John Persen grew up with the Northern Lights flickering across the winter sky. Perhaps they were his most important source of inspiration for the cluster-type music he started composing in the 1970s.
If you were to write a biography of John Persen today, it would have to contain several conflicting statements. A composer who came from the most remote region you could imagine in terms of cultural hegemony, he became one of this culture’s main challengers and innovators. However, he was never regarded as a spokesman for Arctic culture, precisely because he did not pass it on in the form of regional romanticism.
He is also a composer who sought education as an adult and became a leading supporter of the position of modernism in Norwegian music at a time when this term was regarded as a swear word. In other words, John Persen’s artistic development confirms Hans Werner Henze’s thesis that all true innovation takes place outside the main centres.
John Persen does not like talking about his music. In fact he avoids talking about it to such an extent that he almost raises his comments to the level of meta comments. For example, all he said about the piece et cetera was “etc, etc, etc”. His comments are not meta-comments on the music but rather on music commentary as a genre.
His long development process can be summarised as follows:
John Persen wins the composition competition for the Oslo Concert Hall with CSV, an orchestral work in Polish cluster style, the title of which really means “Dare to show that you are a Same” (i.e. one of the indigenous Sami people who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia). A previous work with the same title is really a six-part canon based on a joik (a Sami chant), a work that was never performed but was really the original foundation for the work. At this stage of his life, it must be regarded as an important point of reference, since it is unlikely that Persen feels assimilated into city culture at this time.
Persen begins work on a major opera about the Sami uprising in Kautokeino in 1852, a work that is to take ten years of his productive life.
Persen conducts amateur choirs and works intensely with Afro-Cuban music and large rhythm orchestras.
With Jøran Rudi, he begins experimenting with electronic music and synthesizers at home, a process that culminates with the record Ting tar tid (Things Take Time) and reveals Persen’s entirely new musical aesthetic. Gone is the thick, dense orchestral movement of earlier works. The music is now far lighter, more oriented towards the domain of time (horizontal) than vertical.
Persen sends the opera score to the Norwegian National Opera, which, however, decides not to perform it. Fragments of the orchestral movement are subsequently performed by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and we discover that Persen has almost composed himself into heightened consciousness in the course of the ten-year composition process.
1990: Persen has experimented his way to a new compositional style based on his experiences from both electro-acoustic and Afro-Cuban music and realises it in the work et cetera, written for the Cikada chamber ensemble. The piece is already regarded as a modern classic and is one of the most played Norwegian chamber works of the last decade, both at home and abroad.
In et cetera, it is the small, rhythmic displacements that constitute the substance of the work. Minutely developed motivistic cells are slowly displaced within an extremely rapid rhythmical structure so that the musical progression almost takes place on two levels. Persen has therefore also managed to create a balance in relation to the classical concepts of perception and, in a way, his music is an element of the current debate about how we, as listeners, are able to comprehend the structures of contemporary music. A work like et cetera transcends the musicians’ efforts and becomes an auditive experience in which the audience becomes conscious of the primacy of the rhythmical structure.
In the beginning, most of the musical community did not understand what the essence of his new compositional style had become and Persen was even regarded as a minimalist, which he denied. The further development of his work has clearly demonstrated that it is not a matter of minimalism. The simplification Persen undertakes lies primarily in the composition process itself, where he creates material that is simple, transparent and consistent which he then exposes to numerous permutations. From this point of view, you could just as well call his style fractal geometry without the laws of mathematics because the principle of identity permeates his thinking.
Persen would never have arrived at the view that the audience needs simple music, and in any case any musician will confirm that his works are far from simple to perform. One classic example is the phone call he received from a symphony orchestra which, in spite of his urgent warnings, had put one of his works on the programme and had to admit during the rehearsal period that it was unable to play it. The following conversation is said to have taken place in this connection:
Conductor: Can you accept us playing your work at half speed?
Persen: What else is on the programme?
Conductor: Well, it includes Beethoven’s Fifth.
Persen: If you also play Beethoven’s Fifth at half speed, that’s OK by me.
Understandably enough, the orchestra chose to do the best it could and, equally understandably, Persen chose not to attend a depressing performance.
It is, perhaps, precisely in the light of experiences such as these that Persen has put so much effort into artistic development in the last decade, first by establishing the Ultima Festival and then by re-organising the Oslo Sinfonietta. In both cases, he has managed to invest all his influence and ability in the process and has achieved the miracle of laying the foundations for two prominent new institutions in Norwegian musical life in less than ten years.
For most of us, just one aspect of his life’s work would have been more than enough.