Hans Abrahamsen: ‘You never know how a piece will end up’

Congratulations on Let Me Tell You being named the greatest classical work the 21st century. Do you think it’s the best work the century so far?!

Thank you! This is fantastic news – I feel humbled and honoured, but no, I can’t judge for myself. If we look back now to the beginning the 20th century, think how many works from that period that weren’t celebrated at the time. I’m sure it will be the same with this century. But lists such as these draw attention to the art and generate discussion, so are always welcome.

Tell us about how your song cycle came into being?

As soon as I read Paul Griffiths’s book 2008’s Let Me Tell You] I felt it was something that could develop into music. The piece was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, for Barbara Hannigan, and I had her voice in my mind when I wrote it. So far she’s been the only soprano to perform it (37 times to date) but it will be wonderful to hear what other singers bring to it. When you start a piece you never know how it will end up. It’s like when a child is born – it’s very fragile in the beginning. You work gradually and something happens but it feels like it’s out your hands.

The constraints Paul’s novel Griffiths uses only the 483 words that Shakespeare allots Ophelia] were an inspiration rather than a limitation. I love limitations and always respond well to them! Constraints give me space, I find. On one level the piece – and much my music – seems superficially simple and restrained, but below the surface it’s much more complex.

Is it the same piece you’d write today?

No, whatever I write comes out a particular place and time. It’s like playing music – it’s unique to the moment. I’m the opposite composers and artists who claim a composition is completely new, I always make versions older pieces, and rewrite or rework music and ideas so that they become new in a way, worked with different tools.

Some Let Me Tell You looks back to pieces I wrote in the 1970s. Schnee (2006-08) developed from ideas in a piece I wrote when I was 17, and the pure sound and the microtonality that became in turn part the sound world Let Me Tell You.

Do you think the work is best experienced live?

It’s the same with any piece music: different ways listening give different experiences Sometimes the best thing is simply to think about music, to read the score! Of course it’s fantastic to be in a concert hall and listen to the music being created in the space. There’s so few moments in modern life where we all sit together in silence.

Who are you writing for?

I write for the music! I paint the music as an artist does on a large canvas and my concern is that everything is clear. But I am the music’s first listener and it needs to speak to me. Then it’s wonderful if what I have written finds other ears. And certainly this piece has had a very broad audience respond to it, which makes me very happy.

Your first opera, the Snow Queen, premieres next month at the Royal Danish Opera. Tell us about that?

Texts have always inspired me, although apart from Let Me Tell You I have written very little vocal music. Let Me Tell You helped me find a language where the music I write speaks together with the text, and it made me feel I was ready to write an opera. It’s based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, a fairytale snow and ice, about childhood and innocence, and about growing up. Its simplicity appealed but it’s a story you can read in so many different ways. Tomorrow we start rehearsals in Copenhagen. I’m very excited.

What advice would you give to today’s young composers?

I won’t give advice except to say that it’s important to remember your voice and be true to that alone.

And, finally, what musical works would you nominate as the best the 21st century?

I have listened to very little new music these last few years; I cannot have too much in my head. But one name I must mention among so many great composers is George Benjamin. His Written on Skin is a masterpiece.

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