Composer Profile: Simon Steen-Andersen

Simon Steen-Andersen
Simon Steen-Andersen

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Simon Steen-Andersen (b. 1976) is a Berlin-based composer, performer and installation artist, working in the field between instrumental music, electronics, video and performance within settings ranging from symphony orchestra and chamber music (with and without multimedia) to stagings, solo performances and installations. The works from the last 6-7 years concentrates on integrating concrete elements in the music and emphasizing the physical and choreographic aspects of instrumental performance. The works often include amplified acoustic instruments in combination with sampler, video, simple everyday objects or homemade constructions.

Simon Steen-Andersen received numerous prizes and grants – latest the Carl Nielsen Prize (DK) and Kunstpreis Musik from Akademie der Künste in Berlin 2013, the International Rostrum of Composers, the DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm Residency 2010 and the Kranichsteiner Music Award 2008. Works commissioned by ensembles, orchestras and festivals such as ensemble recherche, Neue Vokalsolisten Stuttgart, the SWR Orchestra, The Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France, Ensemble Ascolta, The Danish National Chamber Orchestra, JACK Quartet, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Ultraschall, Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik and ECLAT. Furthermore worked with ensembles such as Klangforum Wien, Collegium Novum Zürich, ICTUS, Arditti, London Sinfonietta, Oslo Sinfonietta, Intercontemporain, asamisimasa and NADAR.

Simon Steen-Andersen studied composition with Karl Aaage Rasmussen, Mathias Spahlinger, Gabriel Valverde and Bent Sørensen in Aarhus, Freiburg, Buenos Aires and Copenhagen 1998-2006. Since 2008 Simon Steen-Andersen is a lecturer of composition at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark, and in 2013-2014 he is guest professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.

Most works published by Edition-S / Copenhagen.

THE QUESTIONS

What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

Playing around with a sampler and “tracker” software on my Amiga 500 in 1989, probably!

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

I’m sure there is, but I don’t have a single composer that I can point out. Often I have tried to avoid getting too close to the composers I liked. In fact, I think the “negative influence” has been much bigger than the positive influence. Seeing something and knowing what not to do, trying to avoid something, reacting to a specific way of thought or working by doing the opposite, etc.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

It’s changing all the time. Since I have been traveling around 225 days/year the last couple of years, it has been really hard to establish any kind of routine. I use a computer for notating, and depending on the project, sometimes also for composing (with samples, never midi). I think it’s a good ping pong technique for me to make some things audible on the computer and leave other stuff for the phantasy at the desk. Often I work out the material, listen to it, get to know it, experiment with instruments or devices, and then I use my memory and phantasy at the desk. No one way, though, seems different every time. Using more and more time thinking about concept and setup before actually starting the practical work, though …

Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip. 

Chambered Music (2007): “chambered”, as in compartmentalized and as in a limited or even locked up space.  The piece consists of “chambered” musical elements in various interpretations of the word.

Special things in the setup: 

The pianist plays a sampler in the middle of the ensemble. A small speaker is placed inside a closed piano (without a player), through which is played sounds of a piano played inside (on the strings, on the metal frame, etc.) and the sounds of a muffled voice as if heard through a thick wall or a big pillow. The unrecognizable text is an excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s diary, talking about the life as a prisoner. At one point in the middle of the piece, the voice gradually gets clearer for a few seconds, making understandable the words “in any prisoners life”. 

Another speaker is placed at the right stage front, and through this speaker is only played sounds recorded inside a speaker. The speaker finally gets to represent itself or at least its own kind, so to speak… 

The trombone player is sitting off-stage, so far away and with so many walls or doors between him and the audience, that even though he is playing as loud as possible, it is only just audible in the hall, matching the very soft dynamics of the violin. The trombone player follows the conductor with a live video-feed. 

The beginning of the piece is rather loud, dense and confident, and the instruments are obviously connected by the sounds and tones, that they play together. The piece later gets extremely soft, transparent and fragile, and the very movements of the instrumentalists get to be more and more important, eventually being the “main theme” connecting the instruments and the musical lines. In the middle of the piece there is a kind of “movement cadenza”, where most of the instruments perform a “visual unison”. 

Examples of chambered musical elements (apart from the locked up trombone and speaker inside the piano): 

Short loops as a kind of confined time. A piccolo trumpet with a practice mute (almost closing the trumpet, making it an air chamber), constantly playing a high tone, which needs such a high pressure, that, when the tone is stopped, the air bursts out of the player – sounding even louder than the tone he played. A percussion player plays on the locks of an old suitcase, changing the music as it opens and closes. The percussion players cover jam glasses with the palms of their hands, making a “vacuum sound” when suddenly lifting the hands. Insulated boxes with metronomes making (inaudible) tuning tones and rhythms through the whole piece are played on by opening and closing the lid, revealing the sound inside. 

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