April 2014

Nature and Culture

An introduction to the music of Henning Christiansen
By Mark Harwood

“We were of course very impressed by Cage when we were in Darmstadt, but he has his house and I have mine.”
— Henning Christiansen

While countless pages of energy, words and print have been laid down concerning such alternative musical heroes as Sun Ra, Stockhausen, Miles Davis and John Cage to name but four, relatively little attention has been paid to the Danish Fluxus man who was a central figure of radical Danish performance for over 40 years. Henning Christiansen was a composer, musician and artist that sprung out of the overflowing well of mid 20th Century post-Cage Fluxus inspired activity. His friends and collaborators included Joseph Beuys, for whose performances he provided the sonic backdrop, along with Nam June Paik, Ben Patterson, Keith Rowe and Christophe Charles, as well as the bulk of radical Danish artists that emerged from this period of immense creativity and exploration. Henning predominantly worked within the context of visual art that likely contributes to his relative neglect in the experimental music media and community. The breadth of Henning Christiansen’s creative output is wildly far reaching, encapsulating a large variety of styles and techniques which touch upon many strands of 20th century creative practice, all with his unique fingerprint. It is not possible to summarise all facets of his career and artistic output in less than a lengthy book, so this piece is focused on his career in music. The different practices, stages and output, along with tracing the path he took (not an easy task given the plentiful forks, detours, stop/starts, u-turns etc) – suffice to say the heterogeneous nature of his output is overwhelming. Henning was a passionate man, an active man, a curious man and a great creative man.

The music of Henning Christiansen is an unusual proposition. It comes from the 20th Century avant garde but does not sit comfortably amongst any of the recognisable patterns within that field. It often incorporates a collage technique but is not strictly ‘musique concrete’; there are no chance based experiments but often within his work there appears what could be considered random gestures; and while improvisation is most certainly at hand, this is not do or die free improvisation. It came from (exists within?) the Fluxus paradigm but avoids willful piano destruction or flushing toilets (although he did partake in performances of such works by others). Christiansen’s recorded output can be conservative, radical, beautiful, unsettling, discreet, random, charming and hilarious. There is a human behind all this, one who prioritized the logic and chaos of nature over pure theory and the synthetic.


Henning Christiansen was born in Copenhagen in 1932. He lived in Denmark for most of his life, the majority with his wife and children on the island of Møn. Christiansen studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen from 1951-54 with clarinet as his major subject and again in 1961-63 studying music theory and the history of music and composition. It was in this second stint at the conservatory that the composer and Christiansen’s professor Finn Hoffding assisted the development of his musical thinking. ‘It was via Hoffding that ‘I learned that music is architecture, It’s something you shape in an empty space and then you break it down again’. Composition for him was a minor subject and he often reiterated the point that he taught it to himself. ‘It isn’t something you read up upon; composing is something you do – if you know how’. Henning wrote dozens of compositions in the sixties, including Den rokadiske [The Castling] for string quartet (1966), Laenge leve livet [Long Live Life], Op. 76 (for recorder, cello and harpsichord) and In the Deep Woods, Op. 102 (for 5 tubas). In tandem he wrote music for film and television which, along with his early composed works, remain difficult to hear given the scant documentation available, few recordings and the fact that his works are very rarely performed to this day.

In 1961 the young visual artist Poul Gernes and art historian Troels Anderson took it upon themselves to shape a concrete reaction to what they saw as the antiquated teachings of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. The Ex-School (Eks-Skolen) presented a liberal non-hierarchical platform for new ways of approaching the study and creation of art. The attraction of such unorthodox schooling was appealing to many of the younger generation and Henning was one of the earliest participants in the experimental practice within these flexible walls. It was here that he met Bjørn Nørgaard. Bjørn became one of Henning’s lifelong friends and colleagues and along with his wife Ursula Reuter Christiansen, one of his crucial lifelong collaborators. Along with composition Henning was extremely active in a variety of other disciplines in the early sixties. He was on the editorial staff of periodicals, ran his own publishing house and participated in the film collective ABC cinema.

Whilst embracing the radical initiatives taking form at the Ex-School, Christiansen simultaneously worked at the more traditional DUT. Det Unge Tonkekunstnerselskab (The Young Composers Society). Here he organised concerts of electronic music and performances of contemporary composition. Whilst often displeasing some of the professors, this was an important period for Christiansen’s future, as it was here he first met Nam June Paik who was hosting an event at DUT. From this point the piano was to become a regular fixture throughout his practice. One of his early performances at DUT involved a battered piano, the remains of a previous performance by Paik. Henning’s contribution was ‘3 progressive sonatas for piano’. No one took up the offer to have sex during the last movement as scored so a pornographic film was projected onto the ceiling instead. Poul Gernes stood naked to the waist banging the piano with a hammer until the keys flew off. The next day Henning was called into the head office where it was mutually agreed that he should find something else to do.

George Maciunas’s International Festspiele Neuster Musik (International Festival of New Music) was held in Wiesbaden in 1962. Henning attended this and, one can gather, experienced an epiphany as his artistic practice and musical scores subsequently took a radical shift. From here we arrive in the hotbed of activity around the flowering Fluxus movement which he became involved with. Christiansen encountered others who were leaning towards more open-minded approaches to musical practice along with exposure to overtly radical gestures in visual art and performance.

In 1962 and 1963 Henning attended the summer courses at Darmstadt, engaging with and exploring the ideas and influence of Stockhausen and Boulez, although he later boasted he spent most of his time in the canteen, expressing that the more rewarding ideas were to be found there. Like others of the time Henning reacted against the modernist techniques, particularly that of serialism, rejecting it as unnecessary complexity reiterating redundant bourgeois tendencies and he felt a need to break from such dogma. But like most of Henning’s teachings (rejections) elements remained. ‘Le marteau sans maître’ (The hammer without a master) is a serialist composition by French composer Pierre Boulez. First performed in 1955, it sets the surrealist poetry of René Char for contralto and six instrumentalists. The Hammer without a Master is a phrase that Henning adopted and one that occurred frequently throughout his career, appearing in paintings, installations and the like. Henning says, “A hammer without a master can’t be controlled. After all there’s no one to hold it. It’s a highly unpleasant matter”. In a way this is a metaphor for Henning himself, a wild card, an isolated burst of energy undertaking unbridled explorations of his own devising.

Around these years Henning also wrote a personal letter to Stockhausen criticising his ‘delusions of grandeur’. In 1969 Christiansen wrote an extended ‘reply’ to Stockhausen’s work that was published in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift (volume 44, no. 03). It starts off with a quote from the Tao Te Ching “Therefore the sage travels all day without putting down his heavy load – though there may be spectacles to see, he easily passes them by.” The ensuing essay attacks Stockhausen for jumping on the trends of the day and gives some indication of Christiansen’s own pattern of thought at this point in time, “For many years Karlheinz Stockhausen has worked thoroughly with constructed music; music that has move further and further away from the beat of the human pulse. Music to which consideration of mankind’s physical and mental potential has become less and less relevant. That this music has been made with the aid of systems, however, tells us nothing about the use of game rules and systems in art. Like all other technical devices, they only acquire their special value and colouring through use. Systematic art may well be “expressive” or build on psychological effect in the recipient. I believe I have demonstrated myself, among other ways with my Perceptive Constructions, where the rules of the game indicated by the title do in fact generate a particular effect on the listener.”

In this period of the early sixties, we have a composer studying the clarinet, studying (with reservation) modern/serial composition along with a concurrent investigation of more radical performance / destructive gesture. The disparate teachings from The Royal Danish Academy of Music, The Young Composers Society, Ex-School, Darmstadt and Fluxus all played a part in the development of Christiansen’s voice. He met Joseph Beuys in 1964 and the resulting friendship evolved into some of Henning’s more fully realised initial experiments. All of these disparate strands of teachings continued to surface throughout his career. He could be stubborn when he came to the point of turning his back on something he had once invested time into. Giving up the clarinet was one such example of this: when he quit clarinet, he never picked it up again. However, as we will see, elements of all of his learnings re-appear throughout his career.

Henning’s music remains potent to this day: it retains a mysterious charm, more so than the sound of someone flushing a toilet or some other Fluxus tropes (it’s funny how the sound of toilet flushing can ‘date’). His artistic trajectory could be seen as a compacted history of 20th century music within a single individual. Was it the age he lived through or the colourful circles in which he spun? There is no way to verify the exact path Christiansen took but one can reason that (like many of the Fluxus composers) it was his compositional background that made his later, more abstract works distinct from other composers’ methods of liberating sound.

How and why did one man go from the relatively secure formal experiments of ‘Perceptive Constructions’ to the singular sound melange of Abschiedssymphonie? Was Christiansen challenging himself or his audience? Or was it simply a reaction against the various popular threads of experimental music at the time, such as minimalism? Few of Christiansen’s works fit comfortably within a particular movement or form and to come to any conclusion as to how this came to be is difficult.

Early Works

To Play To-Day (a title borrowed from a text by Gertrude Stein) was composed in 1963-64 but not performed until December 1966, by which time the composer had moved on to more constructivist or minimalist ideas. The score exists in two versions: an English version for the international Fluxus concert and a Danish one for a performance on Radio Denmark. The handwritten English score is dated ”Dec. 64”. This is a classic piece of instrumental theatre with instructions for the pianist to read aloud parts of text (by Dick Higgins, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Christiansen) and perform various acts, such as counting, ringing an alarm clock etc. In between, short pieces of music (from 5 to 95 seconds) complete the composition.

‘Perceptive Constructions’ from 1964 was a pivotal point in Christiansen’s early output. Here his motivation seems to be the uniting of popular music’s immediate simplicity along with the consistent (direct) nature of modern design. Christiansen reaches this goal with simple rules that govern the musical sequences in a way that can be easily determined by the audience. ‘Perceptive Constructions’ is a work that turns its back on the teachings of Stockhausen and Boulez: sound and silence figure as equal companions and repetition was embraced as a reaction to serialist dogma. The work plays out like an audio illusion and the use of repeated phrases was a means of enticing the attentive listener to partake in the process with the ability to predict what would occur next, rather than being alienated by the unpredictable nature of serialist music. The individual parts change through the process of sly repetition. However, Henning never saw this as a minimalist work and he made a point of clarifying that he was a ‘Constructivist’, referring to the works of this period as ‘Ny enkelhed’ (‘New Simplicity’). A collection of these works are gathered on the ‘Konstruktioner’ LP including ‘Perceptive Contructions’, ‘Den Rokadiske’, ‘Und Ein Engel Ging Vorbei’ and ‘Den Arkadiske’, featuring a striking Op Art design by Poul Gernes on the cover. As this is the only extant document of this period in time it is essential for those that wish to explore the wellspring from which Henning’s later works arose.

“Henning and Poul were both fiercely judgemental. Why was that? Was it that which powered them, a way of creating art? Insatiable energy? Poul used to dash around. Henning just sat there. Both of them had what seems to me a strange desire to make the world a better place. And the incorrigibility of the world gave rise, on their part, to prejudicial fury.” – Per Kirkeby

“Complicated compositional devices have never appealed to me. What I find appealing in connection with art represents rather the opposite” —Henning Christiansen

Christiansen’s meeting with Joseph Beuys, and the ouput stemming from this meeting, proved to be his most individual / fruitful of this period. Throughout a series of collaborations starting in 1964 and lasting almost until Beuys’ death in 1986, Christiansen and Beuys shared a common belief in performance as a liberating means of expression for the individual, along with a political underpinning to many of these activities. Christiansen not only provided the soundtrack but was often a collaborator alongside Beuys in numerous performances, including ‘Rastplatz bite Sauberhalten’ (1967), ‘Eurasienstab – Fluxorum Organum’ (1968), Die Grosse Grune Zeitsymphonie’ (1980-81) and ‘Friedenskonzert’ (along with Nam June Paik).

‘Euranienstab’ is a five part organ piece made for the performance ‘Organum Fluxorum Euransianstab 82 min Op 39’, written in 1967 and performed on July 2, 1967 in Vienna and on February 9th, 1968 in Antwerp. The piece was recorded in a church in Düsseldorf on a ‘manipulated’ tape machine, resulting in tape warble, minor inflictions in pitch, etc. The recordings of Christiansen’s work for church organ were played throughout the performance (nb: versions of this performance online omit the audio). The piece consists of a series of repetitive deep melodic church organ refrains, resulting in a music that is haunting and hypnotic combining an association with church music and a see-saw approach to repetition.

Henning’s keyboard works often reference one of his major influences, Erik Satie, in this case his ‘Messe des pauvres’ (Mass for the Poor), which in itself was influenced by the Rosicrucian movement, a once worldwide ‘secret’ brotherhood claiming to possess esoteric wisdom “built on esoteric truths of the ancient past”. Of Satie, Christiansen wrote ‘In the summer of 1965 I began to sit playing the piano works of the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925). I was enthusiastic about the (wordless) narrative quality in his musical language. These were blackly humorous tales, human depictions of warmth. For me Satie was a truly nice man, a real human being with all his oddities intact’.

‘Messe des pauvres’ was quoted explicitly in a later work of Christiansen’s built from the original ‘Euranienstab’ recordings, ‘Op.50: Requiem of Art (Aus “Celtic”) Fluxorum Organum II’. Constructed for the Beuys/Christiansen performance of ‘CELTIC (Kinloch, Rannoch): Schottische Symphonie at the Edinburgh Collage of Art at the end of 1970, Op.50: Requiem of Art (Aus “Celtic”) Fluxorum Organum II is a stunning piece of music/sound/text. Again, the church organ motif bobs up and down throughout, but this time it is overlaid with a variety of everyday sonic situations: a hammer hits an anvil, a plane circles overhead, waves break, a bird twitters and a human voice moans. German text punctuates the proceedings at one point, the female voice of Ursula Reuter Christiansen, relaxed yet affirmative. The text consists of quoted fragments of Gustav Flaubert with some of Ursula’s own additions revolving around the requiem as a mass for the dead. Despite its somber tone it is not clear whether the piece is about a living or dead person. It is difficult to categorise this work. Today we are familiar with a single sine wave as music, noise is a familiar sonic tool often deployed within ‘popular music’, and to the experimental listener all manner of decayed, destroyed audio has been become accepted. This work carries few familiar tropes: it remains on a singular plain, somewhere between an organ recital, a sonic collage and a radio play.

The 1970s

In 1970 Henning Christiansen and Bjørn Nørgaard were thrust into the Danish national consciousness when a large portion of the general Danish population watched a TV broadcast performance piece where Nørgaard killed and cut up a horse in protest to the Vietnam War, provoking a national debate. Accompanied by poems read by Lene Adler Pedersen and a green violin played by Christiansen, ‘The Horse Sacrifice’ also features a beautiful haunting fragile song, which remains as simple and unusual as anything in Christiansen’s output.[1] Throughout the ’70s Henning primarily made a living by writing film music and creating programmes for German radio (a necessary diversion from his true musical interests – birds, sheep, plastic tubes, wind up toys, stones etc). It is not reasonable to assume these works are all of a traditional/conservative nature, as on occasion Christiansen injected unusual combinations of instruments along with the occasional colouring of the score with ‘sound’.

Some of the more successful works in this field are those undertaken as collaborations with friends. The music for Jørgen Leth and Per Kirkeby’s ‘Dyrehaven, den romantiske skov (The Deer Garden, The Romantic Forest)’ was described by Allan de Waal as something midway between the Danish national song ‘Der er et yndigt land’ (‘The is a lovely land’) played backwards and ‘Skønjomfru luk dit vindue op’ (‘Fair maiden, throw thy window wide’). Jørgen Leth’s 1967 short experimental film ‘The Perfect Human’ (as immortalised in Lars Von Trier’s ‘The Five Obstructions’) utilises some of Christiansen’s earlier compositions and is an indication of the tone he used for film works.[2]

There were also soundtracks of a more radical nature, which occured outside of state/money/breadwinning. Ursula Reuter-Christiansen’s ‘The Executioner’ (1971) has an exceptional haunting score of sound, piano and unnerving electronics, which exposes the professional, social, and sonic freedom in which Christiansen was most comfortable.

During this period in the ’70s at his home on the island of Møn, Christiansen was actively involved in more collective projects, including co-operative societies and periodicals. He organised festivals and was an enthusiastic member of the Communist party. In 1977 he was invited to the Soviet Union where his utopian dream of an ideal state was instantly shattered by what he saw. Christiansen had a strong belief in the ‘ordinary as dynamo’ and expected this to be ultimately realised behind the Iron Curtain. The reality instead was an oppressive exploitation of such a notion, as witnessed in the poor living conditions and suppression of individual thought, which resulted in Christiansen’s resignation from the Communist party to which he never returned. He continued to think politically but embraced a less ideological platform where ideas would seep into sound via nature. A turning point in his creative output came in the year 1984 when, as a direct reaction to the bleak concrete world of George Orwell’s dystopian vision, he created a piece that was a deeper reflection on nature. He called it ‘Green-ear-year’, a signpost to listen to nature. A number of watercolours he made throughout this year all pointed to the act of listening to what is out there.

Late works

It is here in the ’80s we get to Henning’s most significant / individualistic works. When I first encountered works like ‘Abschiedssymphonie’ and ‘Symphony Natura’ I was struck by how unique they were. I enjoyed them immensely but I could not configure them into my knowledge of experimental music at this time. They were neither formal experiments in sound a la Alvin Lucier or the destroyed audio / narrative schemes coming out of the GRM. There was a mix of references that I could not meld into my own personal listening perspective and this was the most thrilling of experiences for a listener determined to find a new way to put together this thing called music.

‘Abschiedssymphonie’ (possibly a reference to Haydn’s ‘Farewell Symphony’) is a sublime work constructed from material recorded at the ‘Friedenskonzert’ as performed at the Biennale des Friedens, Hamburg, November 29, 1985. Christiansen took the recordings of this concert away and where he added a variety of sounds: water, stones, hammering and bleating sheep. The concert itself was performed with Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys (who, due to illness, made his contribution from his death bed). There were three pianos onstage, and a telephone was placed on top of the piano for Beuys to contribute, who also requested an oxygen tank be placed underneath the piano.

The final recording assembled by Christiansen, ‘Abschiedssymphonie’, shifts from the tranquil to the frenzied, often within a single stroke. Paik plays Chopin and other classical phrases on one piano, and also some violin. A microphone is severely bumped before the voice of Beuys via the telephone appears, reciting a text, confirming his presence. The hiss of escaping air (the oxygen tank, as directed by Beuys) dominates the next passage as the piano refrain continues in the background. The text recited by Beuys also appears on the album’s cover: BEI EINEM WESENSGEMÄSSEN BESCHREIBEN DES GESCHEHENS ZUR BEFREIUNG DER VON DER FÄHIGKEIT GETRAGENEN ARBEIT IS ES DOCH LOGISCH, DASS DAS TRAGENDE ZUERST BEFREIT WERDEN MUSS. Whilst being difficult to translate, Greg Lutz formulated it as such “If you want to free the work resulting from ability, it’s logical to first free the ability.”

The final recording remains a potent example of Henning’s ability to combine the everyday into a melange of unusual musical matter. It’s a hybrid work of piano, tape, objects, electronics and an assortment of sound producing devices. All of these elements are mixed with a collage technique resulting in an energy that is unique to the art of juxtaposing disparate elements. The result is a topography of sound that encourages the listener to undertake a broad and unsettling journey. It is difficult to place this within any practice, trend, thought or period of music at this time. Henning was opinionated and stubborn. Both traits allowed him to express a voice that may otherwise have remain unheard. I imagine the voice, being as stubborn as it was, made it difficult for people to position his craft in the general milieu, resulting in it being easier to ignore or avoid then embrace (swim inside).

‘Music is for listening to. A sound is a sound. The interval between two sounds is the interval between two sounds. If one sticks to this the music is borne from the world of dream and metaphysics into reality. The music becomes an object that is its own reality.’ — Henning Christiansen

‘The background, the space where music happens is what I want to put into the foreground.’ — Henning Christiansen

Henning Christiansen is sympathetic with all sounds. He did not distinguish a hierarchy amongst any of them: they are not formulated into an ambient hue or twisted into extreme shapes, rather the rattle of a piano’s low end can sit alongside fried electronics, and the reverb drenched conversation of a large acoustic space is on par with the striking of a hammer on an anvil. The human voice recites text with natural phrasing or may be re-framed as parody via varispeed tape manipulation. A Christiansen recording may encompass stones and vacuum cleaners, coins in a glass bowl, footsteps on gravel, a bullfrog, rocks in a box, a pipe, a blood pipe, a canary, sheep and hens, the animals not as field recordings caught on tape but seen as performers in their own right. There is a genuine love of sound here, but one which is explored in the natural world, not dissected in the concert hall or transmitted by state of the art diffusion, even Henning’s early compositional works were often executed in less formal environments. Of course any distinction between high and low culture was dismantled long ago, so that a man writing for a string quartet in one decade and recording stones being thrown into a bucket the next is hardly surprising, but what stands out here is how smooth Christiansen’s transition was. There is no ‘pain’ in his work, no screams of violence as we hurtle from the remaining fragments of the old world.

Henning’s work has a symbiotic relationship with reality (the unusual), and his natural tendency to explore unpopulated parameters of musical practice elevates him above those that intend to provoke with conscious shifts in formal identity. He is enjoying himself and as a result the listener is placed in a position to join him in this playful practice, although I question whether the perspectives Christiansen eventually manifested would have come about if it were not for his formative years at the Royal Conservatory. As he himself put it: “I feel most of what I have done is based on the academic, the classical. What I learned at the Conservatory has had tremendous significance. To me, the classical is the accumulated experience on how to form a work of art freely floating in space, so that it’s linked to the nature that surrounds us and is within mankind. Earlier, I said “man is also nature, it’s a synthesis”.

‘I am quite willing to renounce expressiveness and great discharges of emotion, vitality and attempts to force one’s way into the mind of the listener. And I also renounce any kind of entertainment – the artist’s urge to express himself in the moment of performance. It is the idea and pattern of the work that should be the object of evaluation. That is why any kind of music-making of course becomes an alien element’ – Henning Christiansen

“Symphony Natura op.170″ (pazio Musikale con Animale. MUSICA dello ZOO) is an extended collage based on recordings made along with Lorenzo Mammi at the Rome Zoo in 1985. Symphony Natura is not a work of acoustic ecology. Although the recorded sounds are indeterminate, the addition of sounds post-production; such as electronics, piano recordings, etc. would likely repel ecological purists. However, the method deployed accentuates the uncanniness of nature itself. When discussing this work we see the line between traditional composition and the more nature-based work drawn explicitly. Christiansen said: “First of all, I think of Bruckner’s great symphonies modelled after nature, from the days of flourishing orchestral culture, great feelings and gazing into the soundscape. Which was always the landscape of a concert hall and musicians dressed up as penguins, many violins. Originally most ideals of instrumental sounds were derived from animal voices or other sounds of natural phenomena. The violins, for instance: someone found out that stretched out, dried bowels could produce sounds, there is a funny saying: “My bowels are crying”. The recordings taken from the Rome Zoo and reworked were then played back via a multi channel, 8 speaker set up to the very animals originally recorded. Another recording was made of the response they made to the playback of their own voices resulting in the final work of ‘Symphony Natura’.

“I have worked with animal voices before, in the ROMA ZOO, e.g., I made a suite of animal voices which I called SYMPHONY NATURA, I have also worked with the howling of wolves and with canaries (The Green Birdchoir Piano -Museum of Art, Northern Jutland) (“Freedom Is Around the Corner” – Yellow Music in Berlin) and also monkey singing, all of it nature variations on tape. What is important to me now is where and in which context such works are being performed. I have been in concert halls, in theaters, but I am not really happy with these environments for my animal music. I have to construct new “concert halls” for such works and therefore I really like this relatively large “Concert Castle” on the meadow at the Danube in front of the famous Brucknerhaus, it is ideal for me and I am writing a new slogan: “Sheep instead of Violins.” The meadow belongs to the sheep, it is their territory, that’s where they belong and people come to visit them. Together with the Sheep’s Music coming from a container, I realize another idea in container nr. 2: I have tried to bring Grieg’s Peer Gynt-Suite “back to nature”. When working on it, I try to imagine what Edvard Grieg had heard in GUDBRANDSDAL in Norway before setting that sound into the musical language of that time and for the concert hall and we must keep in mind that Grieg’s Peer Gynt-Suite is still one of the most popular orchestra pieces today. I now take this piece of orchestra music out of its usual concert background and put it onto the meadow on the riverbank in front of the Brucknerhaus together with Sheep’s Music. Besides, I am also interested in transporting this piece of music from Norway to Austria in this form. In former days, the transportation of music was not as simple as today, there had been practical and cultural problems that we are hardly aware of today. Music travels light these days.” – Henning Christiansen

Following Symphony Natura animals often appear in Henning’s later works, with canaries, sheep and wolves being regular fixtures in recordings and performances. Canary Music is exactly what you would expect: the sound of canaries. Schafe Statt Geigen is made from the sound of sheep. Again, this is not a straight field recording but the utilisation of performers to make a composition; the sheep as oils for Henning’s canvas. The sound of the lupe (wolf) is one that appears on numerous recordings. An anecdote told to me by one of Henning’s sons Thorbjørn is worth repeating. Henning was obsessed with the sound of the wolf, always the howl of the wolf, this striking lone cry. For a number of years Henning would get out of bed in the middle of the night, go to the top floor of the house and play a recording of a lupe (wolf) on CD, loud, over and over for 30 minutes or so. Every night this ritual would repeat whilst the rest of the family were sleeping. The family would wake in their beds to the sound, and they all knew he was at it again, listening to that sound. It was not pleasant for them as such but they knew Henning, and they let him be. Henning would take vinyl from his children’s collection and paint them green to transform them into a ‘nature-sound-object’. One of his daughter’s shoes went missing for weeks only to turn up nailed to a circular board, again painted green. Obsession and passion. This was Henning’s outlook and approach. Serious, comical and committed in his singular stubborn outlook. Animals.

Fluxid (Musik Essayistik) and Fluxyl (Musik Essayistak) from 1983 and 1984 respectively are less successful experiments that seem to be uncertain where they stand. Both have a bed of straightforward recordings of storms, the ocean, tiny bells chiming and the like, but the meshing of these with more instrumental/compositional passages seem to create friction and insecurity, rather than any symbiotic whole. Whereas the previous works for tape and ‘music’ create a sum greater than the individual parts, these works fall flat as the individual elements lay exposed and uncomfortable sitting next to each other. ‘Kong Frost’ from Fluxyl (Musik Essayistak), referred to as ‘Concerto for oboe and real sounds’, is an example of the traditional instrumental composition coming together with more open-ended sounds. Vocal groaning and a repeated low-end thump is combined with a solo oboe improvisation or composition. The early studies at the academy here clash with the post-Fluxus sound world. It sounds like someone is improvising over pre-recorded sound only to magnify the two elements at play. These pieces seem far less formed in a dramatic sense, and there is a diaristic quality where Henning speaks frankly of current affairs, as with the forthcoming November Rain. The world around him is harnessed as a basic sound and as opposed to any kind of grand position he takes the role of a laid back observer. This could have been a more successful experiment in exploring the mundane but the constant interpolation of the instrumental passages steer these into a confusing mix, which sits uncomfortably in either terrain.

“Recordings only ever remind us of something that is irrevocably past and gone. Yet there is a way of updating the past: in performances Henning Christiansen combines earlier compositions and sound recordings with new live sounds. Thus he builds up cumulative sounds creating complex progression that extends beyond the transience of the individual event. Perhaps this chronological superimposition of audio-spaces – like a piece of paper that is written on again and again – constitutes by far the most consistent relic of the Actions (because it is also the most processual), whereas any visual record, no matter what form it may take, can only ever consist of excerpts” —Hajo Schiff

The technique of re-working older material is a common theme throughout Christiansen’s later works. Sonic motifs re-appear on various recordings, re-contextualised in a manner that highlights the transitory element of sound, a palimpsest as such. The sound of the wolf, a certain piano phrase, these electronic interlopers. All sounds can be locked into a composition but even within these constructed walls there is a restless spirit in which they remain isolated, anxious and adaptable. Henning’s less pedantic approach is one of the more appealing aspects of his craft. He never positioned himself as a visionary or an intellectual. If we take a look at two major works made for ‘stones’ in the late part of the 20th century we may see the crux of what makes Henning’s creative out disarmingly unfamiliar to the general approach of sound artists in the lineage of Cage.

In 1968-74 Christian Wolff wrote an instructive score based around stones, the performer is asked to play these objects as a means of extracting the sound matter from within:

“Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours); for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones wfth stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not break anything.” — Christian Wolff, STONES, (from: Prose Collection, 1968-74)

When one listens to performances of this (justifiably) revered work one gets a sense that the players take a very considered approach, painfully extracting the sonic potential of the stones with all the delicacy of an archeologist brushing away the last remains of dust to see what ancient treasures lurk beneath the surface. Henning Christiansen also recorded stones, but his approach was quite different. He set up a microphone and threw stones into a bucket within the vicinity of the microphone. The resulting patters and clunks are common yet it strikes the listener as unusual. Both are beautiful approaches to the same source in their simplicity and outcome but I don’t think Henning cares if he breaks anything.

Meanwhile, only few decades after Pierre Schaeffer formulated his theories of musique concrete, the work coming out of the GRM started to shift. Sonic representation of the outside world was discarded in favour of highly processed manipulations of the source material via the increasingly available technology that developed at a fast pace during the middle of the 20th Century. At a point the process itself often rendered the original material hideously disfigured. This is all fine and good, these bearded maniacs can chop and maim at will but I never quite understood why the original sound material was no longer incorporated into the whole. Of course Luc Ferrari’s legendary work ‘Presque Rien’ can be seen as an overt reaction to this state of play, and more recently Michel Chion came to similar conclusions as if evidenced in his work ‘La Vie En Prose – Une Symphonie Concrète’ which relies more in the positioning and juxtaposition of everyday (familiar) sound than the annihilation of such material via sonic process. Henning wanted all sounds to play an equal role in the juxtaposition and contribution to the overall work. All of these examples allow for Henning’s work to quietly reside in a space outside of more documented activity of the day.

Late Period – Performances

Throughout the ‘90s Christiansen focused more on performance: not concerts as such, but more elaborate performance constructions of varying scale, from gallery settings and concert halls to elaborate outdoor settings on a large scale. These works, often of extended duration, incorporated a vast array of people, props and material: sonic objects, movement, construction and the like. Again, this period of Henning’s work has been largely undocumented. I had an email exchange with one of the ongoing performers during this period, Christophe Charles, who was involved with the following performances:
1994 Pandora New Box#1 (Stuttgart)
1994 Pandora New Box#2 (Tokyo)
1994 Very Fine and Sein (Nagoya)
1994 Manresa Hbf (Manresa)
1996 Sonambiente – Walhala (Berlin)
1996 World Peace Economy (Copenhagen)
1997 (K)language (Hamburg)
1999 Polar Cirkel, Nord Licht (Berlin)
2001 Derestauration (Venice)

“Most of the projects had a precise theme/concept with a story associated, that is there were a kind of development from A to Z with a beginning and an end. I was given sound material (“Grundton”) to play with – in most of the cases they were already-made compositions- and I was quite free to handle them, although the order and rough timing was decided in advance. During performances with Bjørn Nørgaard, he would build an installation during the allowed time, everyone would work in parallel without searching to synchronize anything, but always looking and hearing to what was happening in order to somehow respond, but there were no cues or precise/calculated timing.” —Christophe Charles

The elements of these actions were often primitive and everything had a microphone hovering above it. Courtesy of Nørgaard, oil was set on fire, fish were strung up on a metal fence, concrete was poured down a wooden ramp, sheep were left wandering in a space. Amongst all this the varying players tinkered away at a wide variety of objects and sonic material. Henning is seen blowing bird whistles, rattling children’s toys, and playing a stone gramophone (which played stones). A crude box (painted green) has a contact mic inside which is used to roughly pick up the sounds of random objects within. Henning and Ursula often recited text. Christophe’s role was often dealing with pre-recorded sound, both Henning’s and his own. As was always the case with Henning’s recordings of this nature, the sounds were re-used and re-contextualised depending on the performance. On occasion, like the Valhalla performance, there was a multi channel system so spatialisation was also incorporated.

Henning didn’t want to interfere with what the musicians whom he had invited had in mind. Charles says, ‘I remember that before the Polar Cirkel concert, he told me: “you do what you want, and I do what I want as well”, meaning he didn’t have to control in any manner what I would do. I guess they had a rough timeline, a kind of graphic score, when necessary. Of course I would use extensively his recordings and remix, resample, add my material, change the order, so it always was a collaboration, where I would use his sounds and my sounds from 0 to 100% depending on the situation. I think he was satisfied with that.’ As I have mentioned there was a large revolving cast of performers in these works including Ute Wassermann (voice), Vilem Wagner (violin), Mary Oliver (violin), David Moss (voice and percussions), Ben Patterson (voice, sound making devices), Juri Madono (voice), Keith Rowe (objects) along with his son Bjørn and wife Ursula.

“(K)language was a concert by Henning and me at the Hamburg HfBK Aula. We had tables in the center of the Aula with speakers on the stairs and behind the audience. Henning had brought a metronome (which was not accurate-regular) and he read one of his books, “Inkonsekvenz” (if I remember well). I made the music in three parts, the first one as a collage of real soundscapes, the second part as a collage of all kinds of music (folk, baroque, classic, rock, etc.) and the third part was a kind of static electronic soundscape.” —Christophe Charles [3]

Henning Christiansen passed away on December 10, 2008. Since this time there has been a slow burning interest in his life’s work that has been gaining traction as this unique oeuvre is discovered by generations old and new. In recent years recordings have appeared and performances of his works are becoming increasingly common. The 2012 Wundergrund Festival in Denmark celebrated the 50th birthday of Fluxus including a special performance component simply entitled ‘HENNING’. Works performed included ‘Henning is repetition’, ‘Henning is No. 1’, ‘Henning is No. 2’, ‘Henning is No. 3’, ‘Henning’s crown’, ‘Henning is green’, ‘Henning crawls’, ‘Henning will out’, ‘Henning banks’ and ‘Henning will enter’.

In the UK in 2013 the exhibition ‘At the moment of being heard’ at the South London Gallery, under the curatorship of Simon Parris, presented the 8-channel sound installation, Symphony Natura op.170, 1985. The collage of electronic drones and animal sounds recorded at the Rome Zoo was presented alongside the original hand-painted scores. UK ensemble Apartment House performed the UK premiere of of Fluxus Organum at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November 2013. For this performance Anton Lukoszevieze arranged a new version of the original church organ tape piece for string quartet. In April this year Anton Lukoszevieze will present Requiem of Art (NYC) Fluxus Organum in New York which will see an extension of this work incorporating a variety of sound interpolations both old and new.

In 2007 the legendary German art curator and collector René Block initiated an art space and residency programme in affiliation with the Henning Christiansen archives on the island of Møn. Kunsthal 44 Møen was set up as a long-standing collaboration between Møn based artists such as Bjørn Nørgaard, Ursula Reuter Christiansen, the deceased Henning Christiansen, along with international actors connected with the FLUXUS-movement. In Autumn 2013 an extensive tribute to Christiansen was held in the recently acquired building next door to the gallery (which also stands opposite to the Christiansen family home). ‘The Hammer Without a Master: Henning Christiansen’s archive’ was an inter-disciplinary exhibition and performance series that invited a host of international artists, composers, musicians and poets to respond to the Henning Christiansen archive. The artists (DK), Jacob Kirkegaard (DK) Tori Wränes (NO), Leif Elggren (SE), Gordon Monahan (CA) Marja-leena Sillanpää (SE) and composers – Tobias Kirstein and Claus Haxholm (GB) Andreas Fuhrer (GB), John Lund (DK) and Vagn E. Olsson (GB) all made works related to an aspect of Christiansen’s output in order to develop a new work that looked back at the legacy of Christiansen’s audio and visual output whilst positioning these in a contemporary context.

The work of Henning Christiansen has endured after his passing. His non-dogmatic stance and unwillingness to fall into certain experimental / new music tropes has resulted in a unique legacy which snakes its way along its path, occasionally rearing its multi-faceted head above ground only to lay low and ferment to appear yet again at a later date. The breadth of musical work undertaken by Christiansen still has yet to be fully investigated but given the rekindled interest in various art/music quarters there is undoubtedly much more to come.■

Selected Compositions

  • Opus 1 Ouverture for strygere (1954)
  • Opus 10 Quintetto ESPRESSIONE (1962)
  • Opus 17 3 Progressive Sonatas for Piano (1962-63)
  • Opus 20 a COLOUR-PIECE (1963)
  • Opus 22 Watersong (1964)
  • Opus 25 to PLAY to DAY (1964)
  • Opus 26 MANRESA (1966) Performers: Joseph Beuys, Bjørn Nørgaard and Henning Christiansen
  • Opus 27 Perceptive Constructions I (1964) (Also published as Psychological Constructions I)
  • Opus 28 Perceptive Constructions II (1964)
  • Opus 36 “1,2,3,4,5” for klaver og ibsen (1966)
  • Opus 39 Fluxorum Organum (1967)
  • Opus 41 Badet (1967) Text by Charlotte Strandgard
  • Opus 50 Requiem of Art fluxorum organum II (1970)
  • Opus 54 Ved morfars begravelse Valdemar Røpke (1959) First performance “at grandfather’s funeral”.
  • Opus 64 SATANS IDYL (1971) Text by Kaj Tølbøll Lauritsen
  • Opus 70 Eventyret om den sædvanlige udsigt (1971) Radio Play by Jørgen Leth
  • Opus 75 One year with a girl (1972)
  • Opus 88 Blomster og forræderiet (1974) Music for the TV opera Blomster og forræderiet.
  • Opus 113 den otteøjede skorpion (1978) TV Thriller opera
  • Opus 116 a mary-lou I (1978) First performance broadcast on Danish Radio on July 7 1979
  • Opus 125 Alfa og Omega (1980) Incidental music for the theatre play Alfa og Omega by Hans Rosenquist
  • Opus 127 Fjenderne (1980) In memory of the murder of Anette Matthiesen in El Salvador March 1980
  • Opus 136 Kirkeby og Edvard Munch (1981)
  • Opus 139 Desire sonata for piano (1981)
  • Opus 158 Tiefland (Beuyspit) (1984-1986) First performance at Teatro Olimpico, Rome, Italy on November 9 1986. Performers: Henning Christiansen, Philip Corner, Terry Fox, Ernst Kretzer, Walter Marchetti, Bjørn Nørgaard, Emmett Williams and 25 chickens.
  • Opus 160 Kingo (1984) Cantata for choir and winds
  • Opus 1984 Green-ear-year, goodday mr. Orwell (1984)
  • Opus 161 Grundton (1984) Performers Ursula Reuter Christiansen and Albert Mertz
  • Opus 164 Lettres de tuba dans la caverne de Penthesilea – in Penthesileas Hohle (1984)
  • Opus 170 Symphony Natura (1985) First performance at Roma-ZOO, Rome, Italy, October 19, 1985 (4-track TEAC tape recorder played through eight loudspeakers surrounding the lake, 3rd version)
  • Friedenskonzert (1985) First performance at Hochschule für bildende Künste, Hamburg, Germany, on November 29, 1985. Performers: Joseph Beuys (on telephone), Henning Christiansen and Nam June Paik.
  • Opus 172 Freundschaft Action für Joseph (1986) Action/performance. Mix of Requium of Art and Schottische Symphony. Dedication: “für Jospeh von Henning”. First performance at Hochschule für bildende Künste, Raum 213 A, Hamburg, Germany on Feruary 4, 1986. Performers: Henning Christiansen and Claus Böhmer.
  • Opus 175 Den røde skov (1986) Music for the film, Den røde skov, by Ursula Reuter Christiansen, 1986.
  • Opus 177 Abschiedssymphonie (1987) Recording: Abschiedssymphonie, Edition Block, Germany, 1988. Mixed from various tapes of the live “Friedenskonzert” performance in Hamburg, Germany, on November 29, 1985.
  • Opus 179 European Zen (1987)
  • Opus 182 NYHAVNSTRUT-HAFENBREI-Stew-music (1987)
  • Reality is a ghost in my mind /
    Reality is a goose in my mind /
    Reality is a glow in my mind /
    Reality is a thought in my mind
    (1998) First performance at Hochschule für bildende Künste, Hamburg, Germany, on June 28, 1988.
  • Opus 185 Nach Wyschnegradsky (1988)
  • Opus 189 Kreuzmusik FLUXID BEHANDLUNG (1989)
  • Opus 190 Erste Liebe (1988-89) Radio play for Westdeutsche Rundfunk. Suite composed over texts by Samuel Beckett.
  • Opus 198 Tamurlaine the Great (1990)
  • Opus 200 RØR-ROHR-TUBE (1991)
  • AORTA / Celtic Soundscape (1991)
  • Opus 205 Stalin Zymphon (1993)
  • Opus 208 yellow yelling (presumably 1993)
  • Opus 209 6 opinions (1994)
  • Opus 214 The peaceful green hammer (presumably 1993)
  • Opus 215 How to eat music (1992)
  • Opus 216 Hjemløse sjaele på vandring (1995) First performance at the opening presentation of Bjørn Nørgaard’s group of scupltures, at Trapholt Museum, Kolding, Denmark, on September 17, 1996.


Release Year Label
Poul Rovsing Olsen / Finn Savery / Henning Christiansen – Prolana Op. 33 For Klarinet, Violin Og Klaver / Sonate For Kontrabas Og Klaver / Sonate For Violin Og Klaver Op. 13 LP 1972 Odeon 6E 063-38074
Niels La Cour / Henning Christiansen / Erik Jørgensen / Rued Langgaard ‎– Mild Und Leise. Strygekvartet Nr. 2 (1969) / 3 Beckett-Sange Op. 14 / Variazioni Per Pianoforte / Strygekvartet Nr. 3 LP 1972 Odeon ‎6E 063 38075
Joseph Beuys / Christiansen ‘Schottische Symphonie / Requiem Of Art 2 versions’ 2LP 1973 Edition Schellmann
Henning Christiansen, Michala Petri Trio & Per Johansen – Satie I Høj Sø LP 1977 Point Records P 5012
Leif Kayser / Per Nørgård / P.P. Pallesson / Henning Christiansen – Copenhagen Brass Band LP 1980 Scandinavian Brass Band Compositions ‎Danica Records
Kirkeby Und/Og/And Edvard Munch, Op. 139 Weltmelodie LP 1981 WM-LP-4718
Henning Christiansen ‎– Konstruktioner LP 1982 Paula Records PAULA 19
Henning Christiansen ‎– Kameliadamens Kærlighed Og Død LP 1983 Borgen Records ‎ HC 03 418-6903-6
Henning Christiansen ‎– Betrayal Vinyl 7″ Numbered box set 1982 Borgen Records ‎– HC 01
Henning Christiansen ‎– Fluxid (Musik Essayistik) LP 1983 Borgen Records ‎– HC 02
Henning Christiansen ‎– Fluxyl (Musik Essayistik) LP 1984 Borgen Records HC 04
Henning Christiansen ‎– Abschiedssymphonie LP 1988 Edition Block ‎– EB 118
Henning Christiansen ‎– “Verena” Vogelzymphon / “Schafe Statt Geigen” CD 1991 Galerie Bernd Klüser ‎– CD 01-91
Henning Christiansen & Ben Patterson & David Moss ‎– Dust Out Of Brain / Staub Aus Dem Gehirn CD 1993 Museum Für Moderne Kunst Weddel
Henning Christiansen ‎– Symphony Natura Vol. 21 Vinyl, LP, Limited Edition 2006 Slowscan
Henning Christiansen ‎– Op. 39 Fluxorum Organum 2LP 2009 Gelbe Musik ‎– GM 67/76, Eventuell ‎– EVTL 07
Henning Christiansen ‎– Kreuzmusik Fluxid Behandlung Op 189 LP 2012 Kye ‎– KYE 18, Penultimate Press ‎– PP4

About the Author

Mark Harwood was born in Ferntree Gully, Australia and now resides in London, UK. He runs the publishing business ‘Penultimate Press’ which investigates forgotten/neglected audio and ideas. He has issued art books by Graham Lambkin, recordings by Henning Christiansen, music from radical French instrument builder Jacques Brodier, a rediscovered work of early minimalism by Dennis Johnson, the only known recordings by Danish artist Poul Gernes and the only full length recording by short lived 90’s Polish outfit Księżyc. Mark also records and performs under the name ‘Astor’ with two lp’s, ‘Alcor’ (2012) and ‘Inland’ (2013) released by Kye records.


  1. You can hear this song here:
  2. The video may be viewed here:
  3. The site is currently down, but if it returns a short edit of this recording can be head here: Notation here:

Henning Christiansen ‘Dust out of brain / Klangobjekte

Copenhagen Wundergrund / US election 2008

Performers Henning Christiansen, David Moss, Ben Patterson & Reinhold Friedl

Photo: York Wegerhoff

Modeller (portion) Opus 33, 1964-1965

Photo from the Symphony Natura recording, Rome Zoo, 1985 (Photographer unknown)

Section of The MANRESA series 1986
Photo: York Wegerhoff, 2007

Hesteofringen / The Horse Sacrifice (Stable/Ritual Dissection of a Horse) 1970

Performers: Kirke Hyllinge, Sjælland, Danmark with Bjørn Nørgaard and Lene Adler Petersen

Photo: Jørgen Schytte, 1970

World Peace Economy VI
The Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, 2001
Performers: Henning Christiansen, Ursula Reuter Christiansen,
Bjørn Nørgaard, Ute Wassermann
Photo: Wolfgang Träger, 2001

Aachen, Germany
Photographer unknown, 1989

CELTIC (Kinloch Rannoch)
Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1970

Part of the musical score for Symphony Natura 1985
Photo: York Wegerhoff, 2007

Henning Christiansen
Photo: York Wegerhoff, year unknown

Henning Christiansen Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Strategy- Get Arts Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland
Collage by Richard De Marco, 1970

Lagerplatz – Beuys Pit – 75 Jahre – Walhalla, 11th August 1996
Storage Area – Beuys’ Pit – 75 Years – Valhalla
Performers: Bjørn Nørgaard, Christoff Charles and Gordon W
Photo: Susanne Peters

Henning Christiansen at Aarhus kunstmuseum
Aarhus, Denmark
Photographer unknown, year unknown

Henning Christiansen ‎– Abschiedssymphonie back cover Edition Block – EB 118, Germany, 1988