Is Performer a Digger with a Shovel?: A Conversation with Danish Accordionist Andreas Borregaard Interviewer: Mykhailo Chedryk; Corrector: Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Nestled in the quaint town of Huddersfield in northern England, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf//) stands as the preeminent multi-year, international celebration of new and experimental music in Great Britain. This year’s opening concert was a captivating performance featuring Jennifer Walshe’s Personhood

The piece portrays three main characters: The Founder, The Pop Star, and The User. It was interpreted by soloist Andreas Borregaard and Oslo Sinfonietta, seamlessly blending elements of contemporary music, theatre, multimedia, and dance choreography.

This taps into Walshe’s interest in the performer’s body as an essential and co-creating factor beyond operating instruments, brought into play through movement, dance, touch, song, shouts, and screams — a discourse she refers to as ‘The New Discipline’.

Through this material, we aim to delve into a closer understanding of Andreas Borregaard’s performance approach and his impressions of the performing at hcmf//.

— This year at hcmf//, you performed a fascinating piece by Jennifer Walshe, with a lot of dancing, moving, speaking, and singing. Can you tell us a few words about Jennifer Walshe’s Personhood? What do you find specifically beautiful in that piece?

Andreas Borregaard: Well, it’s indeed a fascinating piece — partly because it puts so many new challenges to the musicians – not just the soloist, but also the ensemble musicians… Wearing costumes, having to speak, and performing many different kinds of movements, they create a more complete theatrical understanding of the stage. So it’s a piece that really challenges the musicians to be aware of what they are on stage, what they look like, how they act, how they sit, how they pose.

Of course, the most significant chunk of the performative challenges is put on the soloist, in this case, me; I find this soloist role very fascinating. I think I like to challenge myself, and having worked with Jennifer before on the solo piece Self-Care, a kind of kick-off and inspirational starting point for our collaboration in Personhood. I knew what to expect. But that’s also why I wanted to work with Jennifer again — to work more on these performative aspects. I enjoy diving into the diverse field, where it’s not just about playing an instrument but also using the entire body on stage. 

It’s difficult to choose the most beautiful things about the piece. Also, seeing video documentation footage from the outside — the overall visual impression, the fantastic light design and scenography by Aedín Cosgrove, and everything that happens within the ensemble — it becomes clear that everything is working together. It’s not just a musical piece; it’s definitely not. It is not just a theatre or dance piece either. I mean, I’m not an actor, and I’m not a dancer, but all these elements kind of come together and create this other and different totality, and I think that’s one of the beautiful things about the piece. 

Another is, the whole theme about personhood and about what it means to be a person today, how, in modern society, the notion of personhood and being a person is challenged in many different ways.

The most captivating moment is definitely towards the end, where I’m kind of portraying the third of the “main” characters in the piece, namely The User — which is all of us.

This User is desperately trying to be good and live up to all the expectations and well-meaning advice that society, social media, and everybody is putting on them all the time in order to live a proper life — but instead really being crushed by it. However, it’s difficult to say that one specific thing is the most beautiful. Still, I think that the way everything comes together — the totality of the expression with all the people on stage, this weird setup of a laboratory and me in the middle as a test piece or guinea pig, and the whole visual design, I find that very beautiful. I mean a golden floor is very beautiful, isn’t it?

Andreas Borregaard in Personhood . Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard
Andreas Borregaard in Personhood . Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard

— What is your favourite character in that piece? 

Andreas Borregaard: Well, obviously, of course, it’s The Pop Star. Also, That’s definitely, without a doubt and by far, the most challenging. The text and the choreography are so intricately woven together: there are two other main characters, so to say, The Founder and The User. The Founder was not so difficult, actually, because it’s only text combined with various poses. And it feels quite natural to me to do that, at least after what I’ve practiced and the experience I’ve gained in recent years through my Ph.D. The User was definitely a challenge in having to play the accordion, even though it’s only relatively simple arpeggiated figures or chords, but still: having that running and walking fluently around on stage speaking the text on top of it while reacting to the intensifying shooting sounds from the ensemble and finally coming down to the floor. That’s challenging but it really doesn’t come anywhere near The Pop Star.

I saw on YouTube and your website that there are some recordings of Bach, Piazzolla, and other classical composers. What is your approach to programming your concerts? Do you try to mix classical and contemporary music in your professional life? What is more interesting for you to learn and perform?

Andreas Borregaard: Definitely, I’m interested in both. I don’t think I would be able to continue my level of musical activity without both.  I would become crazy if I only played contemporary music. I would crave a nice melody and beautiful harmonies and creating a good sound on the accordion. On the other hand, when  I’m doing projects with mainly transcriptions of old music — because that’s the thing with the accordion: because the instrument is so young, all the old music we play are transcriptions — after a while, I also crave something more contemporary, some contemporary experimental sounds, modern perspectives on us and the world, material written specifically for the accordion, using the accordion  on its own terms rather than as an instrument playing music written for other instruments. So, for the sake of my own “musical wellbeing”, it’s necessary to mix new and old, but I also think it’s a very nice thing to mix them in concert programmes both for myself and for the sake of the audience. 

I had a trio project a couple of years ago where the main idea was to pair folk music from various Nordic countries with new commissions from the same Nordic countries. It was very nice for us as performers because we had these quite complex, very intense, difficult contemporary pieces that required a lot of focus from us on stage and from the audience as well. After the new works, we then stood up and played some really nice folk tunes. Perhaps the tunes were not  less intense, but it’s really another way of listening and another way of playing. From my perspective, this kind of bouncing back and forth adds a lot to the concert experience.

Generally, it is a practice I’ve done for many years, and I would also say it’s quite common among accordionists. We often mix early music with  contemporary music — because both are in our core repertoire. Currently, what I think is interesting is to look for ways to mix conventional instrumental repertoire with some of the more performative repertoire that I’ve been playing in recent years. For instance, to fill the  first half of a concert with instrumental music and the second half with a performative piece. Of course, this would bring up some technical issues because you’d need a venue with enough equipment for the performative works, but conceptually, I think it would be interesting. 

— Does learning contemporary pieces help you to understand how to perform classical ones, or vice versa?

Andreas Borregaard: Um… (ed. thinks). Yes, I think it does, and it does so in two different ways. What I can take from the classical into the contemporary is an understanding of the fundamentals of music compositions. How music basically works — harmonic progressions, pulse and timing, intervallic tension, phrasing, and, of course, some areas of mere sound production. You could say that some of those aspects, like harmony and melody, are sort of obliterated in parts of contemporary music. However, still, there are some common fundamentals. You have to understand tension and release, at least… Playing older music has taught me a lot about that. As well as being able to play a simple melody, which is also essential.

It probably depends on where you grew up in the world and what kind of music you listened to in your childhood, but if it is tonal music, then I guess there will be an emotional engagement embedded into this type of music.

I strongly believe that emotional engagement is important regardless of what kind of music you play. So I think cultivating, an ability to engage with the emotional content of music is maybe more easily achievable through some types of older music than it can be in some types of contemporary music.

Then, going to the other side, contemporary music is so diverse and a fantastic way to develop a variety of musical experiences working with incredibly different types of expressions. It means that you create a much broader palette of possibilities, or at least things that you’ve tried and that you’ve heard — and even though this maybe cannot be transferred one-to-one into, let’s say, the Goldberg Variations, having done so many much more crazy things in contemporary music definitely has given me more possibilities to choose from, to nuance, and vary the musical expression also in older music.

— Do you have a specific approach or ritual to learning new, complex, multilayer contemporary pieces?

Andreas Borregaard: When it comes to performative works, I think it’s a little different from only instrumental pieces, which also might be complex in terms of layers of rhythms or voices or something else. Of course, fundamentally, there is a good old-fashioned way to learn it slowly. You have to learn one layer at a time, and then you have to see where and how they fit together, on which kind of foundation they meet. Once the body and movements are involved, for me at least, it offers a different way of remembering the material, like learning it by heart. 

It becomes somewhat easier because everything is sort of embedded into a movement pattern. It’s muscle memory, but it’s the entire body rather than only my fingers, right? The variety of bodily positions, I think, helps very much in remembering the material. However,  learning text is still a question of repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating and finding patterns that you can recognize or remember. But really it often comes down to doing it super slowly, learning one bit at a time and then putting small bits together into larger bits and then to phrases. So… essentially it’s very similar to learning purely instrumental music, really. 

In Personhood, for instance, in The User part, it was a little bit more tricky to remember things…or maybe it’s just because it was one of the last sections  I learned before the premiere, meaning I had less time; I don’t know (ed. laughs)... practicing it, I simplified the accordion part very much and only played solid chords rather than the full arpeggios, for instance, to understand where the text comes on top of the musical pulse. So, even though it’s spoken freely, I still could have an understanding of how the words work on a beat. I would also practise some text parts with a metronome, even though the text is not rhythmically notated in any way to understand which kind of pulse I could establish with the  accordion part. So you need to find these meeting points between the different materials. 

Andreas Borregaard in Personhood . Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard
Andreas Borregaard in Personhood . Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard

— How would you introduce yourself to the readers?

Andreas Borregaard: Well, very briefly — Andreas Borregaard, a Danish accordionist. I work with old and new music. In recent years, I’ve been drawn into the realm of more performative music, if that’s a term we can use without complicating things. That’s very brief (ed. laughs). Very, brief, but…

— Very pragmatic (ed. laughs).

Andreas Borregaard: I’m the accordion professor in Hannover — that’s perhaps nice to say (ed. laughs). If anybody would like to study after reading this, they are more than welcome to drop me a line.

In one interview, you mentioned that accordion was a hobby for some time, but something changed when you entered the music academy. What is music for you now? Has your attitude changed over the years?

Andreas Borregaard: I think some things have changed. I’ve nuanced my view on music. I think I probably enjoy different types of music more now than I did earlier. But I think the fundamental approach to music remains more or less the same, which has to do with this idea that it needs to have some kind of emotional engagement.

This is what is being communicated from the musician to the listener through the piece’s material. I guess it’s very romantic and old-fashioned, but I rarely find it very interesting or successful if there isn’t this kind of intention of an emotional meaning or engagement. My own performances work the best when I’m engaged in that sense. Many things can go wrong, especially if we are speaking about very complicated accordion technicalities, but emotional engagement is like a bedrock that keeps everything in place. 

Some types of music can be so abstract and systematic. For example, one could discuss whether Steve Reich’s Piano Phase had a specific emotional intention, but nonetheless, when I listen to it, the music and its intriguing patterns, and the grooves does induce an emotional engagement in me. Everything rhythmical affects us bodily, and body and emotion are two sides of the same thing. 

You never have to force anything on the music but just recognize that it’s there.

What really sparks my interest is understanding how that works and realising that I become a better performer when I engage in that way with the music. It is basically something I learned early on in my studies, and it still is my credo somehow. 

I would like to believe, and I often see it with my students, that once we work in that way things actually become much “bigger” and better and more alive. 

— In a video for Composers+Summer Academy 2019, you mentioned that sometimes you work very closely with composers on a piece. Can you paint a picture of the most convenient way or a great experience you had while working with composers? Maybe some tips for young composers who want to write something for accordion?

Andreas Borregaard: Collaborations are really always completely individual and unique for a particular constellation. It will be a very different process with every different composer. Also, the nature of the piece has very much to say because you could have very nice results from a not-very-close collaboration, and you will not necessarily have very interesting results from a very close collaboration. One way is not necessarily better than the other.

Of course, on one end of the spectrum, you have this traditional perhaps old-fashioned way of commissioning, where you meet the composer to present the accordion because people do not always know so much about the instrument. So you talk about how it works, the technical pitfalls, and how to notate the music. Then, after half a year, you get the score. Then maybe you have one short editing workshop on minor details, and that’s it. That can be great. It can also be problematic if the score contains a lot of stuff that technically doesn’t work, and you need to edit it a lot. 

That type of process can work with instrumental music, but once it becomes more performative and the body is in play, I think it’s necessary to collaborate closer. The composers are no longer writing for an instrument.  They are writing for the person and a specific body. Sometimes it seems, that such performer-specific works can only be performed by the particular person it was written for because the performance becomes very personal, but often it’s just because it challenges the notion of interpretation, because the actual material can be completely disconnected from the individual person.

Most often, my collaborations work in the way that the composer has an overall concept of the work. They generate, maybe sporadically, the majority of the material. Then we work on that together, and if it’s an instrumental piece, I can use my accordion expertise to come up with alternative solutions that perhaps give a result closer to what the composer imagined. If it involves physical performance perhaps we experiment on the floor together. Still, to me, in most cases, it feels like I’ve been a facilitator of content rather than a creator.

I guess my advice is to be open and curious, not to say no, to really try things out, and to stretch yourself to see what is possible.

Andreas Borregaard in Personhood . Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard
Andreas Borregaard in Personhood . Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard

— Ukrainian composer Svyatoslav Lunyov, during one interview, said that the performer is: “The most unfortunate person. I can’t imagine how you can live as a performer. You’re like a construction worker: you take a shovel and dig from the fence until lunchtime, and they always tell you what to do”. Do you agree with Mr. Lunyov?

Andreas Borregaard: In one way, of course, I agree, but you have to discuss what it means to dig with a shovel. One could say the same thing about everybody who does any kind of work. I disagree if the meaning is that it’s a mindless task you just repeat. Although I think many musicians will probably agree that completely avoiding mindless practising is difficult, I think the performer is in a highly creative and privileged  position because we are the medium or the interface between the composer and the audience, right? Whatever we do on stage transforms the piece and sends it to someone else to experience it. So, at the end of the day, we are in charge because we are on stage. 

I believe that it’s a very creative process because you create the music in the moment.  That’s why this whole engagement thing about being present with the expression and the emotional content is so important. Of course, there is also a lot of tedious labour behind the stage in the practice room. Sometimes, it can feel like you just have to do the same things again and again and again. You practise difficult passages, difficult pieces, and then you feel ready to play it. Maybe it does indeed work when you perform it. 

Then you leave the piece for some time — because that’s also one of the challenges of being a performer in music: usually, you have only one performance at a time. It’s not like theatre, where you have twenty performances of a show, and then you move to the next. So you practise something, perform it, and then practise something else and perform that. When you return to a difficult piece, magically it’s often difficult in the exact same way, and the struggle is to find a new pathway to solving the same crux. In that sense, I can understand the quote. You have to do this digging very tirelessly, again and again, but hopefully, you do get better at it, the shovel will get better and sharper and certainly your digging technique will improve over the years. 

— What is the life of a contemporary performer in Denmark?

Andreas Borregaard: Denmark is a small country. Obviously, the music scene is also relatively small, the audience is small, and contemporary music is a niche within a niche. So, for me, at least, it’s impossible to mainly play concerts in Denmark. It seems to me, however, that within the new music community, there’s a nice development, and it’s growing. 

There’s a growing number of composers and performers that form small ensembles or artist collectives, and actually do a lot of brilliant work — organise concerts and curate events. They don’t wait for people to do stuff for them. They just do it themselves. I think it’s very inspiring to be a contemporary music performer in Denmark. I’m also very grateful that I’ve built up a network outside of Denmark,, because otherwise, I would play much fewer concerts. 

— If you could talk to the Denmark Ministry of Culture, what would be your suggestions regarding contemporary music policies?

Andreas Borregaard: Maybe one thing would be to invite more politicians to events to actually experience what’s happening on stage, so it’s not just an abstract, expensive thing that they don’t know. I mean the easiest suggestion would be:  give us more money! But probably not the most effective. 

We need to talk more about structural things, for example, bringing more live music — and diverse live music — to kids at a very early age. Or finding ways to have kids engage with creating and listening to contemporary music. To promote that new music is not difficult, and it’s not scary. People don’t necessarily know much about contemporary art, so if we don’t reach out we risk creating a detached, separate bubble with no relevance to the broader society. There’s a bit of that tendency at the beautiful — and totally necessary! — festivals of contemporary music.

How much ”normal” audience attend them? Do we only play for our peers? Do all the fantastic new works simply travel around from one extremely specialised festival to the other? Are we a secluded group of artists, preaching for the choir,  and sometimes also the same audiences, which is even worse? Of course, the festivals are essential for the new music ecosystem and for creating new works — and truly a lot of fantastic art is being created, definitely — but I wonder how much reaches a broader, non-specialist audience? 

Andreas Borregaard in Personhood . Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard
Andreas Borregaard in Personhood . Photo: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengard

— Speaking about the real audience, what would you say to the person who has never visited a contemporary music event and is afraid to come there because she/he/they might not understand what is happening? How would you recommend listening to a piece, like Jennifer Walshe, without academic knowledge?

Andreas Borregaard: I would just say the same thing as I would say to people who are going to an orchestra concert for the first time. It might be just as difficult to understand if you’ve never heard classical music before and it might be quite challenging. First, there is no right or wrong way to listen to it. Everybody’s experience is valid. Have an open mind. It’s okay to feel that you don’t understand it.

That’s totally fine. Maybe the performers don’t understand it either (ed. laughs). You can read the programme notes but sometimes, it does not help (ed. laughs). Try to listen carefully and just see what it evokes in you. What questions do you have? Recognize that maybe you don’t find any answers at all, just more questions, and then that’s the experience. Why do you have these questions? Think as if it is an abstract painting, and this is an audio version of that. Just explore and see what’s in there.

— What are your thoughts on why contemporary music/art is important? For some time, my answer has usually been that it is like advanced physical research and Formula 1 in one box. You don’t really need that in everyday life. Still, in the long distance, there is a slight chance that, in the case of physics and Formula 1, it gives us semiconductors that are being used in almost every electronic device, better brake systems, and steering wheel buttons, which makes our life better and easier. In the case of music, it gives us pieces by Chopin, Ligeti, and Lutoslawski that are world heritage and probably make people understand themselves more.

Andreas Borregaard: Well, I think you’re totally right. It seems useless because you can’t exchange it for value one to one. It has the potential to allow people to explore and experience aspects of human expression and life that they probably would otherwise not be able to experience. It cultivates our empathy and our ways of engaging with other people, engaging with ourselves, and engaging with the world. 

This fact that you can live through something that another person has created, whether a visual artist or a composer, a musician, a filmmaker, an actor, brings you to a situation and an actual experience physically, emotionally, and intellectually that wouldn’t be achievable otherwise. That does expand your capacity as a human being. 

— What would be a perfect contemporary music event for you sitting in the audience?

Andreas Borregaard: (ed. laughs) Not too long (ed. laughs).  Music can be incredibly varied and unpredictable, and I can’t foresee the next great concert experience. I hope it’s something where I forget myself a little bit, where I’m just drawn into what happens on stage and in the room. And where I don’t get annoyed too much… To be honest, I have a tendency to get a bit annoyed when things are very-very long (ed. laughs). 

What I think is great is when you really sense that the performers mean what they are doing. It’s not something they’re just doing because they are being paid for it or because a composer asks it from them, but because they really, genuinely, truly believe that this makes sense.

— Your website says: ‘The accordion is an instrument that few people link to classical music’. What pieces from contemporary repertoire may you suggest listening to so one can see that the accordion could be a great classical instrument in the right hands?

Andreas Borregaard: Some of my personal favourites are Berio’s Sequenza, Kalevi Aho’s second sonata, Magnus Lindberg’s Jeux d’Anches, and some of the Danish works, for instance Looking on Darkness, by Bent Sørensen.

These are all classics, significant pieces in our repertoire. The composers still use the instrument in a tonal way, maybe not in the traditional sense of tonality but in terms of sound production. There’s a lot of exciting music where sounding notes become less important, and it’s more about unpitched air sounds or noises, which is not good or bad in itself But the accordion essentially is  a reed instrument. So I think this quality — the actual and wonderfully colourful sound of the reeds — is important when presenting the instrument to people. 


About the Author

The Claquers is a Ukrainian online magazine devoted to classical music that unites a group of music critics with the mission to foster a critical conversation about art music in Ukraine and beyond. The Claquers organization was founded in June 2020 by musicologist Stas Nevmerzhytskyi and three colleagues: musicologist Dzvenyslava Safian, music theorist Liza Sirenko, and cultural critic Oleksandr Ostrovskyi.

The publication’s provocative name suggests the context in which The Claquers was conceived. After two previous generations of proactive critics who had careers in education and cultural promotion, classical music criticism was limited to either positive reviews or no reviews at all. A fresh and uncensored eye on events in classical music life in Ukraine was needed to shake up the musical community and complete the country’s classical music ecosystem.

Unlike in western Europe and North America, art music audiences in Ukraine are much younger. The collective of writers with The Claquers is also young, and has taken on the task of explaining to these new listeners why a long tradition of classical music in Ukraine exists, and how it became a part of today’s cultural life. As a group The Claquers considers its main goals: to educate about contemporary classical Ukrainian music, to build bridges with popular culture by publishing about diverse musical genres and other arts (such as music in literature or in film), to expand the critical tools of music criticism with audio podcasts, and to cultivate audiences abroad via an English version of the website.

The Claquers was made possible by generous funding that enabled its establishment and is sustained by the generosity of donors on Patreon. This singular and engaged Ukrainian online hub devoted to classical music continues to engage people in this music and invite new authors.

Stas Nevmerzhytskyi (ФОП Станіслав Невмержицький), individual proprietor

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Location of a individual proprietor:
Ukraine, 04212, Kyiv city, TYMOSHENKA STREET, building 2K, room 302

Date and number of entry in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities, individual proprietor and public organizations:
10/16/2020, 2000690010002052048


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