Bent Sørensen is one of northern Europe’s most performed and admired composers, whose triple concerto L’isola della Città was awarded the 2018 Grawemeyer Award for Music.
The Danish composer found his voice early and never changed direction. His music floats and percolates of its own accord, haunted by remembrances of things past. It can feel exquisitely close to silence. Sometimes, a Sørensen score will instruct an entire symphony orchestra to lay down its instruments and hum quietly together. Sometimes, it will ask those musicians to leave the stage altogether.
Sørensen is a modernist composer who adores tonal intervals and allows himself to be pulled between the magnetic poles of warm, Romantic tonality and rich, Schoenbergian atonality – to be seduced by the simple shape of a song or hymn. Despite its extreme emotional fragility, Sørensen’s music is crammed with as much beauty as is tastefully possible.
Sørensen has worked in every classical music genre and pushed at their boundaries. His 2009 concerto for orchestra, choir, actors and audience plants musicians and actors throughout a large concert hall to create an immersive gesamtkunstwerk. His distinctive choral works culminated in a St Matthew Passion (2021). His full-length opera Under himlen (‘Under the Sky’) was staged at the Royal Danish Opera in 2004.
L’isola della Città (‘The Island in the City’) is characteristic of Sørensen’s work in its distilled textures, etched counterpoint, massed use of a single instrument (woodblocks) and sense of latent orchestral power.
Sørensen has written for orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Danish National Symphony, Munich Chamber and BBC orchestras. He has been Visiting Professor in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Professor in Composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen.
© Andrew Mellor, 2021
”It reminds me of something I’ve never heard!”
Such was the spontaneous reaction of the Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim upon hearing a work by Bent Sørensen. And it is not easy to imagine a more strangely to-the-point description of the ambiguous, almost paradoxical expressive idiom of this unique composer, who is without doubt the leading Danish composer of his generation.
Sørensen’s music is not recycled; in no way does it rely on the yellowing pages of history for its musical nourishment. His musical language is undeniably of the present day, both aesthetically and technically. The music does, however, appear to be pervaded with memories, wisdom of experience and old dreams, of the inevitability of transitoriness and parting. It is a flickering, glittering world where things seem to disappear at the slightest touch.
The moment something becomes tangible and recognizable, it dissolves, becomes obscured, or disappears. But this ghost-like indistinctness is nevertheless the work of an experienced illusionist: Perhaps Sørensen’s most singular talent is his ability to give voice to this indistinctness, to render it distinct and clear. Often he places very simple musical material inside an ingenious musical "hall of mirrors” in which echoes, and echoes of echoes, spread like ripples in water; the quiet, smudged contours, which sound as though heard through falling rain or misted windows, are always drawn in minute, calligraphic detail.
© Karl Aage Rasmussen
Critical Acclaim...Bent Sørensen's tonal universe is truly original - Tori Skrede, VG
...Bent Sørensen is a master of moods - Jakob Wivel, Børsen
Bent Sørensen is one of northern Europe’s most performed and admired composers. His triple concerto L’isola della Città was awarded the 2018 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, the so-called Nobel Prize for composition. Sørensen’s music is recognizable in an instant. In a mark of its resonance and significance, its signature sound has been imitated countless times.
The Danish composer first came to prominence in the 1980s. He found his voice early and never changed direction. If you were to map Sørensen’s style, his fellow composer Karl Aage Rasmussen has written, its development would resemble growth rings in a tree.
That style started to fix itself in the consciousness of the European music scene with the first performance of Sørensen’s 1993 violin concerto Sterbende Gärten (‘Decaying Garden’), which later won the Nordic Council Music Prize. The composer’s own programme note to the piece refers to the decaying, fading frescoes around Florence and Rome. ‘The way culture becomes nature over time has been an inspiration for all my pieces,’ Sørensen wrote.
Sørensen’s music floats and percolates of its own accord, haunted by remembrances of things past, often dragged down by a deep sorrow induced by exquisite beauty. Silence has become the aesthetic basis for much of Sørensen’s work, the ‘white wall’ that becomes increasingly dominant as the composer’s narratives resolve or, more likely, dissolve. Sometimes, a Sørensen score will instruct an entire symphony orchestra to lay down its instruments and hum quietly together. Sometimes, it will ask the orchestra’s musicians to walk off stage, one by one, until only one or two remain.
Many of Sørensen’s works have a habit of finding solace just when it’s too late. In his Trumpet Concerto, the solo instrument discovers its full voice after the piece has effectively finished. In his piano concerto La mattina, the piano tries to sing out the Lutheran chorale Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ but can only find the confidence to do so, for eight seconds, just as the curtain falls. In L’isola della Città (2017) the trio of soloists finally gets to play a consonant chord, a simply G minor triad, just as the concerto evaporates.
Despite its extreme emotional fragility, Sørensen’s music is that of pure aesthetic indulgence, crammed with as much beauty as is tastefully possible. He is a modernist composer who adores tonal intervals and allows himself to be seduced by the simple shape of a song or hymn. A spectral regard for colour and texture lurks underneath Sørensen’s harmonic and schematic principles, making space as important as time.
In his complementary movements to Johannes Ockeghem’s unfinished Requiem – a series of choral movements that spanned most of Sørensen’s career to date when they were gathered together in 2012 – we hear the twisting thread of the Renaissance polyphony the composer so loves. But it is rendered in Sørensen’s characteristic harmonic smudging; the music pulled between the magnetic poles of warm, Romantic tonality and rich, Schoenbergian atonality. The work laid foundations for Sørensen’s choral magnum opus, St Matthew Passion (2021).
Sørensen has worked in every classical music genre and pushed at their boundaries. His 2009 concerto for orchestra, choir, actors and audience Sounds Like You was conceived in part for the embracing auditorium of Jean Nouvel’s DR Concert Hall in Copenhagen and plants musicians and actors throughout a large concert hall. The piece leads its audience into a mesmerizing existential dream. His full-length opera Under himlen (‘Under the Sky’) was staged at the Royal Danish Opera in 2004, four years after his pointillist piano concerto La notte (2008) was first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Rolf Hind.
L’isola della Città (‘The Island in the City’), for huge orchestra and piano trio, is full of Sørensen hallmarks. A Beethoven fugue drifts into the music like a ghost passing a window, while the entire wind section is asked to play secondary instruments (in this case, woodblocks). The work’s distilled textures reach a new height of wind-blown refinement in tandem with the composer’s own etched neo-classical counterpoint. The sense of latent orchestral power in the piece prompted Sørensen to begin work on a new symphony, Second Symphony (2019), to follow Symphony (1996).
Sørensen’s orchestral work Evening Land (2017) was written for the New York Philharmonic and subsequently performed throughout Japan by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Fabio Luisi. He has written for ensembles including the Bergen Philharmonic, Danish National Symphony, Munich Chamber and various BBC orchestras. In 2011, he was composer in residence at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music.
Sørensen has been Visiting Professor in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Professor in Composition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen.
© Andrew Mellor, 2021
3rd February 2023
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