Hellstenius Public Behaviour BIS 2665 SACD

Henrik Hellstenius (b 1963)
Public Behaviour
Public Behaviour – Concerto for percussion, six solo singers and orchestra (2020)
Together, for six singers, piano, sampler and percussion (2021)
Hans-Kristian Kjos Sörensen, Jennifer Torrance (percussion, voice), Ellen Ugelvik (piano), Nordic Voices
Kai Grinde Myrann (conductor – Together)
Stavanger SO/Ilan Volkov (Public Behaviour)
rec 2021, Rainbow Studios AS, Oslo (Together) and 2022, Konserthus, Stavanger, Norway.
Texts in English included
Reviewed in stereo and surround
BIS 2665-SACD [53]

In recent times, one of the major stimuli behind Henrik Hellstenius’s vocal music has been the internal mechanics of ‘society’, that thing which for Margaret Thatcher didn’t exist and which for David Cameron (momentarily, until he forgot all about it) might have benefitted from being ‘Big’. (Apologies to non UK readers who may have little interest in such figures) My recent review of this composer’s Lawo Classics release Past and Presence addressed his song cycle As if The Law is Everything. Its texts (by the Norwegian poet Øyvind Rimbereid) comprised considerations of the application and experience of ‘law(s)’ (lower case, in its most general sense, so including the ‘laws of nature’ for example) from the varying perspectives of artists, philosophers, judges, and (the) individual people. In both pieces on the present disc, Hellstenius takes his musical investigations of similar social phenomena still further. He seeks to characterise the tensions between individualist and collective experience, such as the (un)desirability of mutual co-operation, and the (possibly unwanted) stark reality of human interdependence. Fascinatingly, one of these works is a designated a ‘concerto for percussion, six solo singers and orchestra’.

This is Public Behaviour, composed in 2020 at a point where ‘society’ as we know it (or not) was facing meltdown in the form of mask-wearing, social distancing, forced isolation and other related delights. At that specific historical moment, the idea of social communication as a theme for a piece of music must have seemed especially apt. More so if one considers the increasingly invasive scourge of social media and its ever more intrusive impact on our lives. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a clear precedent for art-music inspired by sociology. Does Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia count? I was intrigued to discover what Hellstenius did with this brief.

Public Behaviour consists of seven brief movements, of which the third, Falling Apart, is purely instrumental. A percussive flourish introduces a syllabic text, homophonically ‘sprechgesung’ by the solo voices. Thereafter, the interaction between vocal and instrumental collectives explodes into lively action. As one might expect, the emergent sounds may intermittently seem warmly complementary, but more frequently there is tension, disharmony and opposition. Hellstenius’ entertaining text is remarkably decipherable, and delivered with virtuosity, panache and a tangible sense of fun by the ever brilliant Nordic Voices. In the theatrical second movement I was thrilled to find that one of the speakers, (I’m guessing it’s Hans-Kristian Kjos Sörensen, the agile percussionist here, as his voice is somehow set apart from the others in the recording) sounded remarkably like Fred Schneider, the zany male vocalist of majestic beat combo the B-52s. Nor is mention of this band purely tokenistic, as notwithstanding Hellstenius’ decidedly contemporary (though not forbidding) language, there is a decidedly knockabout quality to a piece which I think seeks to condense what is a profoundly serious question (it might be summarised as “I, or We?”) into approachable, even ‘fun’ terms. The writing for percussion is unfailingly inventive and attractive. The vocal material requires (and receives) extraordinary precision. There’s some enthusiastically delivered swearing, which is perfectly justified and absolutely relevant within the context of the concept. The first six movements of Public Behaviour flow inexorably into its concluding segment ‘The Square’ which ingeniously incorporates a variety of spoken and choral crowd interactions. The work must have provided challenges aplenty to the BIS engineers, who inevitably prove themselves more than equal in every regard to the task. I think Public Behaviour is one of the best things Hellstenius has done to date. I mentioned Berio before – the comparison seems apt and is intended as a compliment.

In Public Behaviour Hellstenius’ provocative text eventually fractures into multilingualism in its fourth movement, but it’s there from the outset of the companion piece Together, as the human protagonists seek to establish some, ANY kind of interaction. This also comprises seven movements; the orchestra is here replaced by a piano and sampler, whilst the parallel percussion/voice role is taken by Jennifer Torrence. In the composer’s opening gambit, the singers intone a sequence of single syllable pronouns from various European languages in an attempt to establish some common ground. These efforts are coloured by tuned percussion doodlings and sustained electronic tones. The ambience initially seems gentler and less hectoring than that projected in Public Behaviour. But not for long, as Jennifer Torrence’s curt statement “So I listen to you/Will you listen to me?” is presented at first shyly, then with frustration and in due course with palpable aggression. Her questions are mirrored in the exchanges of the singers and in the punctation of the instruments. Subsequently, Hellstenius skilfully blends tinkling percussion, syllabically presented questions and ethereally sustained vocal chords which overlap between the third and fourth sections. Until a lively Reichian gesture triggers a fifth, which uncannily resembles a mash-up of Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Reich’s Desert Music. It concludes with the revealing and cathartic statement “What we need is time – together” This revelation of the work’s title is presumably its pivotal moment. Following an interlude of pure music (ie without text), the final panel revisits the eternal conflicts and misunderstandings which dominated Public Behaviour. Here they are presented in yet more menacing terms, a conclusion which confirms the irreconcilable darkness at the heart of Together, an impression which contrasts elegantly with the outward extroversion of its companion piece.

In both these absorbing works, Hellstenius (literally and figuratively) is primed more to pose questions than offer solutions. But his music is unfailingly entertaining and thought-provoking. It is performed with swaggering confidence and no holds barred commitment by Nordic Voices and their instrumental and orchestral partners. Listening to the works on a surround system proves almost viscerally immersive, another example of the prodigious talents of two different BIS production teams. Simon Cummings has contributed a fine note which seamlessly marries Hellstenius’s sociological concerns to his compositional methods. I would be astonished if listeners drawn to the theatrical vocal compositions of Berio or Ligeti did not respond most positively to this unusual disc.

Richard Hanlon

Buying this recording via a link below generates revenue for MWI and helps us keep free access to the site

Presto Music
Arkiv Music