Knut Nystedt-- an early minimalist?

Spiritual minimalism is a term used to describe the musical compositions of a number of late-twentieth-century and early twenty-first century composers of Western classical music. These compositions tend to have simplified musical materials—a strong foundation in functional tonality or modality; simple, repetitive melodies; straightforward, unchanging meters-- compared with the serial, experimental, often extremely complicated styles which had been the prevailing practice in the preceding years. This seeming look backward has been labeled neo-romanticism and post-modernism by some, as it seems to return to the lyricism of the nineteenth century. Most of these composers focus on an explicitly religious orientation, and look to Renaissance and medieval sacred music for inspiration, as well as to the liturgical music of the eastern orthodox churches. Three of these composers-- Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Górecki-- have had remarkable popular success, being featured on CDs which have sold, worldwide, by the millions. Despite being grouped together, these composers work independently and have very distinct styles, and tend to dislike being labeled with the term “spiritual minimalist;” they are by no means a "school" of close-knit associates. Their widely differing nationalities, religious backgrounds, and compositional inspirations make the term problematic; nonetheless, it is in widespread use, perhaps for lack of a better term.

Knut Nystedt

Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (1915-2014) is the earliest composer to be represented on Chorale’s November concerts. He composed the motet we will sing, Audi, in 1968, as one movement of a larger, orchestrated oratorio, Lucis Creator Optime, and then adapted it for a cappella choir. His name does not usually appear in a listing of minimalist composers—he was very much a regional phenomenon, a Norwegian church musician who listed Aaron Copeland as his principal teacher.

But the evidence at hand—the musical nature of Nystedt’s compositions-- tells an interesting story, and one which for me sheds light on essential characteristics the minimalist composers share. Though predating the seminal figures of this compositional trend by some twenty years, Nystedt clearly pursued many of the same ideals and goals. Like them, he composed primarily choral settings of biblical and liturgical texts, and did so with an ear for sonorous combinations of sounds which would enhance the emotionality of the texts through relatively simple means- short, repeated melodic phrases and motifs, which build and subside through layering techniques which at first glance seem surprisingly simple; cool, traditional harmonic colors; slow-moving and unvarying rhythms. And above all, fidelity to the sacred texts he has chosen-- as a composer for Christian worship, he sought appropriate colors for presenting text to his listeners as emotion and transcendence, rather than as rational explication. He claimed the sacred music of Palestrina as his principle inspiration, but delved deeply into modern techniques of musical expression.

There is something subtly but very clearly “northern” about Nystedt’s music—a plainness, a coolness with interjections of warmth (more cool than warm), a particular combination of light and dark (far more dark than light) which I hear in all of the music we will present in this concert—and which seems an essential characteristic of this minimalist “school,” close-knit or not. In my ears, Audi sounds like the souls of the damned, lost and alone and crying out in space, up with the Northern lights-- a quality I hear as well in Pärt’s music, particularly, and in that of other, far younger composers represented on our program. I hope you will come and hear it—this is undoubtedly some of the best choral music currently being written, and we are thrilled to be presenting it.