Music review: Hans Abrahamsen’s ‘Schnee’ at Monday Evening Concerts in Zipper Concert Hall


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For Monday Evening Concerts –- snug and comfy in its splendid current digs, the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall -– its season ended Monday with what looked on paper to be a chilly evening of music. The sole piece on the program was “Schnee” (“Snow”), the magnum opus of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, once a proponent of what the Danes called their “New Simplicity” movement (which arrived at roughly the same time as minimalism did here).

A snowy day is mostly a silent experience; you can’t hear snow falling, only the occasional rustle of accumulated frozen crystals falling off a tree branch or the howl of the wind. With that in mind, “Schnee” made its strongest impression not as a winter landscape but as something closer to Abrahamsen’s original vision –- how time seems to speed up as one gets older.


Grasping the structure is the key to unlocking this extraordinary piece. There are 10 canonic movements distributed in pairs, each pair shorter in duration than its predecessor, with the second canon in each coupling elaborating on the first one. In between are three intermezzos in which the strings and winds play sustained microtones; they sound like they are tuning up.

The first canon seems to go on endlessly in light, spare scrapings and tinklings -– more icy than snowy -– but stay with it, and you are rewarded with more and more content and activity. With its shaking of bells and swooping glides, the fourth pair of canons produces a welter of color reminiscent of Boulez’s later works (ironic since the “New Simplicity” was a rebellion against Boulezian complexity), and the tiny final canons, with dripping piano notes, form a touching wintry epilogue. The further you go in the piece, the more it tightens its grip.

The nine-piece ensemble, led by Michel Galante, took nearly 68 minutes to play the piece (there is a YouTube performance that lasts 59 minutes), reveling in Zipper Hall’s ability to project slow, growling bass notes from the pianos and delicate swishing rhythms from Amy Knoles’ percussion setup.

“Schnee” was preceded by Rick Bahto’s silent film for three Super 8 projectors, “Cave Creek. Winter Canon. 2011”; alas, only two of the projectors were operating, so one must forgo comment.

-– Richard S. Ginell