The whole, the veil and the holes

A philosophical talk with composer Henrik Hellstenius.

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Henrik Hellstenius 2009 I

    Scene one could have been taken from the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Henrik Hellstenius is relieved; he has found himself a new Hamlet. The Norwegian composer is currently working on a new production of his opera Ophelias: Death by Water Singing. Suddenly, with only a little more than two weeks to go before the premiere, the prince fell ill! As good Hamlets are hard to come by, Hellstenius' relief at the quick replacement is understandable.

    -My first love was the theatre, says Hellstenius. I was going to be an actor, no question about it. Fortunately that never happened. However, the first music I wrote was actually theatre music and I think it is right to say that is was the theatre that put me on my path as a composer. I take great pleasure in working with dramatic and theatrical music. The essence of this disposition is that I have a strong desire to deal in forms of communication that reach beyond the purely aural.

    The composer explains that in his view we are currently in a phase of the ongoing dialectic of art-music where aural efforts alone no longer count as radical.

    -Even though it is questionable whether being radical is a valid objective in itself, it is still an undeniable truth that the notion of the radical is the raison d’etre of new music. Since I am a composer of new music, I cannot simply shut my eyes to this inherent parameter and I believe that in our current situation the most fruitful path is to create composite expressions. The good thing is that when music is juxtaposed and interlaced with other elements, the purely musical experience can be brought into dialogue with other aspects of the listener’s inner self and personality. In this way there is a potential for a deeper kind of communication; by a multi-front approach that may reach further towards that non-composite whole which is independent of any kind of specific mode of perception or artistic expression. I think of this whole as a common inner humanity; a clearing or a state of insight that art may crack open for us.


    Hellstenius explains the apparent contradiction that a composite artwork may give access to this unity beyond concepts or understanding. It has to do with concentration:

    -People no longer know how to listen, says Hellstenius. Really entering into the sound you hear has become something of a forgotten art. That is why a composite work can be the way to invoke the kind of concentration that is needed, because it absorbs us. However, the problem with a lot of new orchestral music is that a notion of communication -which means catering to what the audience expects- is rated higher than unanticipated traits that require concentration. When this happens the potential force of the composite expression backfires.
    -Because such communication strategies, which tend to focus on whatever is conspicuous, entail that the unique nature of the attentive musical experience becomes secondary. My goal as a composer is to stage music in contexts that transcend the purely aural, thus deepening the potential of reaching through by means of art, but crucially still maintaining the leadership of the aural experience in that context.


    The issue of how composite expressions may create paths to a whole needs more illumination. We talk of the notion of amodal categories, a concept introduced by Mark Johnson: The idea is that all human experiences, which are determined by the specific senses and the concepts that come with these, are in fact only modalities of a unity that lays further back. Reality itself is amodal, it does not belong to one kind of perception, which means that it is not accessible through one modality, perception, or faculty of mind alone. It is only accessible through all of them together, or, as it were, in the instances when we manage to be amodal –completely open- in our way of specific experiencing, e.g. in listening.

    -This is where concentration comes into the picture, says Hellstenius. Because when we really concentrate on the object of perception, enter into it, so to speak, that is when it seizes to be a modality of our perceptive apparatus and becomes itself. What this means is just that we transcend the stage of concerning ourselves with what it is and what it means (i.e. finding its place in our conceptual structuring of the world) and simply accept that it is. Herein resides the great force of music, he continues, because with music there are no clear semantic concepts; it is in itself ungraspable and that is why we often experience that it grasps the ungraspable for us. This is the magic of music, which is what disappears when music becomes subjected to other dominant ways of perceiving and we forget how to listen.

    In this situation we need to learn to listen all over again, thinks Hellstenius.

    -It has been a project of mine to come up with some tools for listening so that the aural realm can resist being reduced to the background of our attention. This may sound as a another contradiction, because if the magic of music is that is without concepts, then coming up with tools for listening will seemingly only take us further away from entering into sound in a genuine, open way. But I think that there is no danger in this happening. My objective is to give people an incentive to concentrate -by outlining something to listen for- not to give them a semantic of sound.

    We move on to talk of the mystic Gurdjieff and the project of liberation that is at the heart of music, at least for Hellstenius. Gurdjieff’s spiritual notion can be explained as follows: as human beings we are very often blocking our own path to genuine experiences because we obscure our perceptions with inner considerations. The mind generates a filter between us and the outer world so that we are always removed and never able to be in our perceptions.

    -Gurdjieff calls this a state of sleep, says Hellstenius. Our obsession with thinking, concepts and language is tantamount to sleeping. Instead of really perceiving and acting we are unconsciously reproducing both what we see and what we do according to an internalized mental pattern. For Gurdjieff this is an individual and subjective phenomenon. However, if one were to apply the same line of thinking to the collective level, one could perhaps say that the dramatic development in our time is that our whole society is increasingly geared towards a related principle of reproducing readymade concepts. The obsession with communication that permeates the world today is nothing but a general call to keep on reproducing a common readymade reality. It has become exceedingly difficult to be really present in our senses, because that is not what society demands from us. It demands that we perceive and understand things immediately, by the easiest route, which means visually. Communication has become a principle of catering to the simplest common denominator -a mode of experiencing that does not require concentration- so that we can immediately move on to more information and more communication. Thus we communicate about communication and inform about information, and the world itself withdraws.

    Art has always been a counter to these self-affirming forces according to Hellstenius. He believes that the chief function of art and music is to punch wholes in the kind of conceptual film that veils reality, the film that is made up of our reproducing, communicating mode of experiencing. –Or, if not punch holes, then at least bring us to where the film is thinnest, and the world itself closest.

    -For me it is through the actual act of composing that I reach the place where the film is thinnest; so thin that I can make out what is on the other side, which is an ecstatic feeling. It is absolute freedom, because it is a release from oneself; like being let out into the great wide open, from a tiny room. As we have already talked about, music as such is a potent means of transportation out of this sleep because there is very little of the conceptual filter present in music. And that is why concentrating on music, both as a composer and a listener, is like meandering freely at the fringes of reality as we normally know it: one is taken to the twilight zone between our grasp of the world and the world as it is in itself.

    In eastern though walking this twilight zone, and reaching the other side, is called enlightenment. Real art sometimes points us in that direction and Hellstenius agrees on the following definition of an artistic genius: A genius is someone who has reached enlightenment in a specific field of expressivity.

    -Beethoven is the great figure for me, says Hellstenius. He was a quarrelsome man, and difficult to be with, so he was hardly enlightened in the general sense. But in his music I think he was; I think that he found that there was no divide or veil between himself and the world of pure music the way it exists in its own right and according to universal laws. I imagine that making music was a matter of being music, or letting music be him.

    From the great spiritual matters, we reach back to the practical way this affects Hellstenius’ vocation as a composer.

    -It is an odd thing to say for a composer, but I am in no doubt that people hear too much music. Personally I find that waiting to hear music, being abstinent so to speak, is a great joy in itself. -Because in a way I know that I am preparing to really hear, and thus to meet the world the way it manifests itself.

    In line with this Hellstenius is a strong believer in proper concerts, because the context of a concert represents an enormous potential for individual concentration, and it is a readily available tool for people to use. Hew draws a parallel form his time in Paris:

    -In Paris there are very few parks and breathing spaces where one can escape the city as this very produced and conscious entity. I believe that Parisians use concerts to escape the city, like an aural park where no other elements intrude with the pure experience.

    Escaping the city we talk about the Zen image of greyhounds racing around a track in pursuit of the mechanical hare: Suddenly one of the dogs halts her programmed chase and leaps across the inner field, intercepting the hare in its orbital track-motion.

    -We need to become conscious of the track, says Hellstenius. Then we can do as this dog and actually come in contact with that which the track is keeping us from. The track is the obstacle of inner considering that keeps us distanced from true presence. Seeing the track is our tasks as humans. Life is an oscillation between different positions that stand in relation to this one knowledge. Sometimes we are far removed, other times we are pretty close. When I really concentrate on music I am pretty close.

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