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Schnee - Hans Abrahamsen

2006 saw the first performance of Schnee (Snow), consisting of Canons 1a and 1b, by ensemble recherche at the New Chamber Music Days in Witten.

One of the ideas behind Canon 1a was to have a process that slowly and gradually swapped two phrases canonically by running them closer and closer together—where the initial phrase becomes the concluding phrase and vice versa; not unlike what happens in the pictorial world of M. C. Escher, where for example a white foreground against a black background on one side of the picture gradually becomes a black foreground against a white background on the other side.

Another idea was to have ensemble recherche’s nine wonderful musicians divided up into two symmetrical yet still slightly different groups around the percussion in the middle. Group 1 on the left with violin, viola, cello, and piano 1, and Group 2 on the right with flute, oboe, clarinet, and piano 2. At the beginning of the 1990s, when I saw and read about the new stereographic images, I became really fascinated with the idea; perhaps especially with the older stereographic technique that goes back to the end of the nineteenth century, where a set of two almost identical pictures photographed from slightly different positions (like a recording with two stereo microphones) are placed beside each other and when you look at them with a faraway, unfocused gaze, you magically see a third, shining three-dimensional image that is the sum of the two in the middle.

I have been playing with the idea of whether this can be done in music—apart from what obviously happens when we hear with our two ears. Does it also happen on a small scale when we hear a figure repeated (as in the first bar of Bach’s Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier 1), or with larger-scale formal repetition (as in Bach’s Contrapunctus 13a and 13b from the Kunst der Fuge, where the former is noninverted and the latter inverted). Does it happen perhaps that the two time flows are added together and thus form a deeper, three-dimensional time? That is at any rate what I have attempted to do, partly on a small scale in Canon 1a’s repetitions, but also on a larger scale, since Canon 1b is a “double,” but for all nine instruments of 1a, which are for Group 1. It is the same music, but more canonical layers have been superimposed. The two thus form a set and should be listened to that way. It is as if there were two large musical images that, heard with faraway, unfocused ears, perhaps form a third one that is three-dimensional.

Immediately after the first performances in Witten, it became clear to me that Schnee should be expanded into a large series of sets, five in all, and I am grateful that I was allowed to test this version as performed by ensemble recherche and WDR at the Wittener Tage 2008.

There could only be five sets, since I had planned that the sets would become shorter and shorter. The first set lasts 2 x 9 minutes, so now the plan is that the following sets will last 2 x 7 minutes, 2 x 5 minutes, 2 x 3 minutes and in the end 2 x 1 minute. And then the time will run out as it becomes shorter and shorter, like our time that runs faster as we approach the end.

The subsequent sets of canons—2, 3, 4 and 5—are based on the same “haiku-like” ideas as no. 1, where on the one hand there is a gradual process in the course of the individual canon, exploring various aspects that appear and recede, and on the other hand, each canon similarly has its “double,” where it is heard in a different version.

This rhythm of sets is delicately interrupted by three intermezzi where the strings and winds are retuned a microtone lower; so tonally too, more and more interference gradually arises between different groups and pairs of instruments. For example, in Canon Set 4—a nod at Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—the flute and the clarinet (and of course the two pianos) are in normal tuning, while the cello and the cor anglais are tuned a sixth of a tone lower and the violin and viola are two sixths of a tone lower.

All this may seem like cold, formal calculation, yet for me it nevertheless relates to the poetic world of the piece, which stems from ideas of snow and “white polyphony.” Yesterday in a bookshop I found a book with Gerhard Richter’s pictures in grey, and at once I felt a strong affinity with him, and with my polyphonic snow canons in white.

Hans Abrahamsen