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The Essay
Show #176
Carl A.'s Todestagundflockefeier
David Gunn

It's difficult for some snooty musical literati to accept the fact that perhaps no one had more of an influence on the compositional avant-garde when it really needed a shot in the arm than Carl A. Nielsen, and when he died in the first trimester of the 20th century, a burgeoning school of experimental music died with him. During the day, Carl A wrote rhapsodies for string bands, massive autoharp concerti, and intricate flute etudes to be played while riding bicycles, giving the music of his day a conservative but open-minded, humanely cosmopolitan stamp. But at night he eagerly shed his post-romantic mantle and got down with tunes so far out in their surreality they made the Dadaists blush. He once built an orchestra with found instruments constructed of indigenous minerals. Another time he wired six Norwegian whaling spoons together and stuck one end in a wall socket. As the electric current alternated between a piercingly high-pitched whistle and a hum too low for humans to hear but strong enough to cause hemorrhaging of the stomach lining, he briefly discovered a predecessor to electronic music before blowing all of the fuses in the neighborhood. Carl A's piano trios were not so much atonal as they were anti-tonal, battling all major and minor key centers to the death. With a wacky sense of timing and penchant for disrobing, he turned scholarly dissertations into performance art. For years he carved out an iconoclastic niche with his nighttime musical highjinks, and for years his abashed colleagues, preferring the more decorous Scandinavian demeanor that fellow native composer Butch Buxtehude exemplified, tried to suppress him. They were successful ... for a while. Eventually his widow, the sculptor Anne Broderson, determined to depict Carl A's life and work through her medium. Abetted by her step-cousin, the wily Gutzon Borglum -- who regular listeners to the show will recall from 154 essays ago was the artist who carved the busts of four US presidents presently on Mount Rushmore, after they were refused by the Flederer Traveling Circus, an itinerant comedy group for which they had been commissioned -- the Widow Broderson chiseled 199 images of Carl A in various stages of his life, including writing a wind quintet, conducting the Danish Fishing Band, snoozing through a university lecture, and taking out the trash. The result was a monumental work that is still the most visited exhibit in the north wing of the Sjaelland National Rebus Museum.

This weekend, Nielsenophiles from around the world will flock to Skagen on Skagerrak in north Denmark to mark the 67th anniversary of Carl A's death, or Siebenundsechzig Todestagundflockefeier. And flock is the operative word here, because scores of seamsters traditionally compete in le flambeau oriange, the waste wool pillow stuffing contest to make a cushion that most closely resembles the familiar paunch of the late tunesmith. Other events mirror a life growing up in the home of a blue-collar worker dad who painted houses the way his step-cousin Edvard Munch painted wide-eyed clowns on velvet. A community soldering bee celebrates his invention of fusible lead alloy, eponymously patented as the hugely successful "Solder of Fortune," the royalties from which funded more than a few youthful indiscretions. Another event, the hurling of the Scandinavian summer beets into the North Sea, symbolizes his predilection for throwing notes cut out of card stock up into the air. Wherever they landed on his bedroom floor, whose linoleum cracks formed unmistakable bass and treble clef patterns, was where he usually found the theme for his next piece.

The theme for this piece of musical legerdemain, i.e. the 176th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, is, however, found not in Denmark or Dada, neither solder nor Scandinavian sodbusters, but rather in a nine-year old book soon to come to the attention of you, our listening audients, not to mention the momentarily mystified Kalvos.