Louise Alenius hacks into formats, unsettles her musicians, challenges her audience, dissects the concert form.
Her career as a composer for classical ensembles began in 2008 with new music for the second act of August Bournonville’s ballet Napoli, which had its premiere at the Royal Danish Theatre in 2009. In 2008 Alenius wrote the music for Louise Midjord’s modern ballet The Egg, The Monk and The Warrior. She composed the music for Constantine Baecher’s ballet Palimpsest in 2011 and for Cathy Marston’s ballet Elephant Man in 2013.
In Rouge, a duet for strings from 2016, during their performance of the work a cellist and a viola player are bound to their seats with gaffer tape by the composer herself, who then proceeds to tear at their skin with her nails.
Since 2014 Alenius has presented six different versions of La Poreuse, a work designed for an audience of just one person at a time. 2016 saw the premiere of Prequiem, a work to be performed for one terminally ill patient at a time.
She has also supplied the dramatic atmospherics and haunting mood for a succession of advertising films for such companies as Peugeot (2011), Turkcell (2014) and Interflora (2015).
Louise Alenius lives primarily in Copenhagen, but has a base in Paris as well. In addition to her work with the Royal Danish Theatre she also carries out freelance commissions, composing works for ensembles large and small, choirs, films, adverts and dance companies.
Ralf Christensen © Translation copyright Barbara J. Haveland 2017
Louise Alenius hacks into formats, unsettles her musicians, challenges her audience, dissects the standard concert form.
Some of her works are full of secret passages, cat flaps, pitfalls, false bottoms. Other are ripped open by broad brushstrokes. A riot of the senses. Origami of the mind. Several concepts co-existing in alternative forms of habitat. A lover’s drawings on the beloved. The punisher’s wounds on the punished. Plant fingers posing questions in the undergrowth.
Alenius started composing music in 1999 while in Paris, where she lived from 1999 to 2005. She issued her first album, the eponymous Lillë (Bloomrecords/Naïve, 2003), in the French capital, and it was here that she learned how to make the most of the music studio and all its myriad possibilities. Occasionally she would also write music for session musicians.
Her career as a composer for classical ensembles began in 2008 with the new music for the second act of Napoli – August Bournonville’s ballet from 1842 in Nikolaj Hübbe’s new staging at the Royal Danish Theatre, which had its premiere in 2009.
Alenius’s music accompanies the story of the cross-class marriage of Teresina and Gennaro, who are separated when Teresina disappears into the sea’s grim underworld. Here we are met by the dread of drowning, sparkling marches, armour-plated, gilled creatures preparing for battle, and flight through an underwater Eastern bloc. Here, too, are pre-recorded snatches of Alenius’s voice. And her writing, slicing through two hundred years of Romantic composition.
In 2008 Alenius composed the music for Louise Midjord’s modern ballet The Egg, The Monk and The Warrior. That same year she was responsible for the sound art installation Mennesker (People) at the National Museum in Copenhagen. And in 2011 she composed the music for Constantine Baecher’s ballet Palimpsest.
2013 saw the premiere of Cathy Marston’s ballet Elephant Man. In this Alenius conjures up a burlesque marketplace, wistful clockwork rhythms, the precisely clicking instruments of torture of social norms, capsizing reflections, pipettes and test tubes filtering paranoid flashes of light. The hoarse, yet crystal-clear breathing of the instruments. Cracking canes and flayed strings. The musicians as busy creating a vaccuum as they are with filling the empty space.
Her works are loaded with ambiguity. They are concerned with our physical boundaries and with bodily hubris. With the muscles of willpower, the sensuality of the musicality. The richness of the moment and the pitilessness of eternity. Staggering expanses and intimate convulsions. A pain that can be converted into a flex loan of pleasure. A temperament that focuses equally on possibility and impossibility. Autumn falling within our husks. Spring rising within our senses. Imagination overcoming science. Power and powerlessness. Aggression and passivity. Fury on a tight rein.
Alenius was also involved in the collective project Cours Lapin, and contributed to the album of the same name (Fake Diamond Records / ArtPeople 2009) for which four Danish film composers wrote eleven songs in French. "Homme Contre Femme” is a kind of chamber chanson in which everything seems to be at breaking point. Not only the human relationship referred to in the French lyrics, but the musical instruments too, with strings that snap and yield and moan, becoming something else. While Alenius’s voice exposes the fractures in a life lived, in the recognition of the treacherous workings of attraction.
The sensory exploration of the instrumental limitations is a hallmark of Alenius’s work. The exposure of that which exists outside the rules laid down by convention. The magic splinter in her ear, the will to pursue breakdowns and faults without the whole edifice collapsing. A tightrope walk across the abyss of expulsion.
Alenius is also fond of testing the performance situation. The strings duet Rouge from 2016 seems both like a migraine and a release, cello and viola alternating between sado-masochistic tension and free-and-easy swooping and gliding. The performance of this work starts with Alenius binding the musicians to their seats with white gaffer tape wrapped around their bare skin. Once the musicians are securely pinned, with only just enough leeway left for them to play their instruments, the composer digs her nails into their flesh and tears at it again and again until the skin is flaming red – rouge. A stress and focus test using pain as a direct influence on the performance of the work.
The performance of a musical work is an event which takes place over a period of time in a room populated by the bodies of the musicians, who coordinate their movements in line with the composer’s written instructions. These movements, this adherence to the law of the score, are obstructed in Rouge by the lawmaker herself. Thus a new and chaotic element is introduced into the established order.
It should also be said that the musicians can say stop, if it becomes too much for them. Rouge has been performed twice – at the Black Diamond in Copenhagen and at Harpa in Reykjavik in 2016. One musician called a halt.
Alenius also aims to test the listening situation, and this she has been doing quite radically since 2014 with works designed for the most limited of audiences. Only one person at a time is admitted to performances of La Poreuse, which is always presented in some obscure, secret corner of the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen.
The fourth version of La Poreuse was staged in the loft, right up under the roof of this venerable building. The audience of one takes their seat in pitch darkness. Then the lights are slowly turned up. The loft looks like a lumber-room. Three feet in front of the spectator sits a naked woman, straight-backed and motionless in an armchair. On her knees next to her, fully dressed, is Alenius. Also there are two birds, one stuffed, one alive. A recording of a man’s voice describes a woman’s life. Simply, concisely. Alenius hums as she plucks at the stuffed bird with tweezers. The living bird sings along with her, responding to light, sound, movement. Then Alenius rubs the naked woman’s knees with oil, touches up her flawless skin, excising any intrusive elements with a razor blade and sewing her up again, so that she now looks perfect – stuffed. The woman’s (ordinary) life is charted right up to her present age (38), at which, after a divorce, she finds a new man. "Then all five of them sailed out onto the fjord in the carpenter’s rowboat. Here they jumped into the water when the weather was fine. Afterwards, they visited the boy’s grandparents, who lived in a yellow house with a flat roof, near Næstved Shopping Mall.” The end.
La Poreuse runs for 15 minutes and the six different versions have been performed 350 times between 2014 and 2016, each time for an audience of one..
Another extreme listening situation explored by Alenius is that which occurs on the brink of death. In 2016 she performed the work Prequiem about 20 times during the Copenhagen Opera Festival, each time for a single terminally ill patient – usually together with a relative. Prequiem is a work in four short movements – performed a capella and with a variety of light instrumentations – in which Alenius sings lyrics that speak of memory, death, confession and cognition. Accompanied by a string player and Alenius herself on a shruti box, an Indian bellows-driven instrument producing chord-based drones.
Death is also a passenger in the short work When Silence Came from 2015, written for soprano, counter-tenor and string quintet: "That bittersweet taste of Daddy’s love.” A story of incest. "I could not break the silence. Mother, you did not listen. Mother, you closed your eyes. Mother, you knew, you knew, you never tried to break the silence.”
The narrative in When Silence Came also acts as a preliminary study for the chamber opera Silence Zone, premiered in 2017. As, to some extent, does Prequiem, since one of its four movements features in this opera, as an aria sung by the counter-tenor.
The physicality imposes itself on Alenius’s works. Not only that of the musicians, but also her own body, her voice. As the mutant siren in Napoli, as the prosecutor in When Silence Came, as a spiritual advisor in Prequiem and as the only recurring figure in La Poreuse.
Ever since those early years in Paris, Louise Alenius has been composing soundtracks for documentaries and feature films. More recently, in 2016, she composed parts of the soundtrack for the Danish feature film De standhaftige (The Steadfast). She has also supplied the dramatic atmospherics and haunting mood for a succession of advertising films for such companies as Peugeot (2011), Turkcell (2014) and Interflora (2015) – thus helping to introduce new music to commercial pop culture.
Louise Alenius lives primarily in Copenhagen, but has a base in Paris as well. Alongside her work with the Royal Danish Theatre she also carries out freelance commissions, composing works for ensembles large and small, choirs, films, advertising and dance companies. The scope of her fauna and flora is still steadily expanding.
© Translation copyright Barbara J. Haveland 2017