Ruben Sverre Gjertsen


The research project Wheels within Wheels developed through numerous workshops over three years, and was at the end publicly presented in the form of three concerts under the title Mouvance. While the musical results of Mouvance I were mainly within an Ars Nova style, the next two concerts were initiated by the two composers in the research group. «Mouvance III» consists of compositions and improvisations initiated by Ruben Sverre Gjertsen.


The performance of Mouvance III: Distortion, was meant to cover the range between late medieval repertoire, abstractions, new compositions, and sound installation elements. Such recomposings, creative reuses, and performance suggestions would fall outside the commonly accepted field of "Historically Informed Performance" (HIP).

Mouvance III relates to the mentioned triangle of interaction.1 Compositions of the Ars Nova period were used as materials,2 with a strong emphasis on the abstraction and manipulation of the materials.3 When medieval compositions are squeezed into blurred rhythms, microtonal harmony, and timbral explorations, they do not sound like medieval compositions anymore. The sources and inspirations are present, yet submerged. We will see examples of sources and compositional processes below.

Some pieces were precisely notated and technically demanding. Others were text scores and sketches, where the performers had to be both performers and composers, and complete the suggested ideas. This is related to the research process of Mouvance I, while Mouvance III attempts to distort the medieval sources; the rules of the musical language become different.

It was central for the project that the composers first became involved in the work on the Ars Nova late medieval repertoire, then we would increasingly intervene and bring the ensemble into the field of new experimental music.

A medieval repertoire met musical aesthetics of the past century, which have strongly influenced the author as a composer. I composed precisely notated works, following my previous practice as a composer, with for me new inspirational materials and starting points.


What we will see below is a few examples from a larger exposition showing the work of Mouvance III. For more details, it is possible to read the full exposition.4

Nuper Rosarum Flores
My new piece "Nuper rosarum flores" was composed as a distortion of Guillaume Dufays motet "Nuper rosarum flores" from 1436. Dufays original was written to celebrate the new dome in the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Many have speculated and searched for numerical symbols in this composition,5 counting number of notes in each phrase and part. My new piece is built on fragmentation, scaling, pitch distortion, as well as a stylistically "faulty" ornamentation machine, inserting figures based on the Codex Faenza manuscript. I read Dufay from a modern edition6 and noted the choice of flats and sharps from the recording by Huelgas Ensemble.7 Half of the original Latin text is used in the new piece.

Nuper rosarum flores
Ex dono pontificis
Hieme licet horrida
Tibi, virgo coelica,
Pie et sancte deditum
Grandis templum machinae
Condecorarunt perpetim.

Recently garlands of roses
given by the Pope
– despite a terrible winter –
adorned this temple of magnificent structure
forever dedicated in a pious and holy fashion
to you, heavenly Virgin.8

Passages from Finnegans Wake run in parallel, as if commenting on our fixation with the old manuscripts.

The original document was in what is known as Hanno O’Nonhanno’s unbrookable script, that is to say, it showed no signs of punctuation of any sort. Yet on holding the verso against a lit rush this new book of Morses responded most remarkably to the silent query of our world’s oldest light and its recto let out the piquant fact that it was pierced but not punctured (in the university sense of the term) by numerous stabs and foliated gashes made by a pronged instrument. These paper wounds, four in type, were gradually and correctly understood to mean stop, please stop, do please stop, and O do please stop respectively, and following up their one true clue, the circumflexuous wall of a singleminded mens asylum...9

A medieval polyphony is faded out while throat singing, noise, and whisperings are faded in. Both text and music need their own space, they do not need to be in sync and emphasise each other. A similar attitude came out in our recordings of the mass text, a sensual experience of being absorbed in a floating mass of words and obscured utterings.


Software development10 was also part of the project, to find tools to transform musical materials and prepare electroacoustic elements. Chaotic and impossible situations arising from software distortions of Dufay called for called for creative reinterpretations in several stages. Transformations brought Dufays modal colours into a microtonal language closer to what I have been exploring in my own past works. The new "Nuper rosarum flores"11 is jumping around within an Ars Nova score.

As a composer, I have often developed visual maps of a composition, the music consists of sculptures. It is possible to zoom in and look for compositional techniques, intuitive and improvised solutions, to then again try to abstract and create techniques from what I did intuitively. There is a continuous interaction between the whole and the detail, between freedom and techniques. There are orchestral sketches to be composed out. I noted the continuum between sterile surfaces, blocks of concrete, modernistic architecture, and on the other hand full biological diversity, ornaments, a world of particles. The useful approach would not at all be a binary one, but finding paths through this terrain, cycles of crystallisation and decay. Plants invade abandoned cities and clear shapes are eroded and turned into particles by natural processes. These are all metaphors with potential connections to musical ecosystems.


Soto limperio del posente prince

"Soto l'imperio del posente prince" is a composition by Jacopo da Bologna, and a rapidly ornamented version is part of the Codex Faenza manuscript. Rather than composing a new piece based on this, we used the score from Codex Faenza together with the composition by Jacopo da Bologna, while searching for a vocabulary of timbral abstraction. I brought a list of four situations to rehearse.

  • O: "Ordinario", close to idioms often used by early music ensembles.
  • I: Fidels: Light bowing at the bridge, flautato, counterbalance the weight of the bow. (Common technique in works by Helmut Lachenmann.) Alternate with bowing on the body of the instruments. Recorder: Pure light noise sounds. Voices: Whisper only, inhaled/exhaled. (Joyce texts.) Organetto: Very fragile noises or barely audible flageolets. All: Find timbral micro-articulations and differences within the pure noise range.
  • II: Fidels: Light circular bow, shimmering flautato sul pont. Use natural harmonics or constantly vary microtonal pitches. Recorder: Prepared fragile buzzing sounds. Voices: Half-voiced to whisper. Multiphonics and other vocal noises. (Joyce texts). Organetto: Glissando, bending, fragile sounds.
  • III: Fidels: Rapid brushing sounds, spiccato arpeggios up and down on varying harmonics or slowly evolving glissandi. Brillante from ppp to mf. Recorder: Various flutter types on obscure rapid phrases, transitions between noise and tone, possible on/off preparations. Fantastico. Organetto: Contrast to the other instruments, instead of rich surfaces, choose slowly evolving ideas, sustain points, "drones". Voices: Short sudden outbursts, bubbles of sound, create silences, and avoid establishing patterns.


Let us add some more comments about these timbral situations.

  • The ordinario sound is the common early music sounds, clean non-vibrato tones without any extended techniques. We called this the "surface", while the noise sounds were "submerged".
  • The first abstracted version has a pure noise or whistle sound. It can be a challenge to avoid pitched sounds on the instrument. Helmut Lachenmann suggests bowing lightly at the bridge or at the body of a string instrument.12
  • The second abstracted version was a shimmering, with emphasis on overtones, buzzings, and instabilities.
  • I called the third abstraction the "Paganini" version, or related to the way Sciarrino has used abstracted virtuosity from the past in his 6 Caprices for solo violin.13

My timbral suggestions were schematic, as an exercise to find sound palettes for the ensemble. When those were established, they could be used fluently in transitions, patterns of "surfacing", "submerging" and erasing. After initial suggestions from me, detailed decisions were quickly taken over by the ensemble, and what you will hear is very much their versions of the piece.

Our first performance of this piece was linear – we were performing an existing score with altered sound qualities. This approach to quotation, a washed-out and erased reading, has been used by Gérard Pesson in his "Nebenstück" for clarinet and string quartet. In this filtering of the Ballade op. 10 no. 4 by Brahms, Pesson uses the whole piece in chronology, erasing notes, replacing notes with noise and alternative sound qualities, and stretching a few points of the piece.14 It is linear and true to the original. For the Wheels within Wheels project, it was useful to go closer to an original medieval composition after the extensive distortions and non-linear readings of "Nuper rosarum flores".

Following the suggestions from the workshop in Bergen, we performed a stretched version rather than the whole score as written. Jostein Gundersen, Hans Knut Sveen, and guest singer Berit Norbakken Solset decided to perform from the beginning, and augment note values of a few measures. These notes were filled by oscillations, breath sounds, sub-harmonic voice, timbre trills, and other abstractions. This stretching opened a new dimension to this piece.

We had two versions of "Soto l'imperio del posente prince", for the poor potent prince, at our final concert.

The linear performance.

Ensemble Currentes received friction from multiple delayed and processed versions of themselves performing the piece, including two guest singers not present in the final concert. The delays were not in sync with the tempo like for a regular canon, for the effect of smearing the piece out in time. This was surprising for the ensemble, and possibly obstructing what they had planned to do. Abstracted versions accumulated new sediments, the listener will face an archaeology of the piece. Jacopo da Bologna and Codex Faenza can be found among the bottom sediments. Robert Smithson used the terrain in a direct way in is "earth art". We can borrow his descriptions as metaphors.

The earths surface and figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating into discrete regions of art. Various agents, both fictional and real, somehow trade places with each other – one cannot avoid muddy thinking when it comes to earth projects, or what I will call "abstract geology".15

Wheels within Wheels final performance Mouvance III: Distortion in Håkon’s Hall, Bergen.

The stretched version.