The Revolutionary Dag Wirén

A musical rumination by Fredrik Österling from the periodical Tonsättaren, No. 3 2003

As part of the series ’’Musikfunderingar” (Musical Ruminations), where composers write columns about works from an earlier generation, Fredrik Österling has this time listened to music by Dag Wirén.

In my thoughts, I sometimes return to Dag Wirén’s famous quote: “I believe in Bach, Mozart, Nielsen, and absolute music.” The absolute music he means is of course of a wholly different sort than that which we most often encounter today. “Absolute music 1, 2…”. No, Wirén had no idea that CD collections with mixed dance bands and recording artists would eventually end up with that title. For in his world, it meant something entirely different. “Absolute music” can be defined as a work that refers only to itself and its own musical material, and not to anything extramusical. Quite simply, music—the unvarnished version that has not been filtered through sales campaigns and styling. (like a primeval combustion engine, the music explodes straight into my ear. The octaves in the violins become a rustically refined piston motion. I am sent into a world of energies and forward motion—String quartet no. 4, movement V)

Often one speaks reverentially about “absolute music,” as if it were a sort of musical documentary film; a music that shows what is “really happening,” without being affected externally. A sort of God-given music. This way of looking at music probably comes more from a deeply felt respect for a masterpiece than from any insight into the motives, period trends, and choices that existed before the first note of the first measure. If music rises above the private sphere, if banalities give way to new insights, this is naturally foremost a result of personal choices. (like a person speaking from memory, the little motive unfolds, becomes its dramatic opposite, and grows to ten times its size. Impulses show themselves later to have been planned dramaturgical observations, like yet unlike themselves. Symphony no. 3)

Wirén was no avantgardist. He represented an outlook that did not primarily extol the principles of invention, nor the idea of linear development that pervaded (and pervades) industry, the military, society, and art in our times. Judging from his music, he believed more in the guided tour as opposed to an adventure trip. But if one opens up for this point of view, one can still find (right in the middle of the controlled and the aristocratically distancing) a full-blooded presence. Here is someone who wants to say something. Using thought association as his technique, he guarantees the listener a logically illuminated journey; but one cannot from the start be certain where it ends. The metamorphosis only takes place gradually; an apple becomes a moose—with the help of a subtle transference of ideas to new pictures and thoughts. (The Stockholm Folk Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca: as early as in the first act, when the love between Cavaradossi and Tosca is presented, the director lets this evolve into a sex scene that culminates in Tosca’s high notes. Comedy takes over. We laugh or fidget embarrassedly at the jauntily immature ploy. The magic is gone, replaced by confusion about the form of opera. No one understands anything any more—but in a fun way… During a prologue to the scene in the cell, when the music strives to establish a multitude of emotions, thoughts, and directions, the director allows a member of the chorus to stick in their heads and blow into a kazoo. Maybe the prologue was too long? Too boring?)

Listening—as opposed to hearing—is about making oneself sensitive enough to receive different expressions, different levels of reasoning and articulation. This is why the music of Dag Wirén has the potential to be art that is more revolutionary than what (for example) Selimovic expresses in his version of “Tosca”.

I believe that the elements of music bear meaning only after someone wants them to do so—in a sort of empathetic opposition. The musical drama that develops in one’s senses somehow demands that one wishes it into existence. The spirit of music appears therefore to be as fragile as one’s belief in Santa Claus or elves. And here, somewhere, is where we find Dag Wirén’s music. A music without kazoos, if you will. 

Dag Wirén’s music is available on among other recordings the Phono Suecia series Modern Classics (PSCD 716). Two of his string quartets (3 and 4) are also on Phono Suecia (PSCD 16).

Fredrik Österling