Hans Abrahamsen is a Danish composer born in 1952. On the night of March 24th, I experienced the performance of his hour-long Schnee by the New York based, Ensemble Signal. Scored for two pianos and percussion with trios of woodwinds and strings, Schnee consists of ten canons that blur their counterpoint in and out of focus throughout the duration of the piece by subtlety using microtonal retunings and employing repetition and overlap of its basic, modal melody. The piece is intended to reflect the intricacies of snow - how it flutters about, swirls and dances, coalesces, dissipates, disappears. Its soundscape rattled on before me like a crystalline dream - fragile, complex, cold, and distant, but filled with fiery propulsion. This was a supremely meditative sound experience, filled with an intangible quality of beauty that though architecturally fibrous, was also just as diaphanous, disappearing into nothing as quickly as it appeared out of nothing. If music could be equated with crystalline lace, Schnee would be it.
Though Abrahamsen was absent that night, the program notes contained his words:
"In the early 1990's, I arranged some of J.S. Bach's canons for ensemble - in total seven self-standing works from his entire life-span. I became totally absorbed in this music and arranged the canons with the intention of them being repeated many, many times, as a kind of minimal music. Obviously, I didn't know what durations Bach had in mind, but by listening to his canons in this way, a profound new moving world of circular time was opened to me.
Depending on one's perspective on these canons, the music and its time can stand still or move either backwards or forwards. In my own work, an ongoing idea has persisted: writing a work consisting of a number of canonic movements that would explore this universe of time....
In Schnee, a few simple and fundamental musical questions are explored. What is an antecedent? And what is a consequent? Can a phrase be answering? Or questioning?
The guideline or rule for the canons is very simple: We start out with an answering antecedent, followed by a questioning consequent. Throughout the time of the piece, these two are intertwined more and more, in more and more densely worked canons, until, at the end, they are interchanged...."
Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman, received a long, hearty ovation. Even though the musical imprints this concert left behind in me has no clear form to latch onto - no clear-cut melody, no readily recognizable rhythms, etc., the remembrance of it stands as one of my lighter, more delicately atmospheric musical experiences. In two words, this music was supremely meditative. I think it is important to experience this kind of music in live performance, because it is constructed of qualities that seem as of yet intangible. If you are there in person to hear the instruments and the performers' breaths- the silence in between their notes - the soundscape thus created really does envelope you. I am not sure listening to a piece like Schnee on recording would yield the same meditative magic.