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2013 European Brass Band Championships — Championship Test Piece Review

4BR Editor Iwan Fox takes a closer look at an intriguing take on Norwegian pond life from the pen of Stig Nordhagen.

When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you - Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s not often an old German philosopher readily sparks the memory banks when writing about a brass band test piece.

However, Stig Nordhagen’s sinisterly engaging, ‘Myth Forest’ (Hestefallstjonn), will certainly leave you with the feeling that you have taken an uncomfortable step towards the edge of a particularly darkly hued area of the subconscious mind.

Margins

This is a very evocative, challenging work; a crepuscular journey to the margins of a gloomy, Stygian local pond whose surface bubbles with a menacing miasma of sulphurous intent. 

It is certainly no Claude Monet inspired musical evocation of pond life: Hestefallstjonn is painted in musical tones that are edgy and despondent, hinting at elements that can draw you under its surface and deep into its unfathomable depths with the frantic gasps of a drowning man.

You do wonder what thoughts pass through a man’s mind when standing (as the composer says) close to this particularly eerie, icily cold stretch of stagnant water.  

Smell the decay

You can almost taste the sweet smell of decay in your nostrils as the sun slowly begins to warm the moist Nordic soil in the opening section, ‘Sunburst: The sun rises and rays of light shatter the morning mist’.

It’s not a place to lay out the rug and bone china tea set for a morning picnic.

Lazy intensity

Nordhagen gradually brings together the earthy thematic material, organically building the layers with a lazy intensity (led by an artistic euphonium line) as if the shafts of light from a low lying sun finally burn off the cloying surface mists of the Hestefallstjonn pool.

The following section, ‘Bugs and Birds: Insects, small and large, come to life; birds are seeking water’, reveals that despite the apparent inhospitable nature of the water course, life still flickers across the meniscus tension of its surface.

There are no plump blossoms to feast on however, as a horrendously difficult vibraphone lead and taxing lines for horns and baritone show: They are the manic peckings of hungry fauna.

Ever deeper

As the composer peers ever deeper into the murky waters at his feet, the fulcrum of the work is revealed in, ‘Black Water Abyss: The black and abysmal water holds many secrets.’

This is deeply disturbing writing – as if memories of a terrible tragedy are being played out in the mind. 

The language is stark, distorted, unhappy and unsettling, with an undercurrent of an aching pulse that grows in emotional intensity before finally exploding in a vivid fugato.

Hopefulness

The music dissipates at this point into transition (featuring lead lines for euphonium, baritone, flugel and trombone), before emerging with hopefulness signified by the uplifting arpeggios in the following ‘Water Lilies: Water lilies are rising from the murky water, stretching for light’.

Here you are reminded of Monet’s cataract impaired vision of beauty as the plants seek what is an elusive path towards the warmth of the sun.

Rich textures are explored with the composer once again giving the lead to the darker timbres of the euphonium and baritone. 

Turns once more

However, they never quite fully blossom into life as the music turns once more to a sense of melancholia in ‘Echo from the other side: The echo does not always send back the answer you want.’

Indeed not – as despite the intense, rapid fire writing (baritones once again tested to the hilt) there is no resolution or peace of mind, whilst the thematic material battles against itself in both ensemble and virtuosic cadenza modes: There is no recall from the abyss.

Mythical

The final section is almost supernatural in its mythical intent: ‘The creatures of the forest are dancing into the night’.

It’s a weirdly dislocated, demanding waltz, full of exotic, menacing purpose, as the creatures both real and imaginary, gradually reclaim their rightful place in the Hestefallstjonn pond, eyes blazing with diabolic intent as the sun finally retreats meekly behind the ever darkening horizon.

It brings to an end a wonderfully bizarre, engrossing work, written by a composer who offers a fascinating detour in scoring technique (wonderfully bonkers percussion writing in particular) from the usual feel good fayre we have come accustomed to in recent times.

It is all the better for it – even though you wouldn’t want to be left alone on a bleak Nordic night with your thoughts to offer cold comfort on the banks of this particular Myth Forest pond...

Iwan Fox



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