Well, Would You?

Somewhere recently, and I’ve forgotten where, I read an essay by a Cage fan so avid that he had gone to some trouble to secure a recording of the piece Quantitäten (1958) by the Swedish composer Bo Nilsson, just because of a joking reference Cage had made to it. In his lecture “Composition as Process,” Cage repeats over and over at intervals, as kind of a refrain, the question, “Would you like to hear Quantitäten by Bo Nilsson whether it’s performed for the first time or not?” I chuckled, because I’ve always, thanks to Cage, had a humorous association with that piece myself, though I didn’t remember having ever heard it.

Well, I’ve been wallowing naked in all my old vinyl lately, and I ran across Quantitäten on a record of Scandinavian piano music played by Elisabeth Klein. I disremember whether Fanfare sent me the disc for review, or whether I bought it for Per Nørgard’s powerful and imaginative Second Sonata on the flip side (I used to be a big Nørgard fan, but we don’t hear much about him in the U.S. these days). The liner notes mention that Quantitäten contains 85 different time-values; I have no earthly idea why the composer would consider this important. In any case, others may have a similar curiosity, which I feel compelled to gratify. And so:

Would you like to hear Quantitäten by Bo Nilsson whether it’s uploaded for the first time or not? If so, click here.


  1. says

    Norgard has made more theoretical discoveries than any other single composer of the 20th century. The neglect of him outside Denmark (it’s not just the U.S.) is obscene.
    KG replies: Please do continue, if so moved. He seems rather amazing to me.

  2. says

    Thanks for lighting up everyone’s day with that perfectly lovely music, Kyle! Messiaen had his 64 durations in “Livre d’orgue,” so I guess young Bo was showing him who had the bigger quantity. He was plucked to stardom by Boulez when he was only 19 — hopefully he was at least very cute or something.

  3. says

    For an overview of Norgard’s innovations, one can see The Music of Per Norgard: Fourteen Interpretative Essays (Scolar Press, 1996). It only goes up to 1994 or so, so it came too early to cover his recent interest in hither-to unexplored aspects of the infinity series, but all in all it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about this sadly underappreciated genius. For some reason, you can buy marked-down copies through Amazon’s 3rd-party sellers. I got one for $10, still in its wrapping. Would that this poor student find such bargains in academic publishing more often.
    There’s also PerNorgaard.dk, which is a rather unpolished but substantial explication of his works and techniques. I’m pissed off at the site’s creators, since they refused my offer to update the site to better HTML and re-engrave the musical samples to something that’s actually readable, but the site is a good resource.

  4. Adam I. says

    Why is there so much pretension in music of the educated? Perhaps I don’t get it. Is it the norm, or maybe a sphere o’ influence thing, or just for show? I’m reaching. I don’t know. Thanks.
    Actually, whatev, it could be simply common interests. Who am I?
    KG replies: Boy, if I could answer that one, I’d have a “genius” award for sure. But I suspect it’s a little like asking why rich people buy so much.

  5. says

    Adam, what about this: by divine plan there is a place for all of music on God’s earth, and since the uneducated mostly don’t want the pretentious music, it ends up with the educated.

  6. Peter says

    I heard Elisabeth Klein in some of her regular piano concerts in recent years at the Music Department at the University of Liverpool, UK. I don’t know if she lived nearby. In any case, she is sadly missed.

  7. says

    It’s actually a very beautiful piece! (at least, to my taste – but I’m a 50’s orthodox-Darmstadt fan – almost all serial music from that period sounds as pleasant and entertaining to me as the better baroque music). I enjoyed reading Music Downtown, btw – I think it’s a marvelous and very important book.

  8. Paul Beaudoin says

    Hi everyone:
    Okay, so we wonder how Cage “knew” Bo Nilsson’s Quantitaten. Turns out to be something that David Tudor was playing between 1956 and 1962 (certainly “mainstream” repertoire). Nilsson’s “serially” structured piano work has a surface that sounds like many of the American piano pieces from the same period. Under different circumstances I could imagine that Feldman’s Intersection 3 could have had a similar sounding surface.

  9. says

    I’m happy to announce that Per Norgaard will be coming to San Francisco in December as part of Other Minds 12. We too agree that he has long been neglected (e.g. never performed by the SF Symphony .. on second thought, that’s not that unusual). Unfortunatly we can’t manage any of his extraordinary orchestral pieces, but I think some of his pieces for chamber chorus and maybe a quartet is in the offerings. More about OM 12 later.

  10. says

    Um, maybe I’m just revealing my lack of refined pretentiousness here, but I found this piece totally generic — pretty only insofar as any piece written in that style would be sort of blandly pretty.
    Also, the short answer to “Why is there so much pretension in music of the educated?” is “it’s a subtle form of class warfare and self-justification in an environment where the notion that the upper class is objectively superior to the middle and lower classes is not sufficiently supported by the culture at large to satisfy the need of the upper-class to feel justified in its sense of superiority.” And rich people buy so much in part because they can afford stuff and everybody wants stuff, and in part because they know that if they can afford that stuff it means they’re better than the people who can’t.
    KG replies: Well, I didn’t upload it because I thought it was a wonderful piece, just because everyone who’s read Cage’s Silence has heard of it and few people (in recent decades) have heard it. And what happened to Bo Nilsson, anyway? Google came up with very little.

  11. says

    Kyle — Understood, and I appreciate the value of the opportunity to hear one of those pieces that lots of people have heard of but not many have actually heard. I also appreciated the way in which your posting, including the download, was a sort of performance rather than simply an offering of information.
    I bothered to criticise the piece only because nobody had done so but two people had praised it. And I’m all about “fair and balanced” commentary :)
    KG replies: Hey – I report, you decide.

  12. says

    What happened to him? As far as I can tell, he wrote Quantitaeten, another piece or two, and then essentially dropped off the face of the earth.

    Incidentally, Quantitaeten is also cited, disapprovingly and with the composer’s name misspelled, in Reginald Smith Brindle’s little book The New Music. Smith Brindle criticized its overly meticulous notation in terms of rhythm (where I think Brindle is mistaken) and dynamics (where he certainly is not, given Nilsson’s decision to replace traditional dynamic notation with an essentially meaningless decimal scale).

    I too liked the piece in a sort of generic way, although I must say some gestures – the high chord near the beginning, the swath of arpeggiated chords, the rising figure at the end – strike me as pretty obviously bad decisions.

  13. says

    Some years ago Hat Art released a CD of David Tudor playing various piano pieces, recorded during the 1950s, by Cage, Cardew, Wolff, Pousseur, and Nilsson’s Quantitäten. The one review I read of it began, “Now everyone who has read Cage’s Composition as Process finally gets to hear Quantitäten by Bo Nilsson.”

  14. John Aylward says

    Is Nilsson still alive? My impression is that he died young. I’m a fan of Quantitaten and I think Klein does a great job. Thanks,
    KG replies: Grove Dictionary lists no death date for him, and includes a work as recent as 2001.

  15. Daniel Larsson says

    He certainly is still alive. As it happens, he’s my mom’s cousin, so I’m a fairly reliable source :)