Sunset in the ethereal waves: I cannot tell if the day is ending, or the world, or if the secret of secrets is inside me again.

– from ‘A land not mine’ by Anna Akhmatova

In my work I often allude to a poetic idea or image that creates a certain atmosphere, and I am always inventing new forms to contain these poetic images. I have found that there is a beautiful friction between a constructivist approach and the more poetic and fluid way of working; These two opposing elements, the hard and soft, creates a friction which I find to be beautiful.

In 2010, whilst living in Copenhagen,  I started a series of intimate works that focused on the close, often fragile relationship between a mother and her child, and developed this idea to encompass the nature of intimacy, fertility & barrenness.

I have strong memories of sitting in Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen in the spring of 2010, where I started reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’.  I read this novel immediately after a period of inactivity and depression, and somehow my unconscious drew me towards the book, which Woolf wrote in the wake of a mental breakdown (as a ‘means of renewal after stasis’). The following passage in particular deeply moved me, and inspired me to start composing again:

Sleep, sleep, I croon, whether it is summer or winter, May or November. Sleep I sing–I, who am unmelodious and hear no music save rustic music when a dog barks, a bell tinkles, or wheels crunch upon the gravel. I sing my song by the fire like an old shell murmuring on the beach. Sleep, sleep, I say, warning off with my voice all who rattle milk-cans, fire at rooks, shoot rabbits, or in any way bring the shock of destruction near this wicker cradle, laden with soft limbs, curled under a pink coverlet.

…I have lost my indifference, my blank eyes, my pearshaped eyes that saw to the root. I am no longer January, May or any other season, but am all spun to a fine thread round the cradle, wrapping in a cocoon made of my own blood the delicate limbs of my baby. Sleep, I say, and feel within me uprush some wilder, darker violence, so that I would fell down with one blow any intruder, any snatcher, who should break into this room and wake the sleeper.

That spring I wrote a piece for violin and viola, simply titled Mother and Child. This piece was a radical departure from the music I had written previously, since it was an attempt to strip away all of the musical artifice and ‘showmanship’ that characterised my earlier music, to get to the naked, honest core of my expression.

The result is an intimate portrait, where the violin plays the role of a mother who comforts her crying baby, played by the viola, with a lullaby. It is a stark expression of the fear of abandonment, where for some time the music is so paralysed by fear, that it daren’t go anywhere.

Towards the end of the piece one gets the sense that the music is slipping back into a fantasy, into the comfortable past, as though remaining constantly in the state of fear would be too unbearable.

Before writing Mother and Child, I had been rewatching Michael Haneke’s early three films, the “glaciation trilogy”, and was profoundly effected by the bleakness of both subject matter and the cold and emotionless way it is dealt with (or ‘observed’), with sudden editing ‘cuts’ from scene to scene. What I subsequently realised, was that I borrowed from these films a detached approach to organising musical material; where the music itself is often sensitive and emotional, and yet the formal ‘framework’ I place this music in is pre-planned and quasi-mathematical. This creates a friction between music that ‘wants to be free’ and a structural architecture that is ‘uncaring’, that with hindsight mirrored my inner landscape. I was and still am, struggling to accept my sensuality, softness, dreaminess, romanticism – this is what Carl Jung would call ‘the gold in my Shadow’. Part of me would rather destroy this sensuality and replace it with harshness, than to accept and nurture it.

Mother and Child was followed by Mother of Sorrows for solo accordion, written for Bjarke Mogensen. For this piece the roles are transformed, so that we now hear a crying mother, lamenting the death of her dead child. It is somehow with a cruel irony that she comforts herself by singing the lullaby that she once sang to her baby. The idea for the piece was conceived whilst I was watching Bjarke play, I realised that the accordion stretched out over Bjarke’s lap closely resembled the image in Christian iconography of the ‘Pietà’, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the dead body of Jesus.The piece Projection (negative space), for accordion and cello quartet, explores a similar idea to Mother and Child, although in this case the accordion, which could be thought of as the child, is attempting individuation. The music the accordion plays is sensual and curious, though a little hesitant. The cello quartet’s music, the ‘Shadow’, on the other hand is cold and standoffish. There are very few instances where the accordion and quartet play simultaneously, and in fact the musicians are instructed to play every note ‘like attempts at intimacy’.

I explored similar ideas of stagnation, barrenness and infertility in my works Still Life (nature morte) and mirror distort shadow.In 2013 I was fortunate to be chosen to be among five Danish composers selected to write a work for Ensemble Intercontemporain. The piece that I wrote, which is called Time Passes (mise en abyme), grew out of a sketch that I worked with the ensemble on earlier in the year and is possibly my most minimalistic piece. It is in seventeen parts, each part longer than the one that proceeds it, so that the first is only a sixteenth-note long and the final part is seventeen bars long. These parts are framed by short pauses, sometimes silent and sometimes containing white noise. During the piece a clarinet and alto flute duet is slowly revealed, and I imagined this in a similar way to a camera ‘zooming out’ in cinema. This duet is ‘coloured’ by the violin, cello and percussion creating a sort of shadowy, ghostly version. One of the initial sources of inspiration I drew for this work came from the novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, in which the middle part (called Time Passes) describes a family’s abandoned summer house slowly being reclaimed by nature. I wanted to capture this feeling of decay and abandonment that is described so vividly in the Woolf, and so as well as the music organically unfolding I introduce a entropic process whereby music slowly disappears upon every repetition. I imagined that had I allowed the piece (and the process) to continue and the piece would eventually ‘eat itself’ and perhaps the whole thing would start over again.

Time Passes (mise en abyme) focuses exclusively on dark and painful feelings relating to the exaggerated sense that something was ending, expressed explicitly in my programme note:

This is dying. This is already dead. This is documentation of death; falling, crumbling, disintegrating, fading, erasing, forgetting, silencing. This is nothing.

The music is the shadowy remains of a piece that I didn’t dare write; It was as though I had drawn a beautiful pencil drawing and then taken an eraser and rubbed most of it out.

‘I owe to earth’s pure death the will to sprout.’

– from ‘Jardín de invierno’ by Pablo Neruda

Nick Martin