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Karsten Fundal

Born: 1966

Artistic creation and lived life go together like Siamese twins for Karsten Fundal (b. 1966). If the one doesn’t function, the other becomes weakened and inactive. For Fundal this means being on top of things, and thus establishing proper relations with the surrounding world just as much as cultivating his artistic career. It’s about balance in life and in art, in the final analysis also about forming part of a meaningful social context, about establishing a kind of humanity and being something – for others as well as oneself. So when you consider Fundal’s music you also have to consider what exists alongside the art – all that in the end is the precondition for the art to be manifested in the form of musical expression. Karsten Fundal has studied composition with Hans Abrahamsen and Ib Nørholm, Karl Aage Rasmussen and Per Nørgård. A meeting with Nigel Osborne and (especially) Morton Feldman in 1986 at Dartington took on great importance for Fundal’s development as a composer, and in the years 1987-88 he studied composition with Louis Andriessen in Holland. Among the most important of his other works we find the violin concerto "Floating Lines – Broken Mirrors" (1995-1996), the percussion concerto "Ritornello al Contrario" (1996-1997) and the ensemble work written for the Cikada Ensemble, "Circadian Pulse" (2002-2003). Then there are the four works in the Moebius series and of course the orchestral works "Entropia" (1997-2001) for soloists, choir and large orchestra – written for the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR – and the orchestral work "Hush" (2003-2004). In recent years Karsten Fundal has had the pleasure of seeing a rapidly increasing interest in his music, which has led to a large number of commissions for new works, and has gradually won him a place as one of the major composers of his generation. Fundal’s unmistakable talent has also evoked a response in the film world where, after great success with the music for the Dreyer film "Mikaël" (2003), premiered live with the Copenhagen Philharmonic, he wrote the music for Nikolaj Østergaard’s Robert-award-winning documentary "Om Tro"(Short Film About Faith) (Nordisk Film 2005). Most recently Fundal has completed the work on the music for the epic film "Flammen & Citronen" ("The Flame and the Citron") directed by Ole Christian Madsen (Nimbus Film 2008). It is an impressive and wide-ranging score for the most expensive movie ever produced in Denmark. Karsten Fundal has been awarded the Wilhelm Hansen Composer’s Prize 1994, the Prize of the Danish Composers’ Society 1995, the Hvass Foundation’s Artist’s Grant 1995, the Queen Ingrid Memorial Grant 2005 and the Carl Nielsen Prize 2005. In 2005 he received the three-year grant of the Danish National Arts Foundation to develop a major music film project about globalization. For the music for Peter Schønau Fog’s feature film "Kunsten At Græde i Kor" (2007) ("The Art of Crying") Fundal won a Robert for best score and has thus won a place as the most important composer in Danish film for many years. Link to Karsten Fundal - "When art and life merge" Portrait of the composer Karsten Fundal By Anders Beyer Art created and life lived belong together like Siamese twins for the composer Karsten Fundal (b. 1966). If one doesn’t function, the other becomes enfeebled and inactive. In Fundal’s case this means getting a grip on yourself and establishing a proper relationship with the surrounding world as much as with your artistic career. It’s a matter of balance in life and in art, and in the end also of being part of a meaningful social context, establishing your humanity and being something – for others as well as yourself. So in approaching Fundal’s music you have to consider what exists alongside the art, all the conditions that, in the final analysis, must be fulfilled so that the art can be manifested in musical expression. As a composer Karsten Fundal has always been fascinated by getting music into a system. The notes don’t come by themselves, they emerge as the result of a process of familiarization with certain systems, which in turn enable the composer to realize an idea or a vision. But the technicalities or the systems are never ends in themselves. Technique and thought and text in and around Karsten Fundal’s music always have a spiritual or metaphorical meaning. The cement that binds his musical architecture together is more than just numbers, methodology and fascination with science; his music constantly seeks out the places where spirit and precision can follow the same musical path. There is nothing strange about systematic thinking for the curious mind. Any playful child who has rummaged with the well known Lego blocks knows that from the systematic game forms and figures can emerge that tease the sensory apparatus and stimulate creative imagination. Fundal is no exception: “We were given a piano by my grandmother when I was five. They say I went to work playing on it right away. I learned the tonal system by sitting and playing with it. Maybe it was because I also spent a lot of time building with Lego blocks. The way of thinking is rather similar: you discover that there’s an integrated system that you can familiarize yourself with by playing.” So for Karsten Fundal there is no conflict between a penchant for the scientific and the emotions, and the subsequent work of transforming thought into sounding music. It’s a link that happens all by itself in your head, and it’s something he does because there are certain things that constantly fascinate him. It’s this fascination that he ceaselessly pursues. At the same time as he is developing the complex thought processes, the thinking is almost simultaneously being transformed into music. In the composer’s words: “I was fascinated by certain things in music, and discovered certain counterparts in natural science, and thus expanded my consciousness. So I’ve gone on informing myself about science, and I use images from it because these are the most precise images. And after all it’s easier for the layman to grasp a scientific image than to understand what is happening in the musical notes.” The inner duality At an early stage Karsten Fundal became interested in the apparent opposite of system; that is, free improvisation with the idioms of jazz as the sounding-board. When the ten-year-old was introduced to the pianist Keith Jarrett’s so-called Köln Concert with its musical emancipation of both improvisation and tight control, the boy began thinking along new lines: “Keith Jarrett has meant a lot to me. After experiencing the so-called Köln Concert I began to systematize my improvisation in a particular direction. Before this event I had mainly improvised against the background and inspiration of the Moonlight Sonata and the like. My parents had a very limited selection of records; on the other hand those records got some serious listening. There were some Lieder by Schubert, which riveted my attention even at the age of six or seven. The melancholy of Schubert’s music, the ambivalence of the music’s mutable use of major and minor, influenced me from the start. When I hear Schubert today I’m still incredibly affected by it.” If Fundal is affected by Schubert, it’s because his music has both a melancholy inwardness and an outwardness with a certain robustness of expression. His music has both aspects in it. This accords with Fundal’s interest in the ideas of the founder of analytical psychology, C.G. Jung. According to Jung, in a man the inner creative side is of the opposite gender, which means that the man has an inner femininity, the anima. The opposite is true of women. Creative drive therefore comes from this inner polarity. Fundal explains: “For some reason my inner femininity has for many years been melancholy. When you talk about opposite-genderedness in the Jungian sense, people often think it means you have a woman inside you. That’s nonsense – we’re talking about symbolism here. With femininity we’re dealing with a qualitative rather than a physical entity. This doesn’t only apply to me. Everyone has an inner polarity. Jung says that the inner opposite gender of artists is often better developed. That’s because they’ve got more into contact with it by practicing their creative profession. Whether it comes through in a special way in music compared with other areas – I don’t think so. “It’s a psychological mechanism, you don’t do it consciously. When we talk about it, it’s a rationalization. Jung discovered it by working with dreams. It’s compli¬cated, for if we talk about my ambition, that’s a masculine feature. We are talking about symbols, so let’s say instead that it’s all about forms of energy. But that doesn’t directly have anything to do with my music. It’s a bit like the driver in the computer that runs the program, but doesn’t directly have anything to do with the program – but the program can’t do without the driver either. So a particular driver can be used for many different programs. If you have a word processing program the driver doesn’t have anything to do with word processing. Femininity is a driver, an energy entity that’s simply a catalyst for processes. Obviously, awareness of all these things influences my whole understanding of the surrounding world.” This ‘driver’ or femininity hasn’t only been a positive energy for Fundal: “It could have hampered my creative activity if it had continued to become increasingly melancholy. It all has to do with things in private life. Many artists – Rued Langgaard was one of them – could probably have had a much better life if they had ordered certain things in the private sphere that could then have been fruitful for them in their artistic activities. For me there are certain things I have to get right in my personal life so everything works out for me as a human being. So I would rather slacken off a little in my career and work with other things than music. I don’t want to sit there working like a carthorse and becoming a nerd, I’d rather find out how I can function in relation to the surrounding world in those areas where I don’t think I function properly. It may well be that I would have got further in my career if I hadn’t thought like that, but I’d rather have a good life.” So the next question almost goes without saying. How can the composer use art to help to have a better life? “A hard question. It’s profoundly satisfying to write, but sometimes I’d rather do without it. In many ways it’s very difficult to compose. It’s a hard life, it’s hard to get the music performed properly, it’s hard to earn a living from it at all. The problem is that ever since I was ten, there have been ideas, so they have to be converted into music. If I don’t compose, I feel very, very bad, and then I’m unbearable to be with. Sometimes I get sent up to work because I’m unbearable.” Entropia It gives Karsten Fundal a kick to get a new musical idea, he says himself. One of the more recent ideas has been realized in an orchestral work for choir and two orchestras. It’s nothing less than a vision of representing The Big Bang. This image was suddenly turned into music inside the head of the composer – it was so detailed in its form that it required an enormous amount of work to realize. It took Fundal a year to create 12 seconds – then he knew he had done it as well as he possibly could. How does one transform The Big Bang into music? Fundal studied the science of the phenomenon. The theories of the Big Bang took him six months to read. Then came the huge task of finding out how a point or a note can explode into something else, something more. The whole orchestra starts with one note and expands from there. A shift – which one in fact cannot hear – arises during the first half second. But it is still the triggering factor for any kind of development at all. After this everything ramifies into an enormous mass. This very quickly becomes huge entities. The whole tonal material in the work generates itself from this microshift. Karsten Fundal calls his 35-minute work Entropia, and thus associates it with the word Utopia. It is a poetic linkage, says the composer. He continues: “When you create a work that is about something that is so directly scientific, someone might claim this is impossible. However, I think you can certainly make an artistic version of The Big Bang. It’s symbolic. and it’s my own entropic world I create, it isn’t the real one. When I study theories like The Big Bang, it’s a very intense thing to keep it all there in my head, so intense that it makes me dizzy. When you begin to study the size proportions in the universe and quantities and masses and galaxy numbers, Einstein’s relativity theories 1 and 2, the relativity of time because of the curvature of space etc., you start to become humble. When you then go on and link this with existential tension, it interferes with your mind. It’s made many things much clearer for me. Even music is a vision that stands there alone, which I try to pass on.” The artistic leap The first work Karsten Fundal acknowledges is Hoquetus from 1981. He started, like so many before him, by discovering Bartók and Stravinsky. Then Ligeti and Xenakis. Fundal had to go to the Academy to develop his skills, to learn the contrapuntal disciplines that are the essence of western music. Palestrina and Bach. It’s so incredibly sophisticated, and awareness of their music is important because that is what separated classical from non-classical music. Fundal readily admits that he stands on the shoulders of Bach. He has first and foremost learned counterpoint from Bach. From Bach too he has learned the idea that there are two or more co-existing identities that relate to each other and affect each other. Fundal was first taught by Hans Abrahamsen, then by Ib Nørholm at the Academy. He also attended a course given by the American composer Morton Feldman in Dartington in England, which Fundal describes an intense experience. Feldman’s sense of timing and the repetition of identities in unpredictable patterns gave the Dane a kind of ‘Aha!’ experience. Something to do with phrasing fell into place: “Feldman’s feeling for silence was striking. I wrote a work that was inspired by Feldman’s music. It’s called Ballad, from 1986-88. Otherwise my music sounds nothing like his. I would describe the period of Hoquetus as a period of discovery, when I discovered polyrhythms or the interference phenomenon in particular. That’s what Hoquetus is about. I became incredibly fascinated with shifts in patterns. In fact they have preoccupied me continuously ever since. But I’m not a minimalist. In the minimalist structure there can be a layer that repeats itself recognizably in 7 and another layer that repeats itself recognizable in 5. That’s really what happened in Hoquetus, but already there I was fascinated by letting the system ‘run in the background’, that is, letting the shifts operate as an underlying coding, but you don’t hear everything. Then you superimpose layers on that, where you get hold of another code. This creates a shift that is so powerful that it becomes unpredictable. While at the same time you hear a consistency behind it. It’s exciting to work with.” In the early years Karsten Fundal mainly composed for smallish ensembles. Before he went to Holland to study with Louis Andriessen, Fundal wrote the string quartet Hoquetus, where the sonority is greatly inspired by Xenakis’ music. The sources of inspiration are also very varied: Morton Feldman, Louis Andriessen and Iannis Xenakis. Fundal went to Holland in 1986 and began studying with Andriessen at the Conservatory in The Hague. He lived and studied there for six months and only managed to write one work: Ballad for orchestra. Then he came home to Copenhagen, but couldn’t settle down to the rhythm of the Academy in the capital and tried the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Aarhus. Along with other composers Fundal went every fortnight to Aarhus to study with Karl Aage Rasmussen and Per Nørgård. These teachers provided new fuel for Fundal’s engine: “There was something quite concrete I got the hang of in Aarhus: interfaces and logical types. I was preoccupied with those for the two years I was in Aarhus. The work with complex entities: for example if you have a chord and a melody, then you have two logical types. You have accompaniment and you have melody. But if you aren’t aware of the difference between the two, you can easily mix them up unconsciously. Then you’re in trouble. As a rule that’s where things go wrong. Not much music came out of that period. I stalled completely for the first year. That was because I became conscious of something I had done unconsciously. It’s a bit like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time and being shocked that you’re actually something you can see. I had to go through the awareness process. I could hardly write anything at all, because I had all sorts of thoughts and theories about tone rows, harmonic series and much more. I was caught in an area between traditional thinking and something else that was new.” Fundal has always had a feeling that there was some system he should find. Suddenly, he found that system in the period when he worked in Aarhus, but at first he could not compose with it. It is a so-called feedback system: he had always had an idea that one could create musical motion that could be controlled but where one could not predict the details. Fundal had this image in his mind for many years, but then he invented the feedback system. It is not a row or series, but a system that is constantly developing. It consists of several layers at different speeds, the fastest of which is optional except for the notes that coincide with the other, slower notes. The slower layers, where the notes are predetermined, control the faster layers – which is why it is called a feedback system or a dynamic system. Fundal’s dynamic system can be heard for the first time in Butterfly for accordion and wind quintet. It is a very short piece, because the composer worked the whole thing out on a pocket calculator. Every time a new note comes, it requires three new calculations. One very quickly reaches several thousand calculations per note. So Fundal had to have a computer program written, and got his brother – a computer scientist and mathematician – to do it. Fundal still uses that program. The dynamic system was next used in the violin concerto Floating Lines – Broken Mirrors. The there are some works from before this period, Land of Mists for example, where Fundal has not developed the computer-generated feedback system. The composer says that these works express a kind of intermediate stage, but that he brought the idea for Land of Mists home with him from Holland. He had an idea of a centre of gravity in the music which was a common centre of gravity for all the instruments, and which was to propagate or bifurcate into several different centres of gravity. But he was unable to do that at the time with Land of Mists. In the first place there were too few instruments. In the second place he didn’t know how to do the right note calculations. He ended up with a quite different kind of music, in a piece called Oscillation. One might be tempted to conclude that Karsten Fundal dreams of finding the definitive Wunder-formel that can express ‘everything’. But it isn’t that simple. The composer explains: “I’m so bad at maths. I can’t even make an algorithm. It doesn’t interest me. Once I had a dream – I think most composers have – of creating some super-algorithm that could generate an unpredictable composition which one could still shape a little. In reality it’s a wish to get in touch with the control mechanisms in music. For we have a huge problem with contemporary music, for example in terms of time. Classical music in the old sense, major-minor tonality music, is fantastic, because it contains the past and future within it with the use of tonic, dominant, subdominant: when you have a certain chord progression, with a good composer like Bach, then most of the chords have a dual temporal function that functions as a kind of focus points in the development: the individual chords always point back to the tonality you’re coming from, and forward to another new tonality or a progression. This, along with the counterpoint, creates a field of tension in the music that is so sophisticated that it’s hard for us to compete with. We have a problem there with contemporary music. It’s this problem we’ve been unable to get definitively beyond since Schoenberg. The problem arose when there could no longer be allusions to this tonality. So in fact one got a non-linear field of polarities – there’s no ‘preferred direction’.” If it is true that contemporary music has an array of aesthetic challenges and problems, then one of the tasks is to justify that a musical unit or progression continues in the way it does continue. In classical music it is a straightforward matter when music should stop. This is no longer true. The time issue is so much of a presence that with several composers it is put right up there in the title of the work. That issue is also crucial for Karsten Fundal, who has found a solution and can therefore go even further with his music: “I solve the problem by ensuring that all my systems develop in time. They have a built-in time factor. Since I studied in Aarhus I’ve only worked with music that develops in time. The problem with the twelve-tone system and the systems developed in its wake is that a twelve-tone row has nothing to do with music, for it has no relation to time. It’s a physical-spatial phenomenon which then has to be inserted in a time frame. What the Central Europeans were so fascinated by in the last century was having something or other one could write up on a blackboard and say “This is my tone row”. And then they hoped this was a code – but it didn’t relate at all to the fact that time passes while one plays the music. That means that the row is non-dynamic. That’s the problem. I haven’t found the philosopher’s stone, but I think it’s fascinating to work with progressions that go through various transformations, as happens in my violin concerto. It can move into a note repetition and instability can arise, and triads can arise. The music passes through various transformation periods. The same is true of the hierarchic rows I work with: every single time I go into a layer it will have a new kind of dynamic, a new kind of tonality, a new kind of emotional melodic system.”

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