Hans Abrahamsen: Schnee


All Heaven and Earth
Flowered white obliterate…
Snow…unceasing snow
–Kajiwara Hashin (1864-?)

Written between 2006 and 2008 as five two-part canons and three intermezzi, Schnee grew out of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s engagement with Bach. Commissioned by the ensemble recherche, who performs it for this Winter & Winter Music Edition (and what more appropriate label?), this vast, feathery piece withstands its composer’s own comparison to the structures of an Escher print. Such ambiguity of foreground and background, at once both and neither, makes it an all-encompassing experience. Like the recording itself, it reaches for us even as it occupies a world of its own making.

Despite the sparseness of Abrahamsen’s scoring, to say little of his nominal allegiance to the so-called “New Simplicity” movement, it would be deceptive to call him a minimalist. If anything, he is a maximalist, maximizing as he does the depth of effects possible through bare means. Unlike the music of, say, Alexander Knaifel, you won’t find yourself drifting through, but rather pervaded by, incarnate atmosphere.

Describing the music itself is as futile as describing the snow it is meant to evoke. First and foremost, it creates a tactile climate, not least of all through the placement of its instrumental forces. Two trios—one of strings, the other of woodwinds—occupy stages right and left, respectively, with a piano behind each and percussion tables at their center. It’s an arrangement that recalls the meticulousness of Karlheinz Stockhausen, only here it is meant to transform space, but become space. In this sense it is not some metaphorical re-creation of wintry landscape, but snow of a fashion all its own, replete with self-generated season.

Despite their placement, the pianos occupy a harmonic center, while the strings and cor anglais have been detuned to nearly imperceptible intervals of alterity. The caution with which bowed instruments are for the most part played yields indeterminate overtones with lives all their own, thus providing organic contrast to the regularity of their patterns on paper. The pianos move more waywardly, grabbing hold of congruities at the ends of phrases with hands of flame.

Abrahamsen’s snow isn’t always white. Sometimes it takes on the colors of sunset and other times a paler hue. Neither are his snowflakes always frail descenders, subject instead to a variety of physical actions. Whether being scraped off the bottom of a boot or alighting upon a metal roof, together they lay a path into a place where dreams reside. All of this dispersion and coagulation, a persistent binary of unblemished skin and ashen muscle, builds to premonitory levels of dynamism in an environment that you do not touch but which touches you—a cognizant sprawl in which every cell knows its place.

The writing for flute is particularly affecting, becoming more diffusive as its role intensifies. With each successive canon, layers of reflection build to peak levels of mystery, erupting with a blush of sun through the fragmented lungs of the fourth canon. The shortest intermezzo then leads to the shortest pair of canons. Fragile and sparse, each the mirror image of the other, they allow an eternity to step through on finite legs.

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