The following originally appeared as a program note to an Ensemble Dal Niente performance of Hans Abrahamsen's "Schnee." You are welcome to reprint it free of change; but please let me know about it and attribute me. Thanks!
My first thought is this: whatever you do, don't read these program notes during our performance of Hans Abrahamsen's hypnotic 2008 masterpiece Schnee. Subtitled “ten canons for nine instruments,” the work presents fascinating processes that the composer starts and guides just enough to maintain variety. It is, in short, a very patient piece. You will feel much better about your listening experience if you let the work invite you to a place of similar patience, if you allow yourself to be engulfed in its unfolding; if you let yourself be ok with the contradictions involved in listening to a piece that will seem simultaneously elusive and unpredictable yet somehow intimately familiar.
In his own note to the work, Abrahamsen says the following:
"At the beginning of the nineties, I arranged some canons by Johann Sebastian Bach for ensemble – a total of seven pieces, ranging across his whole creative life. I was completely immersed in this music, and arranged it with the idea that it should be repeated many, many times – as a sort of minimal music. What lengths Bach had in mind I didn’t know, but for me, looking at the canons in this way opened up a new, animated world of time in circulation. "
While this is a reasonably cool story about how the idea for the piece was generated, what I like more about it is that it is the composer telling us how similar we all are. His listening experience and musical imagination function the same way ours do. Viewed optimistically, the ubiquity of music in contemporary life has made us into imaginative, creative listeners... when we choose to pay attention. When we create Spotify playlists for parties, while maybe that requires less work that composing an hour-long chamber ensemble piece with a series of highly mathematical tempo changes, our process of juxtaposition of different styles requires a similar attitude: a concurrent detachment from and engagement with our musical material. Bach and minimalism. No wonder this guy took ten years off from composing to sort everything out in his head.
Let me switch gears for a moment. While I bet you can figure out a lot about the work's character by knowing that schnee is the German word for “snow,” there are levels to this that you can't get unless you look at the score (or unless I tell you). Littered throughout are references to winter (sorry, Chicago), from character indications (“icy”) to unspoken text that accompanies lines of music (“children hope there will be snow!”). You get the distinct impression that there is some sort of vague, obscured narrative here, some affect that you are so, so, SO close to understanding precisely, but that eludes articulation.
The Canons come in pairs. The piece is an hour long. While this is not strictly adhered to, the idea is that canonic pairs tend to get shorter as the work goes on.
Canon 1a (strings and piano 1 alone), involves the strings playing a repetitive accompaniment (“the harmonic is so high that there comes only air, like an icy whisper, but with a pulsation” he says) while the piano divides the slowly unfolding, arrestingly beautiful, canonic material between the two hands. Canon 1b does a similar thing; but this time, overlaid upon this structure are “tender and still” chorales from other instruments, with the pulsating accompaniment now played by the percussionist using paper. It feels like a commentary, or maybe a nostalgic reflection?
Canon 2a (symmetrically, for the three woodwinds and piano 2) is energetic, with fast moving short notes in the wind instruments “cheerfully played, but not too cheerfully, always a bit melancholy.” I'm not kidding, that's the actual tempo marking. The unheard text printed in the score (spoken excitedly by unknown children?) is “it is snow!” and “it is winter-night now!” After Canon 2a is the first of three intermezzos; some (but not all!) instruments are slightly detuned. Thus when Canon 2b is played, its commentary on Canon 2a features dissonance that is both rhythmic (due to crazy rhythms being played against the original) and microtonal (because of the detuning).
Canon 3a (winds and strings) and 3b (pianos and percussion) give everyone -- musicians and listeners -- a much needed break from the frenetic activity of the previous music. The evocative tempo marking says it all: “very slowly, dragging, and with gloom (in the tempo of “Tai Chi”). More detuning happens afterwards during the second Intermezzo. You won’t miss it.
Canons 4a and 4b begin and end as whirlwinds of frenzied activity -- children playing in the snow? They are accompanied by sleigh bells (a conscious homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s German Dance K. 605 that uses the same instruments), one of which maintains the same constant, unflappable speed in the face of a series of truly dizzying tempo changes and polyrhythmic complexities. Brief middle sections to both canons keep the rhythm going while providing a small amount of respite. During the following final Intermezzo, the instruments are detuned yet one more time.
The final two canons of this massively ambitious work are only a single minute long each -- marked “simple and child-like,” the texture is unabashedly, almost sensually, beautiful; it is delicate, quiet, unpreturbed. Perhaps the children are inside now, watching the snow falling from a comfortable, safe distance. Or maybe Abrahamsen is the child -- marvelling at the genius of Bach’s contrapuntal writing. Or maybe the children are us, the listeners, the audience members, the musicians, observing with awe the masterwork that Abrahamsen has wrought. In any case, the experience is the same, what Immanuel Kant calls the mathematical sublime: the emotional reality of our overwhelming smallness in relation to the irreducible complexity of our world, whether it be in our perception of the power of nature (winter), works of artistic genius (Abrahamsen’s or Bach’s), or a single snowflake (schnee). I know the first thing I will do leaving the venue after this afternoon’s concert is look up at the sky; I hope you will do something similar.