Terrains Vagues, Per Nørgård

It was nothing special / because everything was special / the mysteries presented themselves / as a matter of course…

Terrains Vagues takes its title from a phrase first used by the French writer Victor Hugo to refer to the indistinct areas of land that sit uneasily on the boundaries between urban civilisation and the untamed expanse of nature; regions characterised by uncertainty, forming sites of conflict as the dominating force of human culture relinquishes power to its irresistible adversary. Taking inspiration partly from Klaus Rifbjerg’s poem of the same name (an extract of which is quoted above), Danish composer Per Nørgård’s Terrain Vagues evokes the lonely mystique that hovers above these forgotten stretches of no-man’s land with vast blocks of sound subtly shaded in translucent clouds of woodwinds and strings. Completed in 2001 and scored for an orchestra of medium size, the work is unusual in its inclusion of an accordion as well as in the prominence afforded to the low brass instruments; as such, this music exists within its own enigmatic aural world, entirely disconnected from any of the more familiar soundscapes of orchestral music.

As Terrains Vagues unfolds, Nørgård explores the conflict implicit in his chosen theme, examining the elusive relationship between the vague and the precise (the wild, natural and the controlled, human) elements of his music with striking dexterity and insight. Rather than perceiving the two as an antagonistic dichotomy, separate and distinguishable, Nørgård presents these qualities as inextricably connected, symbiotically intertwined in dialogic interaction. Midway through the second movement, three metronomes are set off at different speeds, coalescing to form a delicately circling rhythmic texture. Working from the same premise as György Ligeti’s 1962 composition (or Fluxus prank, depending on your view) Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes, Nørgård’s more sparing use of the metronome achieves a clarity distinctly lacking from that earlier work, the admirable vision of which was largely obscured by its irreverence and excess. The binary distinction between the controlled and the chaotic is continually blurred as the unchanging rhythmic pulses combine to form a soundscape that is constantly in flux: the immutable becoming the transient, the certain becoming the unpredictable.

This work is rife with ambiguity: intoxicating and mysterious. Whilst often highly volatile and brutish, tormented throughout by rasping low brass, Terrain Vagues is cloaked in a spectral mist of moaning woodwinds, strings and shimmering pitched percussion. Even the work’s boldest gestures are undercut by a nagging uncertainty: the score dictates that the snarling brass chords at its opening are to be played “vaguely” so that the regimented rhythm and physicality of the music becomes tempered by imprecision. It is as if Terrains Vagues exists only as a shadow of its original self: what was once bright and iridescent has become bleached, eroded by the passage of time. This is a quality most fully realised on the final movement as the elemental procession of the music is haunted by fragments of a playful, jazzy melody which stalk through the soundscape.

Whilst Per Nørgård has certainly written more ambitious and expansive music than Terrain Vagues, rarely has he achieved such a glorious synergy of the earthen and the ethereal: this masterful work transforms the contradiction and conflict of the vague areas of its title into a seductive, mysterious intangibility.

Below is a recording of Terrains Vagues followed by a brief listening guide.

Terrains Vagues is cast in three movements, played without out a break.

The first movement, ‘Terrains’ (0:00-5:09), is built upon an off-kilter rhythmic foundation of low brass, double-basses and the accordion. The anxious central motif of the movement (and indeed the piece as a whole) is first explicitly introduced on pitched percussion at 0:48, subsequently taken up in the piano at 0:55. The motif is then elaborated throughout the movement, notably at 2:28 when it is passed between the pitched percussion and high brass instruments. As the movement gradually loses momentum, with its rhythms constantly derailed, flourishes of percussion and brass bring the music to a temporary resting point at 4:28, leaving only their shadow in the throb of low strings.

‘Vagues’ runs from 5:09-13:37 and contrasts ‘Terrains’’ ferocity with subtly shaded soundscapes. Nørgård’s technique of blurring rhythmically rigid sonic fragments into indistinct clouds of sound is used prominently in this movement: from its opening coalescence of high woodwinds and pitched percussion to the metronomes of 6:47-8:16, cloaked in mysterious, translucent harmonies. Following a tumultuous brass-lead passage from 8:50-10:57, the metronomes return amidst frenetic pizzicato in the low strings. The movement then draws to a close with disconnected statements from various instrumental groups (listen in particular for the playful melody in the brass at 11:40 which will form the basis of the next movement), as well as restatements of the central motif of the first movement (11:59, 13:16).

The final movement (‘Terrains Vagues’, beginning at 13:37) is the most enigmatic of the piece. On a backdrop of moaning winds and strings, the melody initially heard in the brass at 11:40 is restated and elaborated in various fragmentary forms, achieving striking vitality at 14:24. Soon after, the music becomes increasingly dense, with only fleeting glimpses of the melody emerging from the mass. The return of the low strings at 17:50 instils a new momentum to the music, propelling the piece to its conclusion (listen out for the furtive echoes of the movement’s opening melody in the woodwind at 18:46-18:52). By 21:12 the music has completely deflated, replaced by the tentative shuffle of percussion and stuttering statements of the piece’s central motif on piano.

The recording above is played by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the piece’s dedicatee Thomas Dausgaard. This fine performance appears on a disc with Nørgård’s wonderful sixth symphony on the Chandos record label and is the only recording of Terrains Vagues currently available.

An informative overview of Nørgård’s compositional development is provided by his cycle of eight symphonies. Particularly recommended are his cosmic Symphony No. 3 (which serves as the fullest realisation of his mathematical technique of composition, the Infinity Series), the brooding, schizophrenic Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 6 “At the End of the Day”, which is a companion piece of sorts to Terrain Vagues.

Artwork: Iberia #2, Peter Motherwell

by Thomas May