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Composers

Anders Koppel


© Lars Skaaning
Born: 1947

Music lives inside us all, in every fibre, in our biological systems, in our mental and spiritual space. But as primarily listening beings most of us switch the musical energy current on and off. This is not how it has been for Anders Koppel. In a way it was music that chose him, and it has taken him to many places. He says that his music can be heard as fingerprints of the huge variety of impulses stored in his being. They have become part of his language, so he thinks less about style than about form and organic contrast when he composes. Anders Koppel’s oeuvre is characterized first and foremost by a considerable diversity of genres, styles and traditions – whether symphonic music, solo concertos, chamber music, solo works, opera, ballet music, theatre music, music for radio drama or film music. Anders Koppel was born in 1947 to a family with many children, as the son of a Polish-Jewish second-generation immigrant and a girl from Funen. The home was an enclave of art, free-thinking cultural radicalism and social commitment, and since Anders’ father, Herman D. Koppel (1908-1998, composer and pianist), was one of the most significant Danish composers and pianists of his generation, music of course played a crucial role in the upbringing of the children. Their father shared his joy in music with them, encouraged them to develop their skills, and discussed music with them whenever the opportunity arose. Anders Koppel grew up with the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but also of Stravinsky, Bartók and his father. He sang in the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, took piano lessons from his sister Therese, then later from his father, and he learned to play the clarinet, after which his father wrote a variation work for him. In his youth he also developed an appetite for other interests: Anders Koppel painted, went to the film museum and saw silent films, wrote a novel, worked with his father on the texts for his major vocal works, and had his ears opened to rock’n’roll. In 1967 Anders Koppel and his brother Thomas formed the rock group Savage Rose, which very quickly gained a large audience. For the next seven years the band toured all over Europe, the USA from coast to coast with appearances at the Newport Festival in 1971, and recorded eight albums in London, Los Angeles, Rome and Copenhagen. In 1974 Anders Koppel left the group and began a new life as an independent musician and composer. The great classical tradition with which Anders Koppel was imbued during his childhood also plays an important role in Koppel’s life today. Beethoven is a daily encouragement and morale-booster; the same applies to technical compositional factors like form and subject development. Prokofiev and Jolivet were added through the mediation of his father and are still part of his baggage. Jazz and rock have been inseparable travelling companions, South American folk music has been a similar revelation in the form of the classic Argentine tango, Cuban dance music and Brazilian choro, just as Balkan music has entered his blood. “Go for diversity!” music seems to have whispered in the ears of the musician and composer. Another element has been important to him: melody. It is fundamental to his own music, so it is also important for him to express himself in a tonal idiom that takes its point of departure in major and minor tonalities. Anders Koppel embodies a rare concept in the scored music of our day – the performing musician and creative composer in one and the same person. Not in the historical sense like Beethoven, Bartók or his own father for example, but as an improvising musician outside scored music. In parallel with his many years of working with film music, chamber music and symphonic music, Koppel has cultivated genre-free partnerships in two groups: Bazaar with Peter Bastian (clarinet and electric bassoon) and Flemming Quist Møller (congas); and KAK with his son Benjamin (saxophone) and Jacob Andersen (percussion). In a certain sense Koppel’s treatment of his B-3 Hammond organ has affinities with the piano virtuosos of the past, whether in jazz or the classical tradition, but it is actually more than that. For Koppel, live music is “composition from the hip”; the channels to the remote storage function are opened up, he shakes off the dust, is absorbed by the bodily dimensions of the music, and together he and his musicians often arrive at the trippiest things from the outermost limits. Communication with the audience is the be-all and end-all in this context – it becomes a high-flying dialogue between the musical material, the musicians and the listeners. Experiences like these are extremely important to the composer Anders Koppel. When Anders Koppel turned 50 in 1997, he made a decision. From now on he would realize his dreams, and they were clearly oriented towards focusing on scored music, preferably on the grand scale. Over the previous twenty years he had gathered invaluable experience in work with ballet music, film music and theatre music. If you ask Koppel himself to choose some key works from his output, the choice falls without hesitation on the over twenty solo concertos. Several of them could be called concertos for peripheral instruments: saxophone, marimba, accordion, double-bass, bass trombone and tuba. His father, Herman D. Koppel, wrote four piano concertos. Anders Koppel calls the four marimba concertos his piano concertos – he has incidentally also written a piano concerto for his father. The marimba concerts were composed, like the great majority of his works, as commissions, and with particular performing artists in mind – in the case of Nos. 3 and 4 the Austrian percussion phenomenon Martin Grubinger. Marimba Concerto No. 1 (1995) was written as a set piece for an international marimba competition in Luxembourg, and it has turned out to be a gambit with quite overwhelming global success: the marimba set against a Viennese Classical ensemble. The solo instrument is definitively at the centre as virtuoso and initiator. The charming – in fact concertante – qualities of the marimba come to full expression, and do so in constantly varying rhythms, with elegant layers of sonority and insistent input to the dialogue with the orchestra. It is extraordinarily accommodating music and at the same time morning-fresh in is tight conception. In Marimba Concerto No. 4 (2006) the orchestra has grown considerably in size with added brass, harp, organ and percussion. The basic mood is more serious than in the first concerto. Koppel has added the subtitle Zum Gedächtnis des Vergänglichen, i.e. In Memory of the Transitoriness of Life; and at the same time the concerto was written with the piano composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a Geist hovering before the mind’s eye – in the year of the 250th anniversary of his birth. The material of the concerto is very much left in the hands of the orchestra; this is where subject and theme are developed, expanded and transformed, and above it the marimba more or less gambols in cascades of passage-playing, figures and bravura – quite in the Mozartian spirit. The form is bipartite, beginning with an extended, calmly promenading andante based on scale motions and a bluesy stress on the minor seventh. A memento mori with a Mozartian ambivalence: melancholy and beauty. The quick second section enters very quietly in the organ, Koppel’s own instrument – in the specific case the organ of the Vienna Musikverein, where the first performance was given. It is a dance that soon involves the whole orchestra in shifting formations. The marimba continues to process the input it gets in a kind of improvisational form, and Mozart himself makes a lively appearance with fragments from his Alla turca. Life is beautiful and strange, use it while you have it, this concerto seems to be telling us. The two saxophone concertos were written for Koppel’s son Benjamin, one of Denmark’s most gifted jazz saxophonists. The Second Concerto (2003) in four movements runs through a wealth of different stages, meditative or superheated, and the soloist is often driven out into virtuoso excesses that recall the boundless improvisations of the great jazz names. The concerto is decidedly an attempt to fuse the jazz tradition with the classical symphony of the twentieth century, a fascinating encounter between the free improvisation of the soloist and the score-bound collectivity. Great song makes its appearance in the central largo, not in the Romantic sense, but as a melodically fragmented series of tensions with built-in conflicts and with the soloist as ballad player in an extraordinary expressive format. Anders Koppel also cultivates the double concerto – for example violin and accordion (2001) and saxophone and piano (2006). The concerto for the Mozartian configuration flute and harp (1998) explores a bright, transparent world of sound; the soloist’s lines are refracted as in a prism, followed by a bass-renouncing string orchestra with four horns and percussion. It is delicate music, alternately poetic, melancholy and sparkling. The rhythmically driving pulse is characteristic of Anders Koppel’s music. This is very much the case with the Toccata for Vibraphone and Marimba, which was commissioned by Safri Duo in 1990, a work which has now become an obligatory part of Conservatory syllabuses all over the world. In the chamber music for the traditional ensembles we meet different moods. In the Piano Trio No. 1 “Rivolta” (1994) Koppel works with sophisticated developments of very simple material. String Quartet No. 1 (1997), written for the American Coolidge Quartet, shuffles the cards in surprising ways; its rooting in a Gallic tradition is clear enough, but Koppel tells his own stories in the course of its three movements; this is evident from an energetic rhythmic interaction with echoes of Argentine tango, the crisp harmony that is so well suited to the string sounds, and the floating lightness of the texture. An elegant quartet that certainly cries out for successors. A decidedly national tradition lies behind the Sonatina for Wind Quintet (2002), for what Danish composer can emancipate himself from Carl Nielsen’s brilliant quintet? Well, Anders Koppel succeeds very well, because the five winds are forced into a quite different kind of fabulous discourse. French inspirations spring more to mind if we consider the diverting character of the first movement, whereas the middle movement stands as Koppel’s own ambiguous divertissement, while the piccolo leads the band in the tongue-in-cheek gaiety of the final movement, which is based on the Italian 6/8 tarantella. Benjamin Koppel’s ensemble Mad Cows Sing has given his father a welcome opportunity to write for a (to put it mildly) hybrid ensemble: oboe, alto saxophone, violin, cello, piano, double-bass and percussion. The little suite 7 scenes from the daily life of cows (1998) was composed for the cellist Henrik Dam Thomsen’s debut as a soloist, which is why the cello is occasionally singled out as the lyrical voice in front of the other actors. In the seven miniatures the septet demonstrates a varied palette of sonorities, rhythms and melodic scenery. Along the way one can send a thought to the animals in Saint-Saëns’ Carnival, but Koppel’s work can first and foremost be heard as a catalogue of several of the techniques and idioms he has cultivated over the years. Dances with skewed steps and shifting metres, beautiful melodious lines, amusing pastiches, intricate weavings in the ensemble playing, rhythmic momentum and virtuoso solo playing. Anders Koppel’s oeuvre comprises far more opuses than have been touched on here. Since the decision to concentrate on scored music was made in 1997, the series of works has grown explosively, and interest in his music is just as strong abroad as in Denmark. There are few score composers who can draw on such a versatile background as Koppel. At present, as a performing and creating artist, he is garnering the fruits of his curiosity and openness to a wealth of musical genres. And in so doing he is fully living out his own statement: You are what you become. Valdemar Lønsted, 2007

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