AMN Reviews: Anders Dahl & Skogen – Rows

Anders Dahl & Skogen: Rows [at64]

Twelve tone music was the signature sound of mid-20th century avant garde art music. How to transpose it into the 21st century? Composer Anders Dahl presents one possibility with the music on Rows, a new CD featuring performances by the Swedish chamber ensemble Skogen.

As Dahl saw it, the challenge was to compose twelve tone music that, while avoiding the establishment of a key center, would at the same time sidestep the problem of the overdetermination—and resulting rigidity—to which twelve tone serialism was particularly susceptible. Dahl’s elegant solution was to come up with a reduced kind of serialism in which the twelve tones of the row would only be played once. In addition, performers would be given the choice of skipping notes or replacing them with sounds of their own choosing.

As could be expected, the resulting sound is nothing like conventional twelve tone or serial music. Each brief piece is largely given over to tracing the exposition of a row; development comes through the overlap and alternation of difference voices from the ensemble as tones are passed between piano, pitched percussion, strings and winds. While the row is slowly unfolded, amplified objects and electronics skitter on top, adding a layer of quick activity and grit that seems to situate the pitches in the context of the 21st century’s prototypical ambient sounds. With its eclectic complement of instruments—piano, violin, clarinet, theremin, bamboo pipes, percussion, no-input mixing board, and various objects—Skogen is well suited to bringing out the austere beauty of this music.

Rows can be listened to as a meditation on the tone row as a free standing material in itself rather than as a means of expression. In fact Dahl’s approach—and the ensemble’s interpretation of his scores—removes twelve tone music as far as possible from its Expressionist beginnings, not to mention its later use to convey dread in cinema. In the process, he returns it to a more elemental plane of existence both prior to and presupposed by the expressive impulse.