Story: 11/29

Per Nørgård


Edition Wilhelm Hansen, 2012

Extraordinary everyday

To celebrate the 80th birthday of Denmark’s great composer Per Nørgård, Edition Wilhelm Hansen commissioned me to design the release of his work Titanic, written and first performed in 1962. The music publisher gave me a rich supply of beautiful scores, old newspaper articles, notes and essays – not to mention Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig’s poem about the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ ocean liner.

His text describes the experiences of the people on-board during the sinking of the great symbol of modernity. It is recited over a background of Nørgård’s recorded fragments of evocative sounds and music.

Nørgård’s own written account of the first performance – itself on the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the ocean liner – was also to be included. His tape equipment failed and the performance ‘sank’.

There was a lot of interesting material accompanying the work so I asked if we could release it as a proper book with the disc housed at the back. To my delight, the publisher said yes.

Being allowed to work with a format as luxurious as this is a rare treat in my practice. Budgets tend to dictate that the packaging is as cheap as possible – which means using standardised factory formats. Text has to be laid out at minimum point size in order to fit into a thin booklet that can insert into a plastic case or cardboard wallet pocket. This time, however, there were 80 pages, meaning lots of space for proper-sized text and plenty of pictures.

With the Titanic being very much at the centre of the work, my research focused on finding picture material directly related to it. To my surprise and delight, I quickly came across photographs by the Irish priest, Frank Browne, who was actually on-board the Titanic in 1912 as it sailed from Southampton to Cobh in Ireland, before it took off across the Atlantic to meet its fate. The photographs had been lost for many years and rediscovered in 1985.

His casual shots of everyday scenes aboard the ship – people standing looking over decks, sun rays hitting the surface of the sea, waves hitting the bow – are quite undramatic and would almost be dull if you didn’t know they were actually taken on the Titanic itself. I found this quality of everydayness very touching and suitable alongside the poem, where the passengers experience the sinking as quite unreal and as if they are part of a dream.

Alongside Browne’s original photographs, I incorporated scans of Nørgård’s original score (made of fantastic collages of clippings, drawings, timelines, text and notes), a newspaper article from 1962 featuring a review of the original performance and the original transcript of an emergency call from the Titanic (it was one of the first ships ever to transmit the SOS Morse code signal) ‘We are sinking fast. Passengers being put into boats…’.