The composer once claimed he set out to create music both ordinary and fantastic at the same time, like a normal day of the week. His theatre piece On This Planet (2002) proved a landmark in Nordic music theatre, a genre-defying creation that brought the varied threads of Nordentoft’s creative work together and forged a new, arresting idiom from them. It communicated the essence of human life with straightforwardness and passion.
Nordentoft was raised as a guitarist, violinist and pianist and spent much of his youth playing in bands. He studied composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen with Ib Nørholm and Hans Abrahamsen, and at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus with Per Nørgård. Over the course of a four-decade career writing music, he has prioritized quality over quantity.
From the start, Nordentoft was disciplined with his music’s structural coherence while willing it to convey the bigger picture of life on earth. Two Movements (1978) sets up a simple, repeating mechanism as both a formal scheme and a framework for niggling intimacy. A strong rhythmic emphasis characterized many of Nordentoft’s works of the 1980s. The orchestral score Entgegen (1985) judders forwards with driving insistence; the solo cello work Cathedral (1985) weaves a single thread that builds huge cumulative power, expanding to fill the space implied by its title.
In the decade that followed, that focus began to link arms with sensuality, lyricism and harmonic depth. The Shadow of This Lip (1990) for violin and piano adumbrates a new sensitivity to melody while Zenevera sesio (1992) carves out a hovering, looping sound-space inspired by a psychedelic poem from the pen of Michael Strunge. The cello concerto Sweet Kindness (1996) fulfills the promise of its literal title; later renamed Light Imprisoned, it consists of an arching structure pinned into place by two cadenzas, with the solo cello playing a searching elegy in between.
Light Imprisoned is archetype Nordentoft in its combination of aesthetic ambition and formal pragmatism. It is fundamentally stable, establishing an atmosphere and then examining it like a prism in rotation. It features a classically Nordic exploration of light (often by means of harmonics), while its rigid structure is echoed in the through-line of HillShapes-WindStillness (2000) and the organization of Pointed Out (2006), in which an existing kit-of-parts is re-assembled over time. The same sort of poetic logic, linked to the unfolding patterns propagated by the Aarhus School, exists in the piano trio Doruntine (1994) where the structural DNA is unraveled with notable beauty. In Hymne (1996), block chords are deconstructed as notes are removed one by one.
Many of Nordentoft’s works give the impression of an eclectic range of styles coexisting; pop, jazz, modernism and classical romanticism poke out of music that remains wholly integrated and unmistakably impulsive. In writing for smaller and smaller ensembles throughout the 1990s, the composer was more able to explore the internal contrasts that appear to drive so many of his works. The focus of his ensemble pieces is exemplified in Stream
(2017), an organic, tight and rhetoric-free conversation for chamber ensemble whose velocity is determined by its own undercurrents of unease.
Some scores take a particular approach to the idea of combining unlikely partners that maintain their independence. Dance of Separation (1998) is a vigorous workout for string sextet in which two elements bound by tension are prized apart. In City of Threads (1994), individuals face up to the threatening grandeur of the city while recurring, repeating notes convey the endless cycle of urban life. The idea was taken forward in the more recent work City Trance (2019), a frenetic and taut score for solo piano that look at various urban landscapes with a marked sense of perspective, as if viewing them from the windows of a skyscraper.
With an acute sense of passing time and of the individual’s plight in the world, City of Threads foreshadowed On This Planet (2002), a series of wildly expressive and free-spirited songs that present a picture of one man’s journey through life and the fleeting spaciousness of existence. Work on this score threw up two additional, emotionally brittle songs for male voice and ensemble, Days I Have Held (2019). Both have been followed by song cycles that leave a similar same residue, most recently Noch bist du da (2019).
Anders Nordentoft has written over 60 published works for ensembles of all sizes and configurations. He has taught composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and is a former winner of the Carl Nielsen Prize (1997) and the Edition Wilhelm Hansen award (2002).
Andrew Mellor, 2019