coming from symphonic orchestras, operas and other larger production entities makes an artist look elsewhere for valid, creative outlets. This inevitably influences their self-understanding, and, combined with the advent of affordable media technology, has meant that novel and adventurous artistic projects are now attempted through other production forms, often of the small ensemble type. This, in turn, invites practices that can have their roots in explorative, and even non-academic experimental music styles, resulting in a contemporary music landscape that has pretty much exploded.

6. Ismael G. Cabral: Although in Denmark there are many groups and concerts, the scene of contemporary music is very different from that of Germany, Austria or France. Does this give you more freedom to compose?

Lars Graugaard: I am not particularly connected to the Danish music scene nowadays, and I do not circulate much there, so I am not the one to provide a deeper analysis of the possibilities a Danish composer may or may not have in general. Personally, my connections at this moment happen across a handful of European countries, as well as South- and North America, so I am not sure how I would even qualify as a thorough, Danish composer. But you are right in that Denmark always has been a bit removed from the European contemporary music scene, and that may in fact have something to do with why I am not much involved there. There has never been anything in particular about the Danish scene that has attracted me, beyond significant
personal relations and professional friendships in music, apart from the simple cause that Denmark happened to be where I initially developed as a budding composer, back in the 80s and 90s. So in this sense I owe my initial, feeble steps to the Danish scene, but artistically I prefer by far an approach founded in intellectual concerns that are more akin to central European contemporary music, or possibly even more so to the Franco-Italian mind-set. My years in New York has affected me to a lesser degree because that came later, even though the opportunities I have had there have been significant in my musical development. Likewise, certain subject matters that interest me in cognitive musicology were developed in academic research communities between the US and Europe, but not including Denmark. In conclusion, I would say that my freedom to compose comes from not being anchored to any country, and it should therefore not come as a surprise that I do not have any artistic school that I commune with. Rather, you could say that I have aimed for a clear and pervasive comprehension of the lay of the land, in the broadest of terms.

7. Ismael G. Cabral:  You talk a lot about science to refer to your music. But your music, in listening, does not give clues about your sources. Is this your pretension?

Lars Graugaard: Indeed, the scientific or empirical background has no place in the sounding music. I use the methodologies that can help me to get to where I want, but they are in themselves not the point of the work. The empirical studies that underpin the methodologies were necessary to take me out of a constructivist frame of mind, where the music is expected to sound out its origins, and instead insert me in the reality of sound-waves that impress on the receiving body, on the listener. Coming via psychology, applied research from areas such as embodied cognition and cognitive musicology represents an effort to take the perspective, in a systematic way, of the many labelled and unlabelled emotions that all music invariably conveys, for the simple reason that this is how the body as an evolutionary organism decodes music, in conjunction in some way and degree with the trained mind. These transitory states determine the taxonomy of the notation which in turn is fleshed out by compositional decisions that make up the score in its details. This is what makes possible my musical discourse. The procedure is an inclusive one, as it takes into account not only the score features but also those performance features that are significant for the sounding result, and hereby places the performer’s contribution squarely within the musical thinking, on a par with the score features. This has opened up to musical opportunities that I have not seen the equivalent to elsewhere, and of which there are several examples in the works on the CD with El Grup. You could claim that it is a modernist perspective on the very realm that modernism purposefully abandoned.
But that said, and in conclusion, I have no interest in that the audience perceive any of this soft science in itself, and neither is there any need, as the whole point is to use this methodology to strengthen the non-verbal, non-expert dimension of the music, without rescinding on the artistic ambitions. I want to work inclusively on the sound-waves that reach the listener, not exclusively on their score representation as an instruction set.

8. Ismael G. Cabral: It's surprising that in the field of electronic music, your music is closer to the dance floor than to the laboratory. Why this aesthetic decision?

Lars Graugaard: The reason for this is that the dance-floor can be just as much a laboratory as the concert stage. We all know that there is a constant influx from other musics in any given style, and the notion of purity of style is not sustainable. Contemporary music displays that feature, even when it is considered stylistically integral and performed without much ado in its natural habitat of the concert hall. The same goes for electronica, where the sonic inventiveness is its defining feature, and in many ways more open to experiments. Personally, I find the type of electronica that combines this sonic inventiveness with a strong presence of allegedly simple time-periods in various phase relations to be particularly captivating: its mesmerizing impact is really spectacular when you hit the sweet-spot, because you have a thoroughly discharged yet completely formed sound-scape, in combination with a grounding that only this stylistic variant can provide. Interestingly, the formal considerations and tension-relaxation paradigm is similar to other musics, probably because it is innate to our musical appreciation as a meta-sense. It is actually quite operatic in its management of medium- and large-scale form.
So, besides contemporary classical music in score composing, I have two other main channels of musical creation, where the first one is the electronica you refer to. I perform this alone and with a laptop that, importantly, runs my self-programmed application for realtime, generative music which I manipulate ‘on the spot’ (it goes to mention that I have never made a piece of acousmatic music). The club, be it an actual club or an abandoned space or a squatted building, probably is the most extravagant and archaic action-space we have today, that depends upon music for its effect: where a strong sense of community has smaller or larger crowds gather to celebrate, and enjoy a music that is adventurous on the mind and powerful on the limbs. This is actually a very solicitous environment – it has to be in order to function, and the dance-floor music that I make is best appreciated in this habitat. Here, my spontaneous journeys of sound and rhythm last uninterrupted for 1-3 hours on the norm, and invariably reach states and take on features that I am not able to reproduce in a studio setting. You will therefore not find this music in its purest form on Spotify, Beatport and similar platforms, for which productions are attuned differently.
The second channel is one of improvisatory settings where I use the same computer system but together with an improvising player, at times several. I process the audio input in realtime and extract information that influence the generative mechanisms and so forth, to reach a symbiotic relationship. This music can be very abstract and is explicitly marked by contemporary music, possibly because of the instrumental presence, which reduces the electronic ‘load’. The rhythmic complexities often reach degrees of intricacies and densities that speak primarily to the mind and imagination. And the same goes for this music too: made on the spot as it is, it is experienced at its fullest live, though it is much more adaptable to studio productions. That I have these two other creative outlets probably comes from originally being a performer – I am a classically trained flautist, and only later did my PhD on interactive electronic music – and the whole performative aspect of music, as well as the meeting with the audience, has always been and still is crucial to me. The defining capacity here is without a doubt the capacity for improvisation, which is a hugely persuasive practice that I see is taking ever more prominence among the new generations of music creators.

9. Ismael G. Cabral: Would you rather be remembered as a contemporary composer or as a pop artist?

Lars Graugaard: Having passed away when that time comes, this is of no concern to me! All my musical activities have the same value to me, and I watch in amusement and with satisfaction the response they get. Therefore, what does matter to me is the creative opportunities I have today, alive, because that is what allows me to develop further and bounce off my ideas with likeminded musicians, ensembles, conductors, composers, audience, intellectuals and friends. I am not guided by the music scene’s competitive and mercantile aspect, I am not concerned with fame, career development or anything of this sort, and I have no compulsion for people to remember me. On the contrary, I avoid this music/market interdependency as I find it invariably to be detrimental to the music itself, and I think – not naively, I hope – that this is what would characterize any experimental artist. I move around at will according to the need and the project at hand, and I keep a simple and comfortable lifestyle. Personal freedom is of the essence, and it must be pervasive, or it is not at all.
© Ismael G. Cabral - January 2019

Photographs by Manuel Alberto Claro

More information at Lars Graugaard

Ismael G. Cabral
I'm a cultural journalist (not only) in Seville. I spent 16 years in the editorial office of 'El Correo de Andalucía' (2002-2018). Currently I write about music in the magazines 'Ópera Actual', 'Scherzo', 'Sul Ponticello' & El Compositor Habla. And about animals in the portal 'Wamiz'. In the past, I also researched radio and television. Looking for new horizons

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