Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1932-2016)

By Finn Gravesen, writer and editor, 2006

Gudmundsen - always bucking the trend 

That’s how this composer - to whom being different is a lifelong art form - is described in a book on him by Ursula Andkjær-Olsen. And that says something important about a composer, who seems powered by a constant inner need to try and be different - time and time again. A composer who is always bucking the trend. 

Harmony - Disharmony 

is in fact the direct translation of Symphony- Antiphony. A clash of two contradictory concepts: order, compactness and structure as opposed to the unruly, the untamed, the living. The first movement - Symphony - lasts scarcely 2 ½ minutes. Here things are under control, cooperation, construction, everything is kept in check. The large symphony orchestra - in excess of 70 players - is held in tight rein.

ck. The large symphony orchestra - in excess of 70 players - is held in tight rein. The second movement - Antiphony - goes on 10 times longer. That’s just the way things have to be - it takes a long time to be different - in an orderly fashion. But you can’t expect all the problems to end in order and harmony, that’s the rub. What happens is that the entire piece just fizzles out. The whole thing collapses and all that is left at the end are a few bounding strings, a bit of rattling percussion and one lonely mandolin. 

Little, confused fiddle 

Some call this sort of music “new simplicity” and there’s perhaps something in the term. As soon as the music gets too bombastic, pompous or romantic, you can almost hear Pelle Gudmundsen- Holmgreen clear his throat and wipe the slate clean. It is this reluctance to or dislike of letting himself get carried away that rears up its head at the beginning of Antiphony. A diminutive, very straightforward violin theme makes its appearance as a contrast in the splendid Symphony. And bless my word if the piano doesn’t perform exactly the same role with a sniggering little ragtime theme. As composer colleague Karl Aage Rasmussen says on the subject of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: The problem is to tell the truth without wanting all the time to say what is true! 

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgren with his wife, artist Karin Birgitte Lund. Samsø 1996. Photo: Marianne Grøndahl.
Palle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Karin Birgitte Lund
Cover for Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's record Symfoni-Antifoni from 1992 with DR Symphony Orchestra and Leif Segerstam - with illustration by Finn Mickelborg. © Dacapo Records.
Score Music

Did you know?

Source: Karl Aage Rasmussen: Toneangivende danskere. Edition Wilhlem Hansen, 1991.

It is said about Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen that he is a kind of anti-composer. He is best defined by all the things he disagrees with. For example, about one of his pieces, he has said, "Poor on fabric, undramatic, without pathos, without fixtures and large places; not elegantly descriptive or evocative. Nor is it serial, but rather long".

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Music, 2006

In 1980, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s orchestral work was awarded the Nordic Council’s music prize. Frequent performances since then have thrilled and amazed audiences. And the reaction was the same outside Denmark and at the World Music Days in Aarhus in 1983.
To characterise the work as “new simplicity” is to merely hint at what is happening in the music. The work breaks all the rules, and, if nothing else, we have the word of foreign musicians that the Danish ‘new simplicity’ is something special.

The most special thing about the work is that the music, despite its objective character, despite its almost geometrical patterns and the quote-like repeating of certain motifs, engages the audience’s musical presuppositions and listening abilities. The work can swing from the abstract to the appealing and the listener is almost forced to change between two or more positions along the way, not always being able to place exactly what is what. For this reason, the work has not only attracted interest from classically-oriented listeners, but also those who prefer jazz or rock.

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