Tasting the word “Om”
My musical intention for several of the concert's pieces was to establish a harmonic Einklang, consonant – and then expand it from within.
When exploring texts for the pieces, I tried to listen carefully to both their meaning and their spoken or sung sound, to the phrases as well as the individual words. By choosing Norwegian and German texts, my idea was to establish a dialogue between the two languages. These are languages I enjoy and use daily; the first being my mother tongue, the latter the language we speak in my family. At the start of part three of Ørenslyd. Ritus V (see figure 2), I put the Norwegian word ‘Om’ as the opening, introductory gesture. It is the first word from “Om nogen har ører å høre med, han høre!” / “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matt. 11. 15).
When listening to this excerpt, I sense the musician’s careful, almost sensuous approach to pitch sounds, without losing contact with the deep A, the central pitch of the piece. Exploring the sound richness of the double bass was part of both the composition process and the rehearsals. I enjoyed the experience and expertise of Håkon Thelin, the double bass player. I could fully take advantage of the instrument’s acoustic abundance of timbre, multiphonics and overtones when composing Into A, his solo work. He had himself explored the instrument thoroughly in his artistic research project (Guettler & Thelin, 2012). One might say that a complex web of various dialogues took place during conception, rehearsal and performance of Into A.
The idea of Ørenslyd as a concert is the dialogue between the overtone chant by the three singers and the articulations of multiphonics, white noise and overtones in the piece for double bass. Exploring this kinship is part of regarding the quartet as, on the one hand, an interacting ensemble, and on the other, as four individual contributors to the sounding result.
With ears wide open, I was expectantly awaiting the first chords of the first piece of the concert. I still had the sounding music from the rehearsals freshly in mind. After creative and exhaustive months of composing music for a one-hour concert, and with the faint resoundings of the initial imaginations of what I wanted to express still in my mind, I was now both curious and anxious about its audial realization. Now, on 25 October 2019, at 9 o’clock in the evening, here, in the Tieranatomisches Theater in Berlin. Ten months earlier, when I entered the room for the first time, I was immediately struck by its rich reverberations. After that visit, I remarked enthusiastically in my notebook, already starting to form the idea for the music: “In this room, I will have to allow for a lot of time for the pieces to play out to avoid too much reverberating sound!”. Between then and now, between the starting point of the composition process and its audial realization, I wrote four compositions for three singers and a double bass player. During this period, I attentively observed the process, regarding my (sometimes) rational and (for the most part) intuitive decisions, as well as my role as composer and facilitator for the music-coming-into-being. Composing, exploring, reflecting: three practices melted together – and here taken apart.
In this exposition, I present the becoming of Ørenslyd as an artistic-phenomenological research practice. All four pieces of Ørenslyd are written for and performed by Tone E. Braaten (soprano), Ebba Rydh (mezzo-soprano), Per Kristian Amundrød (tenor), and Håkon Thelin (double bass). Here, I will take you through seven of the considerations I made while composing the four pieces for the concert. These considerations are presented as dwellings along my winding journey from idea to realization, from imagined to realized sound, from personal to shared experience.
However, when I heard this passage performed, I experienced intuitively the kind of ambiguous character that I assign the text: When sung, the word sounds more like the sacred Indian sound Om or Aum than the Norwegian meaning of the word, i.e., ‘if’. I have often thought that music does not become spiritual merely because one uses religious texts. In this case, the sound of Om or Aum has a spiritual character, probably because I associate it with monk chanting. Its spirituality lies in how I sense its sound, not in its textual meaning. Also, this slow build-up of the ensemble sound, initiated by the mezzo-soprano and continued by the other singers and the double bass, is akin to an overtone singer’s entering the fundamental tone and uncovering its inherent overtones.
How does “the vegetative” sound?
When I read the following words, I sensed the reverberation of a time when science, philosophy and poetry were one: “… und man kann die Vögel als die wahren Blüten der allmählich sich entwickelnden tierischen Vegetation ansehen …”/“[O]ne can see the birds as the true blossoms of the gradually evolving animal vegetation” (Steffens 1822/1922, p. 240; my translation).
Given the ensemble of three singers and one double bass player, I intended to write pieces for different constellations. With this intention ringing in my ears, I began searching for ideas and texts for a duet piece. I found inspiration in Anthropologie, written by the Norwegian-German natural philosopher Henrik Steffens, and published in 1822. The book is about the continual emergence of traits and species in nature. Written in the pre-Darwinian era, Steffens’ basic idea is, as indicated by the title, that evolution in living nature is a gradual disclosure of man. In the fragment I chose, Steffens carefully describes how the sounds in nature are purified into vocal expression.
Now, imagine the lowest of the instruments, the double bass, meeting the highest of the voices in a “gradually evolving” interaction – starting with an interplay so close and homogenous as possible. My conception of the word “vegetation” led to an attempt to express the “vegetative” (figure 4). Note that the two melodic lines follow the exact same pitch and the exact same rhythm. As an instruction to the soprano and the double bass player for part A, I wrote: “An interplay as homogenous, ‘vegetative’ as possible regarding rhythm, articulation, dynamics. S: which vowels produce a unity sound: m, må, do…?”
Ørenslyd was performed in the Tieranatomisches Theater, Berlin, for the first time on 25 October 2019. The concert consists of four pieces: A Steffens Fragment (soprano and double bass); Into A. Overtone music for double bass (double bass solo); Aus der ersten Duineser Elegie (three voices); and Ørenslyd. Ritus V (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and double bass). All four pieces of Ørenslyd are composed by Edvin Østergaard and performed by Tone E. Braaten (soprano), Ebba Rydh (mezzo-soprano), Per Kristian Amundrød (tenor) and Håkon Thelin (double bass).
Ørenslyd (Norwegian ‘øre’, ear, and ‘lyd’, sound) is used in the sense of "opportunity to hear something being said or to be heard". The expression “å få ørenslyd” means “make one’s voice heard”.
What does it sound like when the three voices slowly – as slow as possible! – approach each other from their individual pitches to form a unison?
While composing Ørenslyd. Ritus V, I intended to let the singers dwell on individual words or text fragments drawn from scientific, poetic, and religious text sources, creating ever new harmonic contexts while both deepening and transcending the meaning of the words. I consider, for example, Helmholtz' expression “the hearing ear” as a phrase that invites me to dwell and meditate, and it thus invites me to seek a meditative expression. The three singers for whom I wrote the piece are skilled overtone singers. Using an overtone-like expression, the Norwegian word ‘om’ (English ‘if’, sounding 'oom', like Om in a mantra chant) sets off the third movement of the piece. Here, the fundamental unisono tone is broadened to a chord with audible overtones. Later, in part D, a percussive ‘hao’ (or rather the 'o') slowly changes to an ‘m’ and thus forms the reverse gesture compared to the opening of the movement (see figure 3).
I invite you to listen to this tiny passage in part D several times, the sforzando entrance of the three voices, the glissando lento and finally their forming of unison at f. Here, I sense the “revers” tendency compared to the unfolding of the sound ‘Om’ at part A of the 3. movement (see figure 2). This excerpt of the score captures a part of the piece where the double bass plays in call and response with the singers. Here, the instrument acts as a thrust for the chord from which the singers seek the unison m-sound.
When listening to this passage, I also hear the unique vocal skills of the three performers, the soprano Tone Braaten and mezzo-soprano Ebba Rydh coming from above and the tenor Per Kristian Amundrød approaching the unison from below. I am fascinated by their ability to remain in that micro area between the dense harmony and unison. If you listen carefully to the moment just before they reach the unison sound, it seems as if the overtones chaotically 'jump' before they merge in the unison. The succession of sounds is reinforced by the acoustics in the room. I also realize that the linearity that you see at this place in the score, does not correspond to the audial experience. In the duration of the glissando lento, one hears a sounding succession that does not follow linearly from chord to unison; what I hear is a soundscape of shifting harmonics and harmonies.
Now, listen carefully to the opening of the piece. What I intended as a unity between the two, as one body of repetitive sound, is, in fact, a rather divergent sounding of the voice and a high-pitched string instrument. The physical friction of the fingers against the strings becomes the predominant sound in that (high) pitch range. What I hear does not fit my idea of sound unity, the sounding interplay between the voice and the instrument. The next time we rehearse the piece, I intend to raise this problem with the musician and the singer. What would and could they do to increase the expression of sound unity? Lower the double bass by one octave? Have the bass player hum the same vowels as the soprano?
“…the flower scent comes alive”
I opened Steffens’ book Anthropologie and was baffled by its rich and precise descriptions of stages of evolution. Before I had put a single bar to the score, I wrote: “What emerges out of this text, what inspires me to write a duet, is the moment of ‘breaking free’; the voice that ‘breaks free’ from the masses of plants, from the mere vegetative” (notebook, 7.8.19).
At one place in Steffens’ text, there is an especially poetic wording: “„… und [die Stimme] bricht [bei den Vögeln] in Tönen hervor, die als der lebendig gewordene Blumenduft laut werden”/“… and [the voice] bursts out in tones [among the birds] as the sounds of the flower scent comes alive” (p. 240; my translation). The description of the moment where “the flower scent comes alive” is highly ambiguous – and most inspiring.
The idea of ‘breaking free’ opened a passage into the composition process. The double bass as the instrument with the lowest register of the quartet represents a counterpoint to the high soprano. My ears caught hold of this “flower scent coming alive” as the moment where the two split up and the voice breaks free. At the end of the piece (figure 5), the liberated voice has achieved a state of Liberamente.
The sound vs. the meaning of words
For the trio for voices, Aus der ersten Duineser Elegie, I chose text fragments from Rainer M. Rilke's Duino Elegies, selected from both the German original and the Norwegian translation by Åsmund Bjørnstad (Rilke, 2002). Rather than a word-by-word translation of Rilke’s original text, Bjørnstad has re-written the text in Norwegian. By juxtaposing the languages, I wanted to sense the various sounds and meaning qualities of the words. There is a subtle, but significant difference in musicality between these sentences from the first elegy, which I used for one of the movements of the trio:
Wirf aus den Armen die Leere zu den Räumen hinzu, die wir atmen; vielleicht dass die Vögel die erweiterte Luft fühlen mit innigem Flug / Hiv alt det tome du held om ut i die roma vi andar; kanhende vil fuglane feire si utvida luft med ei meir inderleg flukt. (Rilke, 2002, pp. 8, 9)
When comparing these two texts, there are different numbers of syllables, different phonetic stresses, but also significant differences in meaning. Rilke’s mysterious narrative is ambiguous, and for me most inspiring. With its esoteric metaphors, it represents an abundance of amorphous material open to interpretation. While scoring the piece, I emphasized certain words, letting some of them become especially accentuated in the course of the musical flow. To give you an idea of this mode of composing: Rilke’s ‘Leere’, translated as Norwegian ‘tome’ and English ‘emptiness’, have quite different soundings due to the different pronunciations and number of syllables. The Norwegian word ‘tome’ I use at the very beginning of the piece (figure 6). The ‘t’ in ‘tome’ gives the start a more percussive expression, compared to the ‘L’ in Rilke’s ‘Leere’. The fortissimo chord is followed by a pause which gives the singers – and the listeners – the opportunity to perceive the room’s resonance. The singers decide themselves when to proceed to the next ‘tome’ outbreak.
Consider also the re-writing of “… vielleicht dass die Vögel die erweiterte Luft fühlen mit innigem Flug” to Norwegian „kanhende vil fuglane feire si utvida luft med ei meir inderleg flukt” (Rilke, 2002, p. 8, 9). For Rilke’s ‘fühlen’ – which Snow (Rilke, 2000) translates as ‘sense’ and Mitchell (Rilke, 1989) as ‘feel’ – Bjørnstad chooses the Norwegian ‘feire’, with a meaning closer to ‘celebrate’ than to ‘feel’ or ‘sense’. In this interpretation, the birds are ‘celebrating’ their expanded space, not merely sensing or feeling it. Just imagine the rejoicing skylark with its energetic sonority above the green meadow on an early morning in May. Isn’t it as if he is celebrating the arrival of spring with its newly discovered airy spaces? This decisive difference in translation, between feeling or sensing and celebrating, determined the entire expression of the movement …ei meir inderleg flukt….
“… the hearing ear”
Listen to Rilke’s beautiful, lamenting words: “Aber das Wehende höre, die ununterbrochene Nachricht, die aus Stille sich bildet.”/”But listen to the swaying, the uninterrupted message that is formed out of the silence” (Rilke, 1923; my translation to English). I cannot fully understand the meaning of these words, but the sound of them is mystical and most inspiring. To form a message “out of the silence” – of course, I felt spoken to!
The text pronounced by the singers in Ørenslyd. Ritus V consists of short excerpts from the Bible, Rainer M. Rilke's Duineser Elegien (from 1923), and a lecture by Hermann von Helmholtz (held in 1857). The choice of the texts is informed by my intention of bringing together a religious, poetic, and scientific worldview. All three texts deal with sound – physical sound, sacred sound, the poetics of sounds – and the act of listening. The intimate sound-listening relation is explored from a religious, a physical-acoustic and a poetic aspect of consciousness. I used a similar „trinity” in Moon Music with the triangulation of conceptions of the moon from physics, poetry, and Leonardo’s integrated interpretation of nature (Østergaard, 2010). I put down the concept as a drawing, my preferred way of visualizing elements and structures of my ideas (figure 1).
Here, the “sounding scent” has evolved into the singing bird, and the bird in flight has broken free from the flowering vegetation. The emancipatory character in this fragment shapes the gradually evolving form of the piece, from a strict rhythmic-harmonic sounding together at the start (figure 4) to a more Liberamente-expression of voice and instrument toward the end (figure 5). However, when meditating on the words “… sounds of the flower scent come alive”, I need to deepen the words’ meaning. The phrase “der lebendig gewordene Blumenduft” associated with nature philosophy postulates that all living beings are connected and mutually dependent on each other. After having heard the piece performed, I now realize that another interpretation of the text would be to distinguish not strictly between "the vegetative” and “the generative”, as I did when composing the piece, but rather musically meditate on the mutual relationships between living beings.
Coming from nothing
I imagine the sounds of the double bass emerging out of silence. From ‘nothing’ to ‘white noise’ and eventually appearing as sounding pitches. The in-between of nothing and sound interests me.
When I think of the rich timbre of the double bass, my ears normally place the sound at the lowest register, always below the other instruments. But how would the instrument sound if it, so to say, descended into its conventional register? This question led me to explore the richness of the instrument’s register above its conventional soundings – its overtones, multiphonics and almost-soundings. To get an idea of the acoustic articulation in Into A, consider the following excerpt of the middle part of the piece (figure 7):
Guettler, K. & Thelin, H. (2012). Bowed-string multiphonics analyzed by use of impulse response and the Poisson summation formula. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 131 (1), 766-772.
Helmholtz, H. v. (1913). Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik. F. Vieweg & Sohn. [First published in 1862]
Helmholtz, H. (1957). Über die physiologischen Ursachen der musikalischen Harmonie. Vorlesung gehalten in Bonn. In Herman v. Helmholtz, Populäre Wissenschaftliche Vorträge. F. Vieweg & Sohn. [First published in 1865]
Østergaard, E. (2010). Moon Music: A Composition of Art and Science in Dialogue. Leonardo, 43 (3), 223-228.
Rilke, R. M. (1989). The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell. Vintage Int. [First published in 1923 as Duineser Elegien]
Rilke, R. M. (2000). Duino Elegies. Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated by Edward Snow. North Point Press. [First published in 1923 as Duineser Elegien]
Rilke, R. M. (2002). Duino-elegiane. Translation Åsmund Bjørnstad. Oslo: Aschehoug. [First published in 1923 as Duineser Elegien]
Steffens, H. (1922). Anthropologie. Der Kommende Tag Verlag. [First published in 1822]
In this exposition, I try to describe my activity as a composer and as a facilitator for the music-coming-into-being. Being a facilitator implies that I support the pieces in gradually coming forward, helping them to take on their shape and sound with their own voices. I am intrigued by the idea of composition as a dialogue – a process that requires both my ability to acknowledge the music’s own voices and my ability to carefully listen and intentionally structure the score.
This exposition, Music-in-Becoming: Close Attention!, is Part 2 of an article published in the Special Issue 'Practices of Phenomenological and Artistic Research', Phenomenology & Practice, [Vol. 17, No.1, 2022]. Part 1 is accessed here. Part 3 is a text entitled Music-in-Becoming: Researching Processes of Disclosure, in which I further examine and discuss the methods used during this exploration, influenced by both artistic research and phenomenological research. Part 3 can be accessed here.
The texts speak with their own voice. Just listen to the acoustic diversity in the two sentences: “…die Luftzitterung wird zum Schalle, erst wenn sie das hörende Ohr trifft” / “… the shivering of the air becomes sound first when it hits the hearing ear” (Helmholtz, 1865; my translation to English). You might sense the acoustic difference between “Luftzitterung” and “shivering of the air”, the first with its clear percussiveness, the latter with its six vowels and melodic character. When listening to the text's voices, I hear both their semantic meaning, their sonority, as well as their ambiguous meanings: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mat. 11. 15)”. What does it mean to have ears? Who has a “hearing ear?”
Perhaps, what I am sensing are the differences between religious, pre-scientific and poetic descriptions of the phenomenon of listening.