Self-proletarianization for Piano
“The time has probably come to ask how much longer we can keep ironizing over old forms and artistic stagnation as if we still care. But Trond Reinholdtsen’s new piano concerto for the Oslo Philharmonic puts the question with wit, ingenuity and sophistication”, writes Hilde Halvorsrød. Trond Reinholdtsen: Theory of the Subject. Piano Concerto (world premiere) Ellen Ugelvik, piano, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Cathrine Winnes, conductor. Venue: Sentralen, 15 October 2016, in collaboration with the Ultima Festival
In well-known Trond Reinholdtsen style, the piano concerto Theory of the subject is a mixture of concerto, performance art, disquisition on the theory of art and political propaganda, a work that regards itself from the outside while tossing miscellaneous historical and literary references in all directions. In the Reinholdtsenian universe most boundaries are fluid, and they’re transcended, exposed and made fun of. An impeccably dressed and conventionally configured symphony orchestra is seamlessly combined with self-ironic explanations projected onto a screen, live video from a backstage room and videos of earlier performances.
According to the festival programme, the piano concerto is a tribute to the soloist qua ‘heroic revolutionary’, in contrast to traditional piano concertos which spotlight the soloist as the principal attraction, personally and individually, set against the backdrop of the orchestra as a group. A parallel is drawn to modern individualized societies ‘where everyone is enjoys the status of soloist’, supposedly making the collective the Utopia of our age. Pianist Ellen Ugelvik is therefore expected to haul herself through a sort of musical self-proletarianization mangle – an obviously not entirely painless procedure.
The soloist’s pursuit of the collective Utopia implies among other things that she doesn’t get to play at all for a bit; she’s sitting in a backstage room reading a book – whose title Reinholdtsen has borrowed for his concerto – by the post-Stalinist and post-Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, while a frantic player piano does her job for her. She is then instructed to play a silent piece on the backstage piano, and when she does eventually get to play for a sustained period of time on the concert grand in front of the orchestra, the piano voice becomes an element in a suggestive, manic, pulsating, uniform beat as if to make clear she is one the masses. The fate of a second piano at the back of the stage is not a happy one. The Oslo Philharmonic’s percussionist is smashing to smithereens with a giant mallet. By the end, Ugelvik has concealed herself under the piano where she knocks and scrapes tentatively and curiously at the concert grand’s nether regions, before decisively and ostentatiously slicing off a few fingers releasing copious amounts of theatrical blood.
During the course of the concerto, a video zaps briefly through earlier projects of Reinholdtsen’s performed at several festivals this summer: TOpublic, Konserthuset and Ø (episode 9). The video show the project from the pianist’s point of view while she performs a modernist piano canon in Konserthuset; joins others on a journey through the post-modernist quagmire and ends up in the midst of a Utopian communist world revolution at Hovedøya [an island close to Oslo in the Oslo Fjord].
The ghost of history
The question WHAT NOW, posed on behalf of Contemporary Music Composers with a capital C, represents as usual a turning point in Reinholdtsen’s output. A neurotic-looking composer is being filmed in the backstage room wrestling with all the unruly and impossible notes that need to be strung together in just the right way, while a personalized manifestation of the pure artistic idea sits on a chair next to the composer, clad in a black full-length sheet with holes for eyes like the little TV ghost, Laban, bearing the inscription Geist.
Musically, the work is a pastiche, with quotes from Madame Mao’s favourite Yellow River Piano Concerto – the principal soundtrack of the Chinese Cultural Revolution – references to John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, and passenger with an exceptionally uncompromising post-war modernist idiom, where the harder, colder and louder the slogan rings out, the better. It’s aggressive and heartbreaking at the same time, as if it were the incarnation of the composer’s intransigent struggle with the notes.
Where Ø ended in euphoria, enthusiasm, sensuality and a sense of victory over capitalism’s uniform blue suits, the likely outcome of this chapter is far less upbeat. While the plucky pianist lies bleeding under the piano, the orchestra musicians have abandoned their personal instruments and are playing the mouthpieces of sopranino recorders. They exhale elongated, wispy tones, while the image on the screen zooms in on a colourful naïvistic “kid’s drawing” of an island with sun and blue sky – Utopia? The piercing, brittle shrieks of the homophonous mouthpieces recall Stalinist conformity. Is there any joy and collectivism and solidarity to look forward to, or just marching in step under a ban on thinking outside the box?
As usual, the answer is in the wind, but the final dispatch from the dressing room is not encouraging. The shower is filled with wet, sticky soil, and Geist, a.k.a. the pure artistic idea, is rolling in it; he’s no longer white, but as murky as mud.
The time has probably come to ask how much longer we can keep ironizing over old forms and artistic stagnation as if we still care. All the same, since we are already ensnared in postmodernism’s glutinous quagmire, we don’t have many options apart from broadcasting the situation with what we can muster of wit, ingenuity and sophistication. Which is precisely what Reinholdtsen pulls off with a vengeance, with the help of totally professional orchestral musicians who do their job without batting an eyelid, with Cathrine Winnes reliable on the conductor’s rostrum and the masterly, indomitable, proletarianized pianist (and actor) Ellen Ugelvik.
at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue
A good example of how a demonstration can be informative was delivered at the festival symposium. Ellen Ugelvik presented her work with Bente Leiknes Thorsen’s piano concerto at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue. In this work, the soloist plays the grand piano with one hand, and a synthesizer that produces baby sounds with the other. Babies are musical sounding on their own, but Leiknes Thorsen has created an auditory pallet in which babies’ individual musicality is conveyed at the same time as their sounds form part of a cohesive whole. The composition is impressive and funny. Yet, if a far less musical pianist than Ugelvik had performed this work, I would probably not have been impressed. I learned this from Ugelvik’s additional demonstration of a dry and exact reading of Leiknes Thorsen’s baby sound notation. Such a reading sounded inanimate and meaningless. In Ugelvik’s interpretation, she had worked with dynamic variations, timing, and minor deviations from tempo, which bought the music to life.
Through demonstrations such as this, we gain not only insight into how interpretations of Leiknes Thorsen’s music can vary, but also a general understanding of musical phenomena such as direction and accentuation/rhetoric. Such demonstrations also satisfy the scientific requirement of verifiability. Because we can hear the difference between before and after, we can draw knowledge from the development. With such knowledge, another exploratory musician may attempt the same, with the same or a similar composition.
New music with high spirit
Magne Hegdal plays with the classical sonataform and presents brilliant artistic handwork
The Norwegian Radio Orchestra recently premiered a new piano concerto by Magne Hegdal, with Ellen Ugelvik as the soloist and Bjarte Engeset as the conductor. The atmosphere was unusually joyful confronting a brand new work. The pianoconcerto was a cornucopia of funny ideas, shifting kaleidoscopicly in the first mouvement, more dramatic lingering in the second, rich and oscillating in the last mouvement, fearless in all directions.
Sometimes borrowed themes appeared – from Beethoven and Clementi and ”Sønner av Norge” by Christian Blom. The concerto reveals humouristic flashbacks to the history of music and for the 200 years anniversary of Norway’s constitution as the work was commisioned to celebrate. In the cadenza in the end the soloist, the splendid Ugelvik, as always with exuberance, got to improvize from drawings in the score, of the Eidsvoll building, riksløven, a bird a.o.
The 70 year old Hegdal plays plays with the classical sonataform and presents brilliant handwork, without being pretentious. It is liberating!
Brittle, choppy, arrogant and open delivery. Music in conversation with past and present, humanity and mechanics.
Ellen Ugelvik, piano
Christian Blom: Lyriske stykker (Lyric Pieces)
To compose is to assemble, but some of Christian Blom’s compositions start by disassembling. In Lyric Pieces he inverts and fragments pieces by Grieg of the same name. In my mind’s eye I see a selfplaying piano where the programming has disintegrated.
Brings out the details
Only in dislocated fragments do the familiar strains make it through the more mechanical recitation. The old becomes even lovelier, the new brittle and disjointed; at the interface between them, a certain sentimentality comes into being.
There are five pieces in all. They are short, played twice, first by a living human being, afterwards by a machine. The sound of the machine is a sampled version of the sound of Grieg playing. Ellen Ugelvik embarks on a conversation with past and present as the human dimension in the piece. She is also in dialogue with the mechanical in its own material and alongside the sampler. She plays simply, highlights details, shows us that not only is this strange, it’s playful too. It’s fascinating to hear the same piece – interpreted and de interpreted in a way.
Trained as a musician, Blom has been a member of the artist collective Verdensteateret and is particularly interested in mechanics of things and installations. In his music, everything shines again. His generation has already passed the point of reveling in technology’s ability to do everything successfully. Today we tend rather to look for the simpler projects. Which may explain why the project is released as an LP. It’s an arrogant choice because only a small percentage own a turntable. It seems to be appealing to a niche market, where sound quality is important – but it also seems to act as a yearning for something that was.
Poetry and mechanics
Genuine presence: Pianist Ellen Ugelvik’s playing is superbly balanced. Christian Blom leaves it to the machine to deal with the poetry. What kind of modesty is that?
Lyriske stykker (Lyric Pieces), Ellen Ugelvik, piano, Mere Records, 2013
“It’s as if Blom turns Grieg’s snippets on their head.”
In the little book Post Production, from 2002, the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud describes how artists today use recognized materials and forms, indeed whole works, as a starting point for new works. You start with something already there, and rather than reinventing the wheel, they fall back on a history that anyway is still in motion, and look at it with new eyes.
With his latest album, Lyriske stykker (Lyric Pieces), the Norwegian composer Christian Blom (born 1974) aligns himself with this trend. Essentially it is a selection of lyrical pieces for piano solo by Edvard Grieg, well-known chestnuts like “Ensom vandrer” (Solitary Traveler) and “Sommerfugl” (Butterfly). The sound of these pieces is processed electronically by a computer program that shuffles, stretches, cuts, and condenses.
The output is printed as a score so that the processed pieces can be played on a modern piano. The disc, an LP, contains both versions, one on each side, creating a delicate interlude between them.
Like pearls on a string.
Clearest is possibly the relationship between Grieg’s original pieces and Blom’s adaptations. You might not know the originals but the tonality, and to some degree the dramaturgy, are reflected in Blom’s versions. In addition, a distance emerges between the computer version’s mechanical and machine-like timbres, and the piano version’s acoustic expression. Thanks to pianist Ellen Ugelvik, who is genuinely involved and achieves a supreme balance between the mellow piano timbres and the clacking mechanical interjections, the piano versions shine like small pearls.
The most interesting thing is possible the unlikely way in which Blom’s mechanical approach, which is almost the opposite of what you might expect, intervenes and recreates the lyrical element. It’s as if Blom turns Grieg’s snippets on their head, inserts them into a space where they turn all of a sudden into objects – hesitant, unfinished objects that can be worked on, like a sculptor in his studio.
This gives them with a kind of permanence beyond themselves; maybe this is precisely the machine's lyrical quality – in that its automation can give tangible expression to the seemingly endless process one imagines precedes any fixed interpretation.
It’s quite ironic really, because why should the original works be the final word, and why is it precisely the machine’s automaticity that brings out the moveable in them?
Personally, I have a dual relationship to this way of thinking. In one sense it is sympathetic by being receptive to the work’s own processuality; the technique is based on creating the conditions for movement that gives both the composer and us listeners something back, something no one could predict.
On the other hand, the technology is also a means of averting one's own intention; one leaves the material to the machine, to the technology to do its job – and you get out of the way. Blom is sensitive to the timing here, the processed results are just loose enough to drift around in a state of incompleteness. At the same time, the result seems strangely low key.
Although this lack of pretention could threaten the durability of Blom's Lyric Pieces, the sense of humility is precisely what creates the space and flow – and the connection to history.
Blom’s reluctance to invent his own wheel is comprehensible, and the option he chooses instead certainly has an identity of its own. So time will tell whether the attempt to hide in the folds of history, and from them to mine new approaches and expressions, remains viable in the longer run. In the meantime, we can enjoy the machine’s flights of fancy.
(Emil Bernhardt, Morgenbladet, 07.03.2014)
Top notch from one of our finest contemporary pianists
Ellen Ugelvik Serynade - Rating 6/6
Works by Blom, Lachenmann and Jaksjø
“Music, I feel strongly, should be about the big feelings,” writes Oslo Philharmonic’s chief conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, in the orchestra’s program for the coming season.
This is what many turn to music for. They want it to move them. And this desire points to one of art’s underlying motivations. To help us make sense of what it means to be human.
But are the emotions an equally natural objective in new music? What defines the emotional experience in music – and is the emotional always the key to understanding humanity?
Christian Blom’s piece Manualenes poesi (The Poetry of Manuals) opens in an apparently emotionless landscape. It seems heavy and spineless, even, I might add, indifferent.
Out of this grows an opportunity. A new layer is added to the music where individual notes linger like imprints left by the solid. The tones reverberate weakly, and create a sense of the poetic which actually exists in the vicinity of the mechanical. The music affects us, but this effect comes from something that’s virtually non-existent.
The subtle is a recurring element in Ellen Ugelvik’s nicely balanced CD. The big feelings never materialize. But there’s enormous power in the material all the same.
Just take Helmut Lachenmann’s piece. Composers of the generation before him explored the emotional in music. In his Serynade Lachenmann is in search of an atmosphere, but the way he searches is inquisitive.
The piece is a sequence of brief statements; it’s more poetry than prose. Ugelvik is sensitive to the many possibilities. What we hear are forceful strikes, silky impressions, and distorted twists. Taken as a whole, it is prolific.
Christian Jaksjø’s piece, which rounds off the disc, takes the quietest sounds in Lachenmann as its starting point and connects them with the idea that sound can drive a person to distraction. It too becomes a mystical statement on the CD which, as a whole, speaks of a special kind of sensitivity in music. With all the nuances observed, the CD confirms Ugelvik’s position as one of the leaders in this area in the country.
(Ida Habbestad, Aftenposten, 3.9.2012)
Another form of virtuosity
Serynade is the outcome of a deep study of modern sound techniques.
Ellen Ugelvik has ended up in the shadow of Leif Ove Andsnes, Håvard Gimse, Christian Ihle Hadland, Håkon Austbø and the other so-called great pianists in this country because she completely and consistently has concentrated on contemporary music. Rather than play Beethoven’s sonatas, Ugelvik has studied performance techniques, like plucking strings inside an instrument, hitting and scraping a concert grand, using the pedal as a percussion instrument or playing at insane levels of virtuosity in the contorted patterns produced by non-tonal music.
Prize. I remember what was being said about her in 2003 when she was given a place in the prestigious and generous young musician programme run by Concerts Norway (Rikskonsertene). What persuaded them to give her the opportunity? Ugelvik was more contemporary musician than pianist; how would she do in the classical chamber music repertoire, for example? Well, what about looking at what she actually did, and let her do what’s she’s best at? As early as 2003 she was already performing George Crumb’s Makrokosmos I–II at a high international standard, and was recognized for it when she won a much-deserved Spellemanns prize in 2008 for her Crumb recording. The point I want to make is related to the problem facing contemporary music: marginalization. Obviously, new music builds on history and tradition, but if we let classical form be the benchmark for performing on the piano, we limit our chances to nurture new techniques. Ugelvik herself has defined her preferred canon, and she has such a breadth of sound at her disposal, we ought perhaps to use the term contemporary pianist with reference to her – and in this case it’s meant as a compliment.
Techniques. Christian Jaksjø’s Encountering the Imaginary [Ulysses] is a good example of how we critics tend to marginalize Ugelvik as a pianist. Against a backdrop of slowly progressing electronic sounds, she plays mostly single notes or chords distributed in time. The pianist becomes to our ears a bureaucrat reproducing the composer’s musical will. But the piano should be amplified, as it is in several other works Ugelvik has performed, so she is acutely aware of what the music sounds like when it’s sent through a ring modulator, for example. Just as Jaksjø defines the parameters governing the distortion of the sound of the piano, Ugelvik knows how to modulate the normal approach to playing the keys to make the work sound good through the electronic distortion.
Christian Blom’s Manualenes poesi (The Poetry of the Manuals) consists largely of so-called clusters; clusters are you get when you depress the keys with the palm of your hand. It’s difficult to do it evenly, however. Try it yourself if you’re anywhere near a piano! A completely even or uniform cluster creates as uniform and penetrating a sound, like a karate expert’s hand cleaving a brick in two, while imprecise blows are at best about as intense as a slap on the backside. Commanding techniques like these is a sine qua non when playing Blom’s compositions. You have to be able to balance the individual clusters, and different qualities of the clusters will create different harmonics on the other open strings, which is another technique of prime importance in Blom’s work (try holding down a key in the middle of the piano without making a sound, and play the same note two or three octaves above or below it – what you’ll hear when you release the dark tone are the harmonics Blom works with).
Biggest. In Lachenmann’s Serynade, Ugelvik uses everything she knows about technique. It also gives her an opportunity to showcase her finger virtuosity, so much so in fact that many established pianists would be put to shame in comparison – that’s if they had taken the trouble to learn the intricate fretwork in non-tonal music. The choice of repertoire brings Blom and Jaksjø to international attention, and the CD demonstrates that Ugelvik is one of our greatest musicians.
(Magnus Andersson, Morgenbladet, 2.11.2012)
Overwhelming Night Music
Contemporary music, Ellen Ugelvik “Serynade”, Aurora/Grappa, rating 6/6
Ellen Ugelvik experiments with sound to the sound of music
A violinist can change the sound of the instrument by means of fingering and bow strokes. A clarinetist can change the sounds he’s making by adjusting his lips and his breathing technique. Pianists don’t have these opportunities. They can only press the keys. And that’s it. Because the piano is a percussion instrument. When the hammer hits the string, when the sound starts to reverberate, it can’t be changed. And it also starts to dissipate. The keys are struck. And then there’s nothing you can do. But still … is that really the end of the story?
In a way, Bergen-born Ellen Ugelvik’s new CD “Serynade” is a meditation on this precise question. It’s about what happens when the hammer has done its work. It’s about the opportunities the player has to intervene afterwards. It’s about pushing the limits of the instrument.
The central work on the CD – and the one that has given the CD its title “Serynade” – is by German composer Helmut Lachenmann. He wrote it in the late 1990s. It’s dedicated to his wife, the pianist Yukiko Sugawara, which explains the Y in the title – and also suggests that this is no ordinary serenade.
“Serynade” is a musical experiment, a large-scale piece in which Lachenmann makes use of every possibility within the piano’s range to affect the quality and influence the sound of the notes after the hammers have struck. He deploys a sophisticated pedal technique. Mainly, though, he explores what happens when you press the keys without releasing the hammers. Using a complicated, intricate use of the score, he instructs the pianist to play “silently” over or alongside the music, to allow the resonance of the unrealized notes to work on the timbre of the already resonating sounds.
It’s an extremely demanding procedure. One which Ellen Ugelvik, given her matchless technique, overcomes with ease. You never forget during this CD that the piano is a percussion instrument. She beats out a tornado of complex chords while using the pedals and the “silent” keys to create new expanses across the soundscape, overtone series, vibrating resonances, intangible ghostly shadows flitting across the music.
A serenade historically is a light piece of music typically played in the evening. There are nocturnal moods in Lachenmann “Serynade” too. But his nocturnal music is of the more serious, more terrifying, and overpowering type.
The other two works on the CD address related technical-musical issues, but to a far more limited degree. Christian Blom’s “The Poetry of Manuals” (2007–11) is a simple, nerve-racking series of rhythmically separated clusters colored by pedal-induced resonances that eventually have to give way to simple melodic artifice and gestures. In “Encountering the Imaginary” (2009–10), Christian Jaksjø neutralizes the percussion problem simply by retreating from the conventional piano and letting the pianist play an electro-mechanically reinforced instrument that can be manipulated electronically.
Ellen Ugelvik plays through it all. Confident and technically superb. She shows us that these three works are not only experiments in sound. They are music too. Re-sounding music.
(Peter Larsen, Bergens Tidende, 10.06.12)
Serynade, Music by Helmut Lachenmann, Christian Jaksjø and Christian Blom. Ellen Ugelvik, piano. Aurora.
The work that has given the title to this cd, is by Lachenmann, most likely the formost of composers being active on the continent today. The work is extremely difficult to play, but Ellen Ugelvik, our superb interpret of contemporary music for piano, manages the impossible: to put two works of music on top of each other as an palimpsest, where one of the works is being pressed down silently on the keys, and by this creates a resonance in a sound landscape that opens up for the unheard – in the meening of the not yet heard. The two Norwegian works, written for Ugelvik, do also open up for new sounds, but are not of the same calibre as Lachenmann’s music.
(Stavanger aftenblad, 12.3.13)
The piano pieces recorded on the new album by the refreshingly bold pianist Ellen Ugelvik all share one thing: written after 2000, they represent the state of play of current piano music. In Helmut Lachenmann's most epic work to date, “Serynade”, the whole grand piano – inside as well as outside – is transformed into a giant resonating object, managing to sound quite peculiar at times. In Christian Jaksjo’s “Encountering the imaginery” he contrasts ring modulated piano tones with electronic sounds, to compelling and sometimes scary results. And Christians Blom's piece “Manualens Poesi” (“Manual's Poetry”) unfolds as an orgy of clusters that conjures up strangely beautiful harmonies at the same time. Ellen Ugelvik is a versatile and convincing pianist who dares, and who also wins. Who would have thought that today's piano music can be so varied and thrilling?
(Robert Nemecek, Piano News, 2012)
Ellen Ugelvik – Portrait of Magne Hegdal
As I understand him, Magne Hegdal, festival composer-in-focus, has set out to explore the hinterland between the intentional and unintentional in music, between music as a means of human expression and music as being-in-itself, music as natural phenomenon. In that sense, he is working in continuation of Webern’s ideas about music and nature and Cage’s view of music as “purposeless play”. The influence of Cage and Webern is audible, also at a concrete music level.
There’s always a sense of rock and roll to Ugelvik’s performances, whatever she happens to be playing. Apart from her expressive, percussive style of playing, Ellen Ugelvik is characterised by her careful programme planning, often featuring unexpected combinations of works. On this occasion I’m not sure what was down to Ugelvik and how much with Hegdal. They probably worked together. However that may be, what emerged was stimulating, the performance quite outstanding. In Ugelvik’s case, the performer is narrator, the architect of a constellation of pieces which together serve to throw up new ideas.
(Parergon, 1−2, 2008)
At bottom, a sense of awe
The American composer George Crumb (b 1929) divides opinion between those who find him naïve and those who categorically do not.
The pianist Ellen Ugelvik takes the composer at his word, showing in a new, stunning recording [of] George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, that what it’s essentially about is the transfiguration of the mundane into the sacred and the visible into the invisible. Which being the case, this business about naïve/not naïve, simple/not simple becomes something of a meaningless diversion. This music has not capitulated to the self-willed intractability of rationality, it is, rather, a search for the forgotten, magical properties of sound. And if Crumb is to succeed, the musician has to resign herself to strumming the strings, stroking them, to whistle, to emit sighs and to shout. His music requires string players to play with thimbles on their fingers, and to put their fingers where one usually bows. Gimmicks? What’s remarkable, rather, is the scrupulous planning behind it all, the intense expressiveness [of the music]. A deeply human idiom, which is actually an impression − given that all Crumb’s compositions reflect at bottom a sense of awe.
Rumblings and whistlings
Ellen Ugelvik is a Crumb ambassador. She is a phenomenal pianist, and Crumb needs a phenomenal pianist to if the nuances, small birds and flower petals, are not to fall unnoticed to the ground. Call it if you will an ecological approach to playing. The tones weave their way in and out of nature like, remarkably, nature weaves its way in and out of the tones. It’s about an unusual type of receptiveness, which in this case goes further than sonata forms, fugue playing and avant-gardism. Crumb isn’t protesting against anything, he’s just insisting on being what he is. And hear the sounds he is hearing. In his way. That’ll be the rumblings and whistlings.
Describing what the magician does to create his greatest illusions is to betray his secrets. Here there are no illusions, as far as it goes, but a yearning to understand everything that deprives reason of its authority. Put in speech bubbles, it’s about lost innocence. About mortality, time, evil, eternity and unrelenting solitude.
This issue isn’t just another addition to the Crumb discography. Ellen Ugelvik senses the music with the precision of a nightingale with a natural relish for the twilit hours in woodland glades. In this way, Crumb becomes Crumb.
(Vårt Land, 01.07.2008)
And it’s a rare treat to attend a festival which offers so much more than high class performances of classical and romantic chamber works. Not that they can’t be enjoyed on a daily basis in Trondheim of course. But where kindred festivals in Risør, Oslo and Stavanger let the standard repertory and ditto concert formula dictate planning, festival director Sigmund Tvete Vik and Vegard Snøfugl rely on stimulating juxtapositions as their trademark, of the old and new, of serious music of various genres and of different concert venues − from churches to halls to shopping malls and cinemas. It rocks, not least this year, with festival composer-in-residence Rolf Wallin turning up at virtually all of these venues.
...first performance of “Phonotype 5” for two prepared concert grands as the highlight of the festival.
Pounded and hammered
Not only did we get to experience the composer’s indefatigable determination to try out new materials and new technology, we also came across two pianists who performed a lengthy work without touching a single key − and without batting an eyelid. Ellen Ugelvik and Else Olsen Storesund plucked and clawed at the strings in the grand’s interior, crept underneath it, swept, pounded and hammered it in time with Wallin’s spontaneous digital re-rendering of the sound. The work was a delight of playfulness and musicality.
Ellen Ugelvik is an unusually classy Norwegian pianist who has specialised in the music of our time. She performs it, let it be said, not like a technician, but as a musician to the manner born. But she possesses total technical control. She’s currently on the market with a Simax recording devoted to American George Crumb’s “Makrokosmos I & II”, which she plays impeccably. To me, it’s striking how close his music simply comes to being a continuum, or soundscape. So as far as I’m concerned, I’d like to listen to Ugelvik again, anytime, and perhaps in a different repertory.
Makrokosmos I & II
Ellen Ugelvik is well placed to interpret new music having trained extensively in Bergen, Amsterdam and Leipzig. She is, what’s more, a superlative pianist. She does precisely what Crumb’s graphic indications but mostly meticulous notation requires of her. She lets the music have time and space to unfold and resonate. Crumb’s Makrokosmos is certainly not virtuoso music in the common parlance, either rhythmically or manually. So there’s a risk of underestimating the internal dynamics and losing cohesion in consequence. Ugelvik has understood this, and she follows the music’s internal pulse or she creates her own. Let it also be said, she gets to the heart of the music’s tonal world.
(Torsten Möller, Parergon, 2008)
Indeed it is a cosmos. From the first, deep, massively sonorous harmonies in the concert grand on Ellen Ugelvik’s solo debut CD we are invited to settle down to a nicely balanced and diverse programme of often contrasting idioms. We are drawn into a macrocosm by the pianist’s technical brilliance and communicative reserves, with multiple references and wide expressive palette.
It is George Crumb’s Makrokosmos I−II into which Ugelvik delves on this Simax CD. Composer and musician make a happy pairing. And I’m not thinking about how they worked together during preparations, but of Crumb’s expressive music [played by] a musician who clearly takes the narrative and performative qualities of the work very seriously.
Despite the references, what strikes one on hearing this CD is the manner in which the piano becomes a universe of sound − both as a multitudinous percussive instrument and multifaceted, prepared string instrument. The technical demands on the performer, it hardly needs saying, are immense. This fact alone highlights the musician’s presence in the music and the sense of presence communicated through the CD player. The performer has to sing, whisper, scream and whistle. In this way, the body’s sonorities are also explored. Ugelvik demonstrates a virtuosic command of both body and piano as instruments − and, not least, how they act and react to one another. The human voice feels like a foil to the open, spacious sound world created within the piano case, but a foil which works remarkably well in this aural setting.
What the loudspeakers don’t give us is the sight of the performing pianist. We hear how much this music is also a visual performance − but for me this, I feel, is a drawback. I want to see Ugelvik in action − body and piano. But that’s the way it is with a medium which separates the visual aspect of a musical performance from the aural. The gorgeous pictures on the cover and in the booklet will have to do for what could have been a total experience of the pianist in action. On the other hand, sound divorced from image does encourage closer concentration on the sound, on the drama inherent in the music and on the inner pictures it is yearning to create via the names of the pieces and their spatial architecture. So while something is lost, something is gained.
It should also be said, it’s not only the technique and lucidity of expression that shine on this CD, it is the recording and engineering as well, both of which widen the auditive universe even more. Don’t hesitate!
(Hedda Høgåsen-Hallesby, Parergon, 2008)
Peerless, an acutely responsive aural architect
The first thing that strikes one about Ellen Ugelvik’s recording of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos I−II is how she − supported by brilliant engineering − manages to create exciting spaces in the music. Personally, I asked myself whether the CD player had ever produced such a strong and immediate a sense of a musician’s presence.
It’s all there, from the first of the twelve movements that make up Mikrokosmos, from before the pianist not only plays with such virtuosity on the keys and plucks the strings inside the piano case, but also sings, groans and whispers. George Crumb’s miniature sound pictures investigate numberless possibilities in the dialogue between performer and the enormous instrument and were composed with an eye to concision and openness. They have allusive titles and names after the twelve signs of the astrological zodiac, and qua composer the American is absolutely one of the more accessible. But the music’s fascination in this case is thanks in no small measure to Ellen Ugelvik. She treats each of the elements with as much skill, rhythmic sense, breath control and aural sensitivity, whether she’s pulling on the instrument’s innards, plucking quotations from pearls in the literature, shouting or whistling lonely small tone rows. As a solo debut for a pianist who’s already an expert in overcoming the unique challenges and possibilities of contemporary music, the CD is matchless.
Not just a “pianist” − a contemporary pianist
Ellen Ugelvik has lived with George Crumb’s unorthodox sound world for a long time −and she plays the music accordingly.
George Crumb is straddles the divide between consummate sound artist and vendor in recycled clichés. The latter by occasionally being too obvious about his references, something which makes him denote rather than express. As a composer, he is not very good at using his materials, but as mixer of ideas, he is great. For that reason he works best in works like Makrokosmos 1 and 2, a collection of miniatures where every movement hardly has time for anything more than to set out its wares before he’s moved on to new creative ideas. What the ideas boil down to is various unorthodox ways of handling a piano. Crumb unites a number of ideas inherited mainly from Henry Cowell and John Cage, namely to produce sounds by playing on the strings directly with fingers and nails, by using the instrument’s casing as a percussive instrument, by placing fingers or other objects on the strings to manipulate sounds. This combined with expectations that the pianist sing, talk and whistle.
At its best, Crumb’s aural world is completely unique. It is visionary and flattering at the same time and speaks to listeners with the most conservative taste in music.
A world of impressions
Ellen Ugelvik is not a “pianist”. She is a contemporary pianist and recipient of a three-year government grant to promote new music. When she was chosen in 2003 to be Concert Norway’s INTRO musician (a three-year, highly esteemed career launching programme), she was signed on to play contemporary music. She is devoted to the works she plays, and since she is a fabulous pianist, the results tend to be successful.
Add to this a long period of maturing into Crumb’s sound world. When she auditioned for the INTRO programme, one of the works she played was Makrokosmos. She has also played for Crumb on several occasions and, in her hands, Crumb’s aural world sounds precisely like a consistent expressive universe.
Ugelvik’s eminent traversal makes Crumb into a better composer than he is. The CD is propaganda for the cause of contemporary music.
Contemporary pianistic history – Convincing solo debut
Ellen Ugelvik’s solo debut on CD is highly persuasive. George Crumb’s “Makrokosmos I and II”, written in 1972 and ’73 respectively, both consist of twelve fantasy pieces and require breadth of expression. They are pianistic, but the pianist has to play the piano in unconventional ways, sing and whistle.
But these dimensions are more than simple effects. Rather they serve to open the piano and widen the tonal palette without reducing the pieces to histrionics. And while the performer must adapt to the different fantasies, it is precisely the works as a whole which afford the greatest sense of the music. Ugelvik plays absolutely brilliantly – I don’t think these pieces could have been better played. And the music itself is enormously affecting. There are traces here − or echoes − of classical modernism, with Debussy’s “Préludes” and Bartók’s “Mikrokosmos” as the obvious references. But these echoes are of a piece with the soundscape. There’s no attempt at dramatic gesturing here either. This is a CD I shall be returning to again and again, with a pianist one should follow with the greatest attention.
(Bergens Tidende, 11.06.2008)
…The performances were AMAZING! I was very moved. It is a rare experience for me that the spiritual and emotional content, and the drama of the work is so clearly revealed (in some ways it is more important to me than the notes are). I think the “Kritik der Urteilskraft” performance left people almost breathless, almost not wanting to applaud because it meant breaking the atmosphere. THANK YOU. Thank you for your wonderfully colorful piano playing and also thank you to the other members of both ensembles for their hard work and beautiful interpretations. …
(Michael Finnissy, 15.03.2009)
George Crumb's Makrokosmos I and II is varied, compelling, at times beautiful and stimulating music for piano. It forms a cornerstone of the century's solo keyboard music, though it no so entrenched in the repertoire as it ought to be. Recordings like this one maygo some way towards changing that.
Both Makrokosmos books are played here with total commitment, sensitivity and great technical brilliance by Ellen Ugelvik. Norwegian, Ugelvik has a policy of seeking out new contemporary works for exposure on disk - often for the first time. She also collaborates with such composers as Louis Andriessen, Christian Blom, Alwynne Pritchard - and George Crumb. It's not clear here how far the two were in touch in the production of this recording. It's certainly authoritative with a light but steady pair of hands.
Crumb's approaches to music were those of a child from a highly musical family which had access to a broad range of scores and experiences; he was no ideologue or theoretician from the academies. Although he did receive a formal musical education, his views on humans' relationships with nature and the primacy of mystery and sonority play a greater role in his music - as is the case with Berg, perhaps, a composer Crumb has always admired.
The Makrokosmos are just as redolent as the music of Webern, though: sparse, translucent, precise, expressive almost to the point of non-being. At the start of his career in the early 1960s Crumb bided his time. Perhaps to thoroughly assimilate and adjust these Second Viennese School influences; and others such as Mahler, Dallapiccola, Debussy and of course Bartók. A slow rate of compositions grew steadily. Before long, George Crumb was thought of as the leading American composer of his generation.
A persistent feature of these works was an extra-musical apparatus - numerologies, symbols and naming conventions - in support of the awe Crumb felt for his natural subject matter in particular.
The two Makrokosmos are typical in shunning counterpoint, and any kind of attention to over-rich timbres or textures. A pulsing and exposed simplicity is achieved - not quite crystalline, as is Boulez's piano music; nor yet reductive as is Cage's. Silence and pause, space and reflection are not so important to Crumb as they are to, say, Elliott Carter or Lukas Foss. There are also quotes in Makrokosmosfrom earlier composers, Chopin, Rachmaninov, perhaps, and Richard Addinsell!
The work was completed in 1972/3 and is described as 24 "fantasy pieces after the Zodiac for amplified piano". There is also a part for a whistler. Crumb notated the very demanding whistling part(s) in the bass clef. Women performers have to transpose. Any performer - it's obvious - needs to practise in order to achieve significant voice control and precise intonation so as to make the most of these parts. Similarly the pianism required for Makrokosmos is not insignificant … Crumb insists that the pianist stay seated and minimise gesture: this is music to be heard not observed!
At the same time, Makrokosmos is built on drama and the impact of - unexpected but never spurious - vocal effects. Ugelvik scores well here. Her real gift in this recording is to have made such a secure, expert and unambiguous fusion between respecting and reflecting Crumb's compositional technique on the one hand, and to have drawn out almost every drop of his penetrating imagination on the other.
Volume 8 in Robert Shannon's complete Crumb edition (Bridge 9155) would be another recommendation; the composer himself is known to have responded warmly to Laurie Hudicek's recording from 2002 (on Furious Artisans 6805) of the first Volume only. Ugelvik's must now be considered a worthy front-runner.
Each part takes about half an hour to play; Crumb has admitted that Debussy's two books of Préludes were amongst his models. Each piece is linked to a sign of the Zodiac, has the initials of someone born under that sign; many have titles like "Atlantis ca 10,000 BC" and "Ghost Nocturne for the Druids of Stonehenge".
So this is clearly music to be listened to very carefully; close attention to the extra-musical resonances may not be essential - or add much - for everyone. Ugelvik seems aware of this; she projects the music as broadly and openly as possible. Either way, harmonic and tonal consistency on Crumb's part coupled with the way the Ugelvik has so completely absorbed the required idiom make concentrated listening to Makrokosmos on the sensitively-recorded SACD a spell-binding experience.
(Mark Sealey, Musicweb-international.com, 2008)
But, for me, the week's real humdinger was a new music programme at the small recital hall of the Institute for Music and Dance. Two utterly fearless performers, soprano Eir Inderhaug and pianist Ellen Ugelvik, offered riveting performances of George Crumb, György Ligeti and Vanessa Lann.
Ugelvik sang with something of the chameleon-like transformational skill of the late, great Cathy Berberian. And Ugelvik sounded as if she owned every note in everything she played. Unforgettable.
(The Irish Times, 2007)
Inderhaug and Ugelvik had the audience in their grip
Many undoubtedly have a deeply rooted scepticism towards modern music, and Eir Inderhaug and Ellen Ugelvik’s programme probably convinced many to stay away from yesterday’s concert. They can only regret doing so, however, for they missed out on a musical experience that was hardly equalled during the entire festival. Even with Midori and all the other wonderful concerts fresh in my memory, this was the concert that made the strongest impression throughout the whole festival…
Ellen Ugelvik at the piano was equally impressive. She plays with the greatest of ease inside the instrument as well as on its keys, evoking the most magical sounds and moods, from Indian zither in Crumb’s Apparition to ghostlike sounds and rich overtones in the five excerpts from Makrokosmos that she performed solo. She used her voice too, to great effect in pieces including Lann’s delightful, ragtime-like The Owl and the Pussycat. Here is a pianist who dares to take new directions, and does so with greater assuredness than any other Norwegian performer.
(Stavanger Aftenblad, 13.08.07)
The Owl and the Pussycat
Ugelvik went on to perform Vanessa Lann’s more outward going work The Owl and the Pussycat in which she accompanied herself first humming, then singing. Similarly she was both pianist and fellow singer with Inderhaug in Ligeti’s Aria from his opera Le Grand Macabre.
…Ugelvik’s simultaneous performing was highly impressive, both technically and musically. Her playing was controlled, her singing perfectly in tune, and all the time her performance was varied and full of expression, from graceful to full of fiery temperament. … The encounter between these two daring, fearless musicians was for me a wonderful way to round off the festival.
An Echo from the East. Artistic and well-presented performance
The concert was well-presented. The works were played with a short break between each, but the audience stayed in their places. The applause was kept until the end. The concert as an event was thus the main focus, rather than the individual works. The works melted into one another, and the whole event had a ritual mood. This succeeded in opening up a mental space in which the music had a special resonance. This resonance, or echo, pervaded the entire concert both physically, and as echoes within the music itself, and in those places here the works sounded like an echo of some other music. There were traces of film music and of tango, and minimalist inspired music with a sensitivity towards pop music…
The sound of the piano appeared in many guises, from the almost mystical character of a single note to cascades of sound. From time to time the piano served as an echo chamber in which the sound remained motionless before receding. All of this was exquisitely performed by Ellen Ugelvik, who throughout the concert presented music with the most delicate sounds to music with a rhythmical, even machine-like, character where the piano became a percussion instrument. Hosokawa’s piece “Nacht Klänge” completed the concert, and the nocturnal sounds of the music accompanied us out of the concert hall as yet another form of resonance.
(Bergens Tidende, 23.05.07)
Ultima is based in Oslo around the institutions the capital has to offer. In addition to the few visiting performances from abroad there are also a handful of Norwegian ensembles from outside Oslo that visit the festival. Bodø Sinfonietta under the leadership of Jonathan Stockhammer was one of these, doing well in their performances of Max F’s (a pseudonym for Lars Petter Hagen) “Passage – Silence and Light Triptych” and Asbjørn Schaathun’s “Musical Grafitti”. Nonetheless neither the ensemble, the conductor, nor the composers were the centre of attention on this particular evening. The focus was on Ellen Ugelvik and her mammoth effort with a score that could have frightened the most cocksure music student to make a career change.
The centrepiece of the concert was Asbjørn Schaathun’s “Musical Grafitti” (1983-84). Schaathun makes uncompromising demands on his performers, risking that his music might end up sounding like a parody of contemporary music if not performed well enough. From the very first phrase, however, Ugelvik showed that she was an equally uncompromising pianist.
Ugelvik’s performance did not for a moment lose interest. She revealed herself as a poet, and with Scaathun’s complex structures this might seem a contradiction. She shaped and caressed each phrase, and when later in the work she really let loose, when she conquered the instrument like a female Napoleon, the effect of the contrast was so great that the whole performance was frighteningly well played…
Variety and commitment – irresistible advocacy of contemporary music
After having attended three weeks of festival concerts focusing on contemporary music it is a pleasure to be able to conclude that all of these were wonderful experiences. The performance with Mauricio Kagel in the Masonic Lodge was one high point; the same was pianist Ellen Ugelvik’s concert at Siljustøl on Saturday. Ugelvik radiates a genuine commitment to the music that is apparent from when she first touches the keys.
Without any fuss she walked straight to the piano and set into Stefan Wolpe’s “Stehende Musik” (1925), a roughly hewn piece of music in which rhythmic and dynamic contrasts play the lead role rather than melody. In this opening work we were given a clear demonstration of one of the central features of Ugelvik’s performance, namely the way in which she makes the music her own; Ugelvijk plays with an intensity and authority as if each piece had been composed especially for her.
It was the vast musical variety that distinguished Ugelvik’s concert. The encore, a wonderfully coordinated performance of music by Meredith Monk featuring witch-like chanting on top of minimalistic patterns, served to further emphasize this impression. It is performers like Ugelvik that really allow us to believe that contemporary music has something to say to us.
(Bergens Tidende, 04.06.06)
The most exciting piece on the programme for me were the six short movements from the American contemporary composer George Crumb’s Makrokosmos II performed by Ellen Ugelvik. Crumb is a fascinating composer who manages to make a simple piano sound like a whole army of sound manipulated instruments. This was achieved with the help of a few simple objects … Ugelvik was incredibly virtuosic and clear-headed, managing to control all of these clever sound effects. Contemporary works seldom appeal to repeated listening, but in this instance I would love to hear again the work in Ugelvik’s able interpretation.
(Romsdals Budstikke, 10.11.05)
When the audience were carried away, Ellen Ugelvik was partly responsible. With concentration and overview she gave each image its own colour and content. The expression ranged from atmospheric, veiled mystery to earthen strength and rich sound. Her attack and control revealed Ellen Ugelvik to be more than a pianist who likes to shock with edtreme effects. Her commitment and technical assuredness would be interesting to hear in a programme of contemporary music paired with Bach and Brahms. A little of taste thereof we were given when Crumb’s cosmic flight surprisingly touched in on the earth’s atmosphere and Chopin.
(Bergens Tidende, 28.11.03)
Ellen Ugelvik offered music at the piano, creating a varied and profound impression. Ugelvik gave a gallant and intense performance, drawing out the musicality of her material. Morten Jostad recited excerpts from Janacek’s letters with as much intensity as Ugelvik displayed at the piano. Together they gave a performance that radiated their profound and intense presentation of deeply personal material.
Ugelvik performed Crumb’s music with whistling, hitting, loudspeaker amplification, and a wonderful sense of technique and rhythm, and profound musical understanding. Her performance indicated that Ugelvik in the future is likely to play a considerable role in Norwegian and, hopefully, international contemporary music.