Discovering recent masterworks: Abrahamsen’s “Schnee”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s hour-long tour-de-force Schnee (2008), I’d like to introduce you to the piece and hopefully illuminate some reasons why it is one of the most thrilling works composed in the last few years. For those of you who might conduct or perform in Schnee, I will also present some information concerning the execution of this highly challenging, yet wonderfully rewarding  piece.

Schnee is scored for nine musicians: two groups of four with the percussionist seated between them and playing with both. It is a ten “movement” work, or to put it more precisely, there are five groups of two canons each. Additionally, there are three fascinating Intermezzi during which various members of the ensemble re-tune their instruments to microtonal pitch levels. Below is an excellent recording of the work on Youtube, along with the start times of each movement:

Canon 1a: 0’00” / Canon 1b: 8’43”

Canon 2a: 18’00” / intermezzo I: 25’02” / Canon 2b: 27’02”

Canon 3a:  34’38″/ Canon 3b: 41’23” Intermezzo II: 48’50”

Canon 4a: 50’49” /  Canon 4b: 54’24” / Intermezzo III: 56’07”

Canon 5a: 46’43” / Canon 5b: 57’50”

As the reader has probably already gathered, Schnee  inhabits a tightly-knit architecture, comprised of a series of canons of varying complexity. Each canon is cast in three “parts”, which form an ABA structure, and each  is scored for a different subset of the ensemble, with the ensemble playing tutti in just a few canons. Much more can be said about the extraordinary structure of the piece as a whole, but I would instead like to focus on some details of the work the are of particular elegance and/or interest. I would like to point out that despite the extreme formal rigor of the work, the execution never feels forced, not does the form in any way detract from the visceral impact and sheer appeal of the music. In this regard, Abrahamsen couples formal constitution with intuitive design remarkably well.

Schnee means snow in German, and the first time I listened to this piece in it’s entirety, I was intensely struck with the notion that each set of canons, in its own remarkable way, sounds like snow. There is something amazing about a piece of Schnee’s scope and complexity being able to somehow consistently capture the concept of snow.

Prior to my hearing Schnee in totality, I was briefly introduced to the opening of the work by my friend and colleague, Nick Tolle (director of the Ludovico Ensemble, with whom I performed this piece in 2011). I have come to know that I will ultimately not care for a piece a great deal if I am not gripped by the opening of it, and I must say that Schneee has one of the most captivating openings I know of. The first example shown below is the beginning of the piece.

Schnee is one of the most finely notated works I’ve conducted. There is always just the right amount of information to be perfectly clear in all regards, yet the score does not give the impression of being over-marked. Also, Abrahamsen’s stylistic markings, to me, strike the perfect balance between pragmatic clarity and poetic description.

Take the very opening as an example, in which the violin introduces the haunting ostinato that will drive all of canons 1a & 1b. Abrahamsen marks this very high touch-4th harmonic with the word eisig, German for icy. Eisig is an ingenious marking for this first utterance; it encapsulates the idea that this effect will yield only “air sound” due to the extreme registration, and it also imparts a slightly abstract stylistic idea that sets the tone for the first canons. There is also a footnote for this technique (which is passed among all the strings in this canon) – which is no less fertile with economic and poetic beauty – that describes the violin as sounding “like an icy whisper, but with a pulsation.” Textual markings of this clarity and lyricism fill Schnee, and stand as one of the many signs of superior craftsmanship.

Also of note in the opening is the exactitude of the notation in the piano part. The monophonic line is split between the staves to demonstrate which note is to be played with which  hand (NB: both staves sound 15ma). This conceptual execution – called for in a passage that could easily be performed with one hand – lends an incredible ease and sense of cadence and regularity to the opening theme.

Canon 1a is scored for “Group I”, which is three strings and piano, and Canon 1b is an elaboration of 1a, scored for the entire ensemble. In 1b, the percussionist takes over the ostinato from the strings, utilizing a technique of great ingenuity. The percussionist is seated behind three table-tops, and s/he rubs two different kinds of paper on the tables in circular motions. This creates an airy pulsation, similar to the strings in canon 1a (For anyone who might play this part: the paper should be slightly crumpled into the grip of the hand, otherwise the flat sheet of paper will stick to the table). The original conception of the work was for the ensemble to perform unconducted, with the percussionist leading the two groups with this pulsation, one group per hand. However, Abrahamsen reported to us that this proved enormously taxing (later examples in this article will demonstrate the extreme difficulty of some canons), and it is now standard to have the piece conducted. Props should be given to Ensemble Recherche, who premiered and recorded Schnee without a conductor!

Before going onward, I should point out that Canons 1a & 1b are published separately as a piece unto themselves. More so than the other sets of canons, 1a & 1b create a powerful dramatic scope, and are certainly worth programming alone. In fact, the closing of 1b is one of the most stirring moments for me personally; I experienced an uncharacteristically emotional reaction the first time I led this music in rehearsal.

Canons 2a & 2b are clearly related to to the first canons in that they have a constant motoric motif propelling them along, and the b canon of each set is an elaboration of the a canon that broadens and completes a dramatic arc. In 2a & 2b, the ostinato is an additive rhythm which appears insidiously simple on the page, but is quite difficult in practice. Refer to the example to the right: this is the first page of 2a. Aside from the uniquely difficult rhythmic material, I’ll point out two delightful things that appear: 1) The stylistic directive at the top translates to: Happily playing, but not too happy, with a little melancholy. Even given the somewhat self-conflicting and abstract nature of this marking, I still find, somehow, that it brilliantly captures the feel of this music. 2) Notice that there is text(!) printed below the flute and clarinet parts.  This text simply exists as a guide to phrasing, but it stands as yet another detail that is born of an incredible gift of invention.

In between Canons 2a and 2b we come upon the first Intermezzo. Re-tuning instruments to microtonal pitch levels is not new, but Abrahamsen handles this with a musical intensity and purposefulness that raises the effect of the Intermezzi in performance to the same level as the Canons themselves. Have a look at the first Intermezzo below.

With elegant and lucid notation, the first Intermezzo essentially has all of the strings and winds tune a 1/6-tone lower, using the 7th partial of the cellist’s IV string (which is in a scordatura tuning: g1, below the usual c2. There is a magical moment in Canon 1b in which this open string is very softly revealed.) as a reference pitch. Part of the strength of these Intermezzi lies in the marking “sempre pp dolce.” With this, Abrahamsen has effectively insufused what could be perfunctory episodes of tuning with a musical gravitas. The Intermezzi in Schnee are really substantial musical entities that act like palete cleansers during fine meals, which can taste light and lovely on their own. I would encourage anyone preparing this work to focus on the intonation and the musical presentation of the Intermezzi equally.

Canon 2b builds on the rhythmic propensity of 2a, but with far greater complexity. Here, I’d like to discuss the conducting in some detail; 2b is highly virtuosic for the conductor (and ensemble), and there are several choices that should be carefully considered. On viewing the example below, you’ll notice that the pianists and percussionist are playing an ostinato figure that is of the same fundamental construct as 2a (i.e. alternating 9/8 and 8/8 bars with the same 3+3+3 and 3+2+3 groupings, respectively). The other instruments are playing hocketed material that splits the bars into different, yet even groupings per bar (when not playing long tones): they have a 9:8 poly-rhythm in the 8/8 bars, and an 8:9 poly-rhythm in the 9/8 bars. To put this another way: when pianos/percussion have 9 beats in a bar, the other active parts have 8, and vice versa (see example).

The conductor must ask himself, do I conduct rhythmically with the pianos and percussion, or with the “other group?” From my experience, I can say that in canon 2b, one should conduct the subdivisions of the “other group.” Besides having the experience of attempting both, I think that the pianists and percussionist are able to run the ostinato figure more or less on their own, making sure that their downbeats coincide with the conductors. This is easier in the context of the whole piece, because the ensemble will have just experienced the same fundamental ostinato figure in 2a, and will have the feeling of that in their head.

To be explicitly clear, I conduct the 9/8 bars in two even beats, and the 8/8 bars in three even beats, thereby showing the subdivisions that exist in the flute, oboe, violin, and viola parts. I would like to suggest that when preparing this section, it is best to conceptualize the beats one is conducting as a poly-rhythm that is working against the meters, as opposed to only thinking of the tempi of the poly-rhythmic beats, and growing comfortable with the relationship between them via muscle memory. This will allow the conductor to be attentive to both rhythmic groups while conducting in rehearsal, and more importantly, will enable s/he to have a flexible relationship with the ostinato in the pianos/percussion. I also found it useful to begin this Canon with a full bar of 9/8 (in the tempo that pianos/percussion will play) for nothing.

This approach to the opening of 2b can (and should, in my opinion) be extended to the entire movement, so that the conductor is always conducting the music of the strings and winds, except in part II, where this decision is not pertinent.

Fortunately, Canon 2b is wonderfully and strangely beautiful, and so the significant work that goes into it is met with gorgeous music.

Canons 3a & 3b are the antithesis of what comes before them, in general effect. They are very slow, with great chasms of space lying between brooding and contemplative music. Once again, the stylistic marking is of particular merit: Very slow with bleakness, sluggish, (in the tempo of Tai Chi). When I first saw this, I did not know what Tai Chi looks like, and so I had to watch videos of it on Youtube. I was delighted to see that the “slow-motion” effect of Tai Chi is the physical equivalent of the music in these Canons: in it’s extremely deliberate pace there is still inexorable life and  purpose. Conductors, take special note: Abrahamsen insisted that I conduct the eight=36 tempo of these Canons without subdivision, thereby mimicking the physical appearance of Tai Chi in my own motions. Practically speaking, this is enormously difficult (Abrahamsen referred to it as “nearly impossible”), especially given that the music is frequently shifting between simple and compound rhythmic material at irregular intervals. I found that I was only successful in these Canons after I had carefully planned out what subdivision I would feel internally during the periods of relative inactivity.

In Canons 3a, there appears frequently a highly unusual harmonic technique that is scattered throughout the piece. The effect is a non-standard way of producing an artificial harmonic, in which the player has both the fundamental pitch and the “touching point” stopped with harmonic finger-pressure(!). It is a reliable technique that produces a brighter tone quality than the normally sounded artificial harmonic. I remain surprised that I haven’t seen this effect in any other piece, although I assume it must be scored for elsewhere (the cello part has many of these harmonics in the second system of the example to the left).

I trust that all of these titillating details have whetted the reader’s appetite sufficiently. So, I will touch on Canons 4a through 5b very briefly.

The fourth set of Canons are a homage to Mozart, and draw on his Three German Dances (K. 605) for inspiration. These canons have a frenetic level of activity that set them apart from the rest of Schnee; one might appropriately refer to them as the “scherzo” of the work. The percussionist must play tuned sleigh bells in these canons, which is also derived from the Mozart. Unfortunately, the pitches required for Schnee are different than the Mozart, thus are difficult to acquire. A possible solution is to dismantle a few standard sets of sleigh bells and string together the bells that sound closest to the required pitches. The sleigh bells also pose a balance issue, which can be alleviated by the percussionist playing them within an open box that is facing him/her.

Canons 5a & 5b return to the serenity of 1a & 1b, although they present a far different sound world, put forth simply and briefly (the marking here is: Simple and childlike). They serve as a fitting coda to a work that, to me, traces a journey spanning Wagnerian drama to meditative calm.

There is so much more that can and should be said about Schnee. It’s world cannot possibly be encapsulated here, and I only hope that  my comments will propagate some much-deserved interest. With any amount of justice, I believe that Schnee will go on to stand as one of the truly great contemporary works for chamber ensemble.

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6 thoughts on “Discovering recent masterworks: Abrahamsen’s “Schnee”

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