Recently, the owner of gallery 44 Møen on the Danish island of Møn, René Block, has bought the farmhouse next door to house composer Henning Christiansen’s archive. The first exhibition to be held there, curated by the Los Angeles-based curator and visual artist Chiara Giovando, is called “The Hammer Without a Master”. This is not a review of the show. This blog entry only deals with the title.The Hammer that is referred to can be no other than composer Pierre Boulez’ Marteau sans maître, a serialist work written in 1953-1954 and revised in 1955. There is at least one good historical reason to choose this particular work as a point of reference, because in 1959-60, a handful of members of Det unge tonekunstnerselskab (The Young Musicians’ Association, DUT), amongst them Henning Christiansen, ran a study group devoted to “avant-garde” compositions such as Boulez’. Other composers under scrutiny were Anton Webern (Sechs Bagatellen op. 9, Fünf geistlige Lieder op. 17, Konzert für 9 Instrumenten op. 24 and Variationen für Klavier op. 27), Karlheinz Stockhausen (Kontrapunkte, Klavierstück I-IV and Klavierstück XI) and Olivier Messiaen (Mode des valeurs et des intensités). The study group is a bit of a local myth in Denmark , because it marks the beginning of an intensive involvement with the musical avant-garde on the part of a group of young composers, amongst them Per Nørgaard, Ib Nørholm and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, who had a decisive influence on the Danish new music scene since the early 1960s.
As a visitor, you would like to know that sort of thing.
The study group never found the key to the Boulez piece, by the way. Not entirely. It was Lev Koblyakov who in 1977 described the methods behind the work for the first time. He did so in an article in Zeitschrift für Musiktheorie. But then, although Boulez stringently applied his serialist methods in overall terms, he is known to change individual notes on the basis of sound or harmony, so no blame attaches.
In any case, the Hammer Without a Master can be said to have been an important early influence on Christiansen. There are certainly plenty of hammers in his work; for example in his 188 Hammerschläge gegen Kriegsaffen, op. 195 (1988). I witnessed a performance of the piece some two years ago, and on that occasion, the aforementioned Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen went up to the interpreter, visual artist Bjørn Nørgaard, to complain that that sort of noise gives you tinnitus and that it is immoral to expose an audience to it. Christiansen also produced several graphic works by the same title. The hammer prints they bear remind one of some of Danish artist Poul Gernes’ graphic works from the early 1960s in which he subjected print plates to hammer blows and suchlike. Halfway through the sixties, Christiansen teamed up with Gernes and the other members of the so-called Ex-School, the Experimental School of Painting, so it is possible to make a connection there; but I like to think that Boulez played a role as well, at least in the background. In any case there are hammers everywhere in Christiansen’s work, both in his compositions, in his graphic work and amongst the (sonic) objects he made.
Methodically, serialism made its mark on Christiansen’s work as well, although less visibly. I do not mean serialism as a compositional technique, but something much less tangible. Christiansen had a weak spot, or perhaps one should say a talent, for systems, and some of the works he is best known for make extensive use of exactly such systems. The composers he studied the Hammer Without a Master with, for example, still remember his Perceptive Constructions I and II, op. 27 and 28 as a revolutionary piece of music. These pieces combine a systemic approach to music with the idea of the graphic score so as to create, quite literally, sonic blocks that alternate and/or overlap in time. On paper, they take the shape of blocks or columns of sound, divided by empty spaces. This has the effect of making the works extremely transparent and understandable; quite the opposite of Boulez’ piece, but with a similar stringency as his point of departure.
So: the Hammer is in many ways a useful key to Christiansen’s archive, but it requires an explanation. And the exhibition is not even devoted to the archive, but to ten artists’ responses to the archive. The artists are Leif Elggren, Andreas Führer, Jacob Kirkegaard, Claus Haxholm & TR Kirstein, Johannes Lund, Gordon Monohan, Vagn E. Olsson, Marja-Leena Sillanpää, Society for the Disorderly Speaker and Tori Wrånes. The title is a key to the archive, but so is the curator’s choice of these ten artists and the artists’ response to the archive. Just as much as it is a collection of objects, the exhibition is a rhizomatic maze of translations and responses; translations of texts that remain unspecified and responses to statements that remain unsaid. It might just be the art historian in me that feels an insuppressible need to explain the title and thus to add words to the exhibition, but really there are words everywhere. Unsaid, unheard, but present nevertheless.