The Henning Christiansen Archive 1960-1980


The Henning Christiansen Archive reflects a series of groundbreaking developments in the Danish and international art scene during the 1960s and 1970s. The most important and enduring of these is the hybridization of the art forms. Since the 1960s, distinctions between music, visual arts, literature and so forth no longer make sense. The very fact that a composer’s archive is suited to shedding light on developments in visual arts during this period illustrates how quickly and completely the boundaries between the art forms were dismantled during this time.

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For Christiansen, this profound transformation began with an encounter with Fluxus in 1962. At the time, he was already regarded one of the most radical composers in Denmark, but his position was influenced, in particular, by his immediate and intense engagement with the latest advances in music; something that also characterizes other radical young composers, including Per Nørgaard, Ib Nørholm and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. All four men were members of the board for DUT (Det Unge Tonekunstnerselskab, Young Composers’ Society), which made a big effort during the 1960s to bring the latest musical trends to a Danish audience. This included the work of the Korean composer Nam June Paik, whose works from this time are best characterized as ‘action music’; the American artists Robert and Simone Morris, who worked at the intersection of music, dance and visual art; and Fluxus, which included a number of international artists whose production explored the borderland between different genres of art as well as that between art and everyday life.

After almost two years of experimenting with mainly textual scores, Christiansen returned to traditional musical notes. His Op. 25, To PLAY to-DAY, composed in 1964, with its original performance on 1 February 1966 on DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) radio, was a transitional piece, which he called his ‘farewell to Fluxus’. The piece varies between text and brief musical passages with an almost anecdotal character, and the style of these musical passages became characteristic of his production over the following years. The time from 1964 to 1969 are characterized by close collaboration with the Eksperimenterende Malerskole, also known as Eks-skolen (Experimental Art School or simply the Ex School), especially with the poet Hans-Jørgen Nielsen and the visual artist Bjørn Nørgaard. Eks-skolen’s experiments with action art included ‘demonstrations’ of basic issues in relation to painting or sculpture. Christiansen worked in particular with ‘the grand form’ (his own term): the basic building blocks of musical composition. This made him a prominent representative of ‘The New Simplicity’, with his Op. 28, Perceptive Constructions II (1964, original performance in 1965) as the best-known example.

For Christiansen, the 1960s were also characterized by a close collaboration with the German artist Joseph Beuys. The two men had met at a Fluxus festival in Aachen in 1964 and staged joint performances from 1966 to 1971. At first glance, Beuys’s actions, with their emphasis on materials and symbolism, may seem the polar opposite of Christiansen’s pared-down compositions, but their respective approaches came together at the formal structural level of the action as well as at the thematic level, driven by a shared conviction of the need for fundamental societal change. For Christiansen, this thematic focus was manifested in a desire to create music that was not driven by the composer’s ego – brilliant compositions that only a connoisseur could appreciate – but by a clear structure that can be decoded by anyone. This focus was also manifested in his long-standing involvement with Beuys’s Deutsche Studentenpartei (German Students Party), a political ‘party’ for anyone interested in continuing their development rather than conforming to pre-existing patterns.

In 1970, Christiansen moved to the Danish island of Møn and embarked on a new phase in his own development. His challenge now was to determine how he could prevent indignation at formal innovations from overshadowing the intention of the pieces. His solution was to embrace traditional compositional techniques and familiar musical forms, such as waltz. He became an active member of the Danish Communist Party, joined the campaign against the EEC, the European Economic Community (now EU), wrote political songs and stage plays and was a vocal opponent of mainstream popular culture. He composed musical scores for several TV series, including ‘Den forsvundne fuldmægtig’ (The Missing Clerk) (1971) and ‘Den otteøjede skorpion’ (The Eight-Eyed Scorpion) (1979), both based on novels by the Danish author Hans Scherfig, who was a personal friend of Christiansen’s. He also experimented with a format he called ‘Concertorama’, a mix of film, music and theatre that sought to achieve the direct appeal of cinematic film. In the archive, this turn is reflected in a significant expansion of his network, which now came to include activists, theatre, film and TV people and representatives of the left-wing art scene in Denmark, including the poet Eske K. Mathiesen.