Emil Bernhardt - Biography

Music as Participation

Emil Bernhardt - 1 (Foto: Stian Andersen)

The work of the composer Emil Bernhardt reflects a strong consciousness that almost assumes the form of a duty to write music capable of communicating with a social and a semantic environment of meaning. Through the parallel medium of writer and composer Bernhardt strives to examine and challenge the borders and points of contact between music, the performance situation and the concepts used to describe them.

This pendulum between text and music finds expression in Bernhardt in the form of a desire to equate the act of listening and theoretical reflection as sources for musical material. This composer considers theory as more than a reduction of a complex and immediate listening experience. Though recognizing that music has qualities that are fundamentally and essentially different to language, which cannot be translated or reduced, he conceives interaction and exchange of meaning between music and language as possible and desirable. Bernhardt considers the maintenance of dialogue about music as indispensable towards keeping music alive, and as the editor of the music periodical ‘Parergon’ he has called for ‘examination and challenge of the language of criticism and the opportunities it affords to establish a relationship between language and the classical contemporary music of our time’.

Following this defence of theoretical reflection, Bernhardt questions the traditional understanding of listening as an activity characterized by optimal attention, focus and presence. He launches the idea of regarding even absence of music as a productive musical situation: What concepts and ideas emerge when we discuss music outside its presence exercising an influence on the discussion, and what relevance do these ideas have when we return to a listening situation?

The music Emil Bernhardt has written so far, reflect a musical project that is still developing. His earlier works are written to be performed within a ‘normal’ concert environment. Many of them reflect his background as a violin player and are written in cooperation with particular performers. The structure of Riss (2000-2001) is transparent, with clear lines and gestures unfolding in chronological sequence. In Due (2001) this linear movement expands to something that is closer to a structure. The borders of its objects are less distinct, and qualities that are more vague and veiled are allowed expression. In L’écriture et l’archet (2001-2002) the music has undergone further stratification into a more complex texture covering longer time spans. In all these works, the violin is a central instrument, as well as in his String Quartet (2003-2004), where the confidence of gesture and timbre expose a composer familiar with the instruments employed.

Stichworte (2003) operates in a controlled, finely-figured universe reminiscent of the earlier works, where sudden, brutal sounds are introduced, possibly to indicate the eventual disintegration of the balanced order of this universe. At least his next work, the orchestra piece Minutter (3), consists of radically different material undergoing continuous transformation in several layers, where some random element is always in motion without one being able to identify any clear direction. To the composer himself this condition bears similarities to the activity of thought, and he imagines that in this work the two elements of thought and composition begin to approach each other. The process of continuous transformation dissolves traditional formal categories like ‘beginning’ and ‘end’, making Minutter (3) diverge from traditional compositional parameters.

Nevertheless, one experiences Minutter (3) as a continuous musical process. In the later and closely-related work Minutter (3) Analyse, this continuity is dissolved. Space and randomness are introduced as variables in a performative analysis where all the instruments freely ‘analyse’ the original three minutes of the orchestra piece by stretching them into a duration of an hour, while the audience may simultaneously listen to the original work through headphones. Where Minutter (3) challenged traditional compositional parameters through the treatment of the audible material, Minutter (3) Analyse does the same by granting to the audience and the performers the element of choice, in an environment where even physical repositioning is desired both from performers and audience. Thus the work withdraws from the possibility of traditional score reproduction and installs itself in a concrete performing environment, existing through live performance only. In addition, through several simultaneous developments based on free choice, the work makes focused listening quite impossible.

The relationship between Minutter (3) and Minutter (3) Analyse indicates that Emil Bernhardt is moving towards a methodology where a new work can be considered an analysis of a previous one. Thus does music in itself become a practical, critical examination of a sound material and of musical categories, perhaps especially challenging the concept and the borders of the musical work, examining and veiling where and when a piece starts or ends.

The work Mikrovariasjoner over distanse attempts to collapse the spatial distance and time span which normally exists between the experience of listening to a performance of a piece and the preparation and reworking of the material that takes place at the composer’s writing desk prior to and extraneous to the time of the sounding piece. In this work, short miniatures for piano alternate with recordings of the irregular sounds of the composer’s pencil and rubber scratching against the surface of the staff paper. Besides once again examining where a musical work is localised, by inviting the listeners into the preparatory writing process in which the work and the composer are traditionally protected from the audience’s attention, this turn might also be seen as a reversal of the traditional hierarchy in which musical sound is conceived as musical presence while musical signs and concepts are conceived as absence or reductions. While the piano pieces have a relatively silent character, the sound of writing and wiping out is dynamically dominating, thereby giving the process of writing a certain brutality. As in Minutter (3), Mikrovariasjoner also poses the question of when the organisation and reworking of a musical material actually ends.

In the work Musikk med kommentar (2007) language has moved completely into the work. The singer passes comment on what the other musicians in the ensemble are doing as well as what she is singing. The singer describes form phenomena with words like ”beginning”, ”end”, “transition” and “repetition”, and parallel to the ensemble’s playing she reads out specific information like pitch, tonal values and notation. Thus does the work provide its own analysis while in the process of being performed. As a listener one is able, in an indefinable way, to experience a connection between Musikk med kommentar and Bernhardt’s early works, even though the material is fundamentally different, namely that the work’s inherent verbal explanation of itself happens with an inexorable, extreme clarity that is reminiscent of the transparency of sound to be found in Riss and Due. Without being able to gaze into the future, this statement calls for reflection in a way that creates an expectation that it shall appear again, perhaps in a more convoluted form, at a later point in time.

In one of his texts for Parergon, Emil Bernhardt quotes from Roland Barthes’ article Musica Practica where Barthes issues a challenge; to re-establish a manual, practical approach through, in Barthes’ own words: ’To write it anew, and let its text cross that of a new inscription’. Whilst post-war modernists in their earlier works were of the opinion that music needed to be kept at a distance from the society around it, partially to free it from many dubious socio-moral functions and references imposed on it by that very society, many young composers today wish to demonstrate and work with music as a social phenomenon, and clarify the relationship between music and its surrounding social environment of language.

In the work of Emil Bernhardt this at present occurs in an exciting duality of thorough textual reflection and through a series of works where he approaches related themes in ways that are sometimes radically different. This attempt to continually reflect upon and consistently step outside the borders he has himself constructed, deserves to be followed with interest.

Translation by Howard Gamble
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