Have a Listen: Nørgård’s Symphony No. 2

One of my enduring fixations is the music of the seminal Danish composer, and one of the modern era’s most notable symphonists, Per Nørgård (1932 – ). His work is difficult to describe, and the vast imaginative territory of his soundworlds weaves together seemingly contradictory states of being – cosmic but playful, dreamlike but violent  – into a deliriously complex tapestry that is both wondrous and bewildering. His music has several notable stylistic periods, and one of the cornerstones of his musical process has been (especially in the period from 1960-1980) the use of what he calls the “infinity series” to generate pitch material and to organize large-scale forms. There’s a good explanation of how it works in this great write-up of the second on the blog Unsung Symphonies, but essentially the infinity series is a mathematical formula which takes a single interval and generates an endless series of notes, in a kind of musical analogy to fractal geometry. The easiest way to hear what the infinity series sounds like is to listen to Nørgård’s Symphony No. 2 from 1970, which, after a droney introduction, essentially spools out the first 4000 or so notes of the series in a continuous stream of eighth-notes.

The resulting pitch material sounds quite unlike anything else: essentially atonal, and yet fleetingly suggestive of various modalities; non-pitch-centric but focused on a relatively small range of notes. The notes pour out like a babbling brook, and as Unsung Symphonies notes, the attention drifts away from the melody to other aspects of the music, chiefly Nørgård’s utterly meticulous, shimmering orchestration. Also notable as the main device he uses to structure the piece are the sudden blasts of polyrhythmic brass fanfare that appear just in time when the piece threatens to get monotonous. The result is a piece that is hypnotic and psychedelic, but easily dramatic enough to earn the title of “Symphony”.

Symphony No. 2 is indeed the kind of experiment that could never be repeated, and although he continued to explore the myriad possibilities contained in the infinity series, none of his subsequent 6 symphonies sound remotely like this one, venturing into less meditative and more chaotic territories, especially following his infatuation with the work of schizophrenic outsider artist Adolf Wolfli. Check out the mindblowing choral no. 3, the violently gestural no.5, or the intricately shifting tempos of no. 7 with its dozens of tuned tom-toms. Or explore his reams of chamber music and vocal music – the doors to new worlds are infinite.