Allgén and the heavenly

In his book Sade/Fourier/Loyola, Roland Barthes writes a fascinating analysis of Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (Exercitia spiritualia). Barthes focuses his attention on the rhetorical aspect of Loyola’s “technique”: language as an all-encompassing, absorbing system, spirituality as an expression of a sort of language neurosis.

The interesting thing about Barthes’ text is its focus on the motoric and repetitive characteristics of Loyola’s system. The minute instructions for the religious life, with its unending list of classifications and functional hierarchies, has the look of something like a linguistic mania, a neurotic urge to articulate the world down to its smallest details.

The “self” in Loyola’s world is plastic and shifting, it alters itself, is reduced and expanded along its own axle of time. And it is this obsession that fascinates Barthes: the idea of the world as an incredibly huge filing system, a labyrinthine hodgepodge of meaning and convictions.

“The ascetic material is not only cut up and extremely articulated, it is also put into a discursive system consisting of comments, notes, points, prologues, preparations, repetitions, retakes, and mergers, which taken together create the strongest forms of resistance. The obsessive aspect of Exercises shines through in the passion that is communicated to the practitioner: as soon as an object, real or imagined, appears, it is broken down, reduced to its smallest parts, and numbered.” (Pp. 69–70 in the English edition.)

Claude-Loyola Allgén, born in 1920, was christened Klas-Thure but changed his name to Claude Johannes when he converted to Catholicism in 1950. Loyola was added later in connection with his Catholic confirmation, where one is given a guardian angel. Allgén studied theology at the Jesuit university Canisianum, in Innsbruck, from 1953–55 and from 1957–61, but never became a priest.

Barthes’ analysis provides a surprising segue to the music of the Swedish composer. Much of what Barthes describes as abnormalities in Loyola’s system – comments that grow past all boundaries, and an extreme, almost neurotic richness of detail – also comes into play in Allgén’s music. I believe that the reason that many deem his music impossible, both to perform and to listen to, is a lack of understanding of the inner forces that impel music. They have quite simply judged the music using the wrong system of measures.

“The point of Loyola’s spiritual technique was to implacably fight vagueness and emptiness,” writes Barthes. The last piece that Allgén completed, a saxophone quartet, was in fact called Horror vacui (Fear of Emptiness), and in many ways, this title summed up his compositional achievements. The original manuscript was unfortunately part of the material that was lost when Allgén so tragically lost his life in a fire at his home on September 18, 1990.

Allgén was obsessed by polyphonic thinking, an obsession that could be compared with Glenn Gould’s (I cannot help wondering what would have happened if Gould had taken on Allgén’s piano works, such as the extremely virtuoso Fantasia from the middle of the 1950s; how this would have contributed to an understanding of his music!).

When I interviewed Allgén at a Chinese restaurant in Borås during the fall of 1989, a few hours before the first ever portrait concert of his music, he returned again and again to the importance of polyphony:

“I think polyphonically, in parts,” he said. “The key to polyphony lies in writing independent voices. This is why Bach was not, in my opinion, a really good polyphonist; he concentrated too much on the harmonies. On the other hand, I highly respect both Palestrina’s and Carl Nielsen’s abilities to write polyphonically.”

Allgén definitely had an eccentric way of expressing himself. He spoke in a forced and jumpy manner, hopping seemingly illogically from subject to subject, sometimes repeating things almost word for word that he had said only a short while earlier. But after a while, I discovered a logic in his manner of associating things, a sort of private polyphony in which his thoughts ran about like voices in counterpoint. Each time he came back to something he had said earlier, a small detail was added, his weave of thoughts became tighter. That which above all made an impression on me after our talk was not what he said as much as the clarity of his gaze. There was something immutable and strangely concentrated in Allgén’s gestalt that shone through in spite of the jumpiness of his formulations. Like when he described his views on music and music’s relationship with spirituality:

“Much of what I have written is sacred music, mostly choral music. But my music has no specific spiritual content. One can, however, say that I have written music out of my love for the liturgy. Music can never express something specific; it can never say yes or no. This is something that both musicians and listeners have a difficult time understanding. Most musicians are emotional people, and they believe that that which they experience is true. But music cannot have a specific message. Take for example Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathetique; one read almost anything into that music. ‘Program music?’ No, I do not believe in it.”

Allgén’s music is like an invocation of time. Over its course (many of his works are extremely long), small changes in the structure take place: the order becomes more and more palpable, the musical events more and more complicated. The span of the material is always on its way towards breaking the framework of the music, and what drives the music onwards is a will to fill the emptiness, to let the tonal material swell and swell. It is a music without an ending point, where each rewriting is followed by a new rewrite, where moments are stored in and on one another in the tightest and most contradictory ways.

The most lasting impression of the portrait concert in Borås was the colossal hoard of material (during the concert, 17 works by Allgén were presented, of which 13 were premieres.). Mats Persson’s interpretation of the piano work Ave Maris Stella, from 1962, made the strongest impression on me. It is a highly expressive music, filed with obscure quotes and associations that go in several different directions: Mozart, Busoni, Scriabin, Schönberg. The collision of styles creates an ephemeral music – splinters and fragments of memories, jumbled together. That which holds the work together is the strictness of expression; the music is not in the least ironic or sentimental.

The true proof of Allgén’s genius came to me in 1994, however, when Anna Lindal premiered Allgén’s monumental Sonata for solo violin, from 1989 (the concert took place at the Borås Art Museum, and one week later, Lindal performed the work at Fylkingen in Stockholm). The sonata’s unbelievable length of more than two hours gave one a unique opportunity to experience the hypnotic “Allgén time.”

Of course, there are many composers before Allgén who have researched the possibilities for shifting our judgment of time: Bach, Bruckner, Mahler, and Satie, to name a few examples, not to mention Cage, Feldman, La Monte Young, Terry Riley. But in the same manner as Allgén? No, no one has composed in this way before. The composer that comes closest to a comparison would possibly be Busoni, whose compositions, like Allgén’s, were marked by a constant reworking, and where the length of the works could sometimes reach monstrous levels.

“For me, the connection with Busoni has become more natural the more I devote myself to Allgén’s music,” says the pianist Mats Persson. “There are similarities in their way of working with cross-pollinations, in the reworking of older material that pops up again in new mutations. The first version of Allgén’s Fantasia was written during the summer of 1955 in an attempt to write a truly virtuoso piano piece. Then, it was about 20 minutes long, but Allgén rewrote the piece several times, and each time, the work swelled and became more complex. The same thing happened with Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica. He rewrote and rewrote until he felt that he had finally reached a definitive version. Not a chance. He then wrote two more versions.”

There are also certain similarities with the music of Charles Ives, above all in their attitude towards creation. A final version never really exists in their music; the works are a part of a work in progress, something one takes part in throughout one’s life. Naturally, such an open relationship towards creation contrasts greatly with the demands for finished works made by the established musical society. And this might be part of the reason that Allgén’s music has been pushed into the shadows, as well as its demands for creativity in the interpreter. In the violin sonata, this element of participation becomes quite clear. It is an oddly irresistible piece: time itself is shackled, gestures are laid bare and become transparent, the interpreter can in no way hide behind his technique or his manner of reading the musical text.

And the wonderful thing about Anna Lindal’s interpretation when she performed the work in Borås was precisely this humanization of the music, the spirituality and concrete character of the playing. During the concert, I was reminded several times of a Cage quote that refers in turn to Schönberg:
“That which characterizes this work is a repetition, in the same way that Schönberg characterized the inner soul of music as repetition. Even variation is repetition, said Schönberg, some things change, others do not.” (John Cage: I–V , 1990).

In the violin sonata, Allgén works with an eccentric and quite unpredictable repetitive technique. Certain fragments and key phrases return again and again, but never according to any decided principle of order. Even though one recognizes some of the tonal material, it never sounds the same. The music in the violin sonata is subordinate to the plasticity of time: the material’s successive expansion, and the backwards time of the ornaments. The constantly new angles and reworkings create after the fact a feeling of a collapse of the course of time itself.

The first movement, almost an hour in length, serves to sink us into a sort of slow-motion time. We hear a shadowy unveiling of an earlier material, a music that has already sounded. What makes the piece so gripping is not least this feeling of ephemeral memory: a wrinkle in time, an opening into a secret nucleus. There is an odd echo of above all the Romantic violin repertoire in the sonata, a sort of mirroring of the Sibelius, Bruch, Mendelssohn, and Brahms violin concertos, but without any form of sweetness added. What is left is the actual expressiveness, the speaking voice of the violin.

When I talk with Anna Lindal about her interpretive work, she speaks of how the piece freed up her playing style more and more: there are apparently hidden reservoirs one can dig up.

“It probably has to do with my own stylistic development. I have long had a rather Puritan attitude towards violin playing, for example when it comes to using glissandi. But during the past year, I have begun to search for a more singing, Romantic-melodic style of playing. Quite simply, I have started connecting notes more, which was probably an absolute necessity in the Allgén sonata. It would have been absolutely impossible to play otherwise, for example, when the same melody ranged over several octaves. But at first, when I got the material, it looked to be an impossible project: the music was totally incomprehensible. It took several months of practice before it started to sound like music at all.”

What do the difficulties consist of? The first obstacle to get past is Allgén’s handwriting; it is extremely unclear and difficult to read, not least because of all the double sharps. This will never work, thought Anna when she saw the manuscript. In the back of her mind, she also had memories of the failed attempt by Björn Nilsson to get Trio des Lyres to take on Allgén’s two-hour long string trio from 1975 (Nilsson is the driving force behind the society Ny musik (New Music) in Borås, and it is he who has dug up all these unknown works by Allgén).

This time, however, Björn Nilsson promised to write a more easily readable copy of the sonata. When Anna Lindal looked through it, she realized that it would be necessary to write fingerings for the entire work, which itself took several months (among other things, she spent an entire tour with Drottningholm’s Baroque Ensemble writing fingerings on bus trips and in hotel rooms). After that came the real hard work: all the angst-filled attempts to understand the form of the work. But after a while, the structures became clearer, she grew with the material, and was drawn more and more into its flow. And finally, it became irresistible.

“I am probably most fascinated by the melodic power of the piece,” says Anna Lindal. ”It has an outstanding purity, and is never vulgar. Even though the expressiveness is rather strict, there is also something lively and full-blooded in the music. When people ask me how it sounds, I usually compare it to Schönberg, because of the melodies and the connections between notes. I have played Schönberg’s Phantasy for violin (opus 47, from 1949), and we in Trio des Lyres have attempted to play Schönberg and Webern in an ‘old,’ ‘period’ manner. And the odd thing about the Allgén sonata is that it leads directly to this form of playing. But even though the work has become much clearer to me, I cannot in any way say that this is a comprehensive interpretation. And one wonders how one would go about achieving that; it is almost impossible to get an overview of such a monumental material. Whatever one does, it remains a ‘work in progress’.”

What is it about Allgén’s music that fascinates Björn Nilsson so much? What is it that makes him say that “he will probably turn out to be the greatest and most distinctive composer that Sweden has ever produced”?

“I know of no other Swedish composer who has both developed such a personal tonal language and kept such a servile attitude towards Music,” says Björn Nilsson. As early as the song Gudinna (Goddess), from the end of the 1930s, Allgén experimented with a form of minimalism. It has a sort of perpetual motion piano accompaniment that goes around and around, much like the music of Satie. At the beginning of the 1940s, Allgén began writing music with astonishingly complex structures, such as the orchestral work Les impressions de Poculectelocte and the four-part choral piece Et verbum caro factum est, where each voice has its own tempo. At around the same time, he began working with stylistic collages, a technique in which he clips into and out from the material, in a for the time quite advanced manner. If one compares him to the other members of the Monday Group, to which Allgén belonged towards the end of the 1940s, the others wrote far more conventional music. Blomdahl might have been more technically brilliant than Allgén, but Blomdahl’s music also had more of the feel of a perfect school exam.”

When I interviewed Allgén in Borås, he did his best to tone down the importance of the Monday Group:

“There is a widely held misunderstanding about what we actually did,” he said. “We have been given far too large a halo. We met and drank coffee in Karl-Birger’s one-room apartment at Drottninggatan 106, nothing more. I was taking some extra lessons in melodic work from Blomdahl and appreciated him greatly, both as a teacher and as a composer. But he was also a careerist, and plowed forward like a steamroller when he started working as a musical administrator. On the other hand, he died the death of a careerist, getting a heart attack!”

When I ask Björn Nilsson if he feels that Allgén’s music has religious overtones, he answers that “religious” is probably the wrong word. He did, however, find the music to be spiritual.

“When I imagine the way music might sound in heaven, I hear two kinds of music. One is the La Monte Young type, where time stands totally still. The other is like the music of Allgén and Christian Wolff, where there is a constant chaos, but where one can see an higher order beyond the complications. I believe that several of Allgén’s larger choral works, like Super Flumina Babylonis and Ante Luciferum, can sound truly heavenly, but they are also incredibly difficult to perform. But aside from this spiritual element, I also like the unreserved banality in Allgén’s music. It happens often that one asks oneself if it really is allowed to write like that. First you are surprised, but then you smile to yourself and say, ‘of course one can write like that!’ The Fantasia for piano is one of those works; it is extremely splintered, going from the most complex to the most banal. This is what was so special about Allgén; he actually chose to cave in to his banal tendencies. He used the music that he heard, no matter what character it happened to have.

Mats Persson, too, feels that the music’s greatness has to do with this relationship to the material, the attitude that “you can also make music with what you find on the street.”

But he says also that he, just like Anna Lindal, has had enormous problems reading the manuscripts when he worked with Fantasia. This is especially true in the development section in the middle, which goes on for fifteen minutes without the slightest pause for breath. In an attempt to tame the manuscript, Mats Persson used white-out and slowly made the notes more legible. And slowly, the genius of the music has also become clearer to him: the incredible richness of ideas and creativity, the manifest conviction with which Allgén develops his motives and counterpoints.

“The harmonic complexity in the Fantasia reminds one to a certain extent of Reger in his chromatically most advanced works,” says Mats Persson, “with the difference that Reger’s music has a tonal anchor; there is in spite of everything a relationship between the voices and the harmonic development. In Allgén’s music, this relationship is broken, among other reasons due to the consequences of his polyphony: vertically, the same tone may not appear in two voices simultaneously, since the voices must be totally independent.”

The impressive thing about the Fantasia is its almost inhuman density. Other pieces have a similar level of complexity, of course, but usually just for a few measures at a time. Here, it runs continuously for an hour. It is a work that should be played at a dizzying, exalted tempo, which gives the music an unusually high threshold of entry. But beyond the complexities, one senses something that is truly great.


Magnus Haglund
Nutida Musik No.4, 1994