Under your skin: Hesteofringen - Henning Christiansen

Image courtesy of Holidays Records.

This oddity from boutique Milanese label Holidays Records makes for a disquieting and arresting listen across its 8 minutes and 55 seconds. A single-sided 10” in beautifully minimal respectively white/green and red/white outer and inner sleeves, it transcends its origins as the soundtrack to a singularly bizarre and brutal piece of Danish conceptual/performance art.

Broadcast to a large portion of the Danish population in January 1970, Hesteofringen (‘Horse Sacrifice’) was the ostensible ritual slaughtering and dismemberment of a horse in protest of the ongoing war in Vietnam (the horse was actually very old and put down humanely by a vet). Initiated by Bjørn Nørgaard, this ‘happening’ is captured on silent super 8 footage - a medium that is lent an additional strange horror by the fact that it was so often used to record home videos in the past. The record sleeve’s colour scheme is no coincidence – on a snowy plain in northern Denmark, we see (multimedia and performance artist) Lene Adler Pedersen incanting as a ‘priestess’ while wearing a red, black and white robe, a reflection of sorts of the horse’s dark body bleeding out onto white ground as it is hacked up - while Fluxus-associated Beuys collaborator Henning Christiansen accompanies the act on a green violin (this scene is documented in a vibrant colour photograph on the inner sleeve). The only sound in the film is the music documented on the record, which is partly repeated later in the film (17 and a half minutes long).

The music (a piece that is actually entitled ‘Min døde hest’ – ‘My dead horse’) consists of Pedersen, childlike, singing a poem by Nørgaard; Nørgaard plays plangent, cyclical piano chords while Christiansen draws out atonal, creaky, moans from his violin. The voice is the part that dominates, the part that captivates most – nothing so unusual about that – mourning, distracted, absent. But the (Danish) lyrics repeat the piece’s title again and again, with interjections about crawling inside the dead horse, “Oh, your soft intestines”, and “dead horse on bread”. We do not need to comprehend the lyrics literally (a kind Discogs user, Google translate and the sleevenotes are to thank for these transcriptions/translations) to understand that this voice speaks of a profound loneliness.

The music is perhaps very slightly reminiscent of John Cage’s songs for piano and voice (as found on ECM’s 2012 release As It Is), or Erik Satie, or Patty Waters, but one tends to think more of Jandek, or Grouper (particularly Ruins) in the sense that - irrespective of the actual circumstances of the playing of the music - this sounds like a room containing one person, singing inwardly, lamenting, not taking much care to the execution of the playing, more trying to work through something harrowing, and perhaps finding they are inadequately emotionally or linguistically facilitated to do so. Holidays Records describe the piece as a ‘sad lullaby’ and it’s hard to argue with this description. Lullabies are often used to sing children to sleep, especially if they are unsettled or temporarily troubled; this sounds like someone singing herself to sleep, slipping back into something infant, seeking comfort, warmth, protection.

  Lene Adler Pedersen and Henning Christiansen perform  Hesteofringen  (film still found on inner sleeve).

Lene Adler Pedersen and Henning Christiansen perform Hesteofringen (film still found on inner sleeve).

In Christiansen’s ‘THOUGHTS ABOUT A DEAD HORSE (and an attempt to move on)’ (February 1970), presented as sleevenotes to Hesteofringen, he underlines the existential isolation that echoes through the record: “Our most immediate problem is contact among people. For the last five years, the code word has been communication, but this was on an external level. At stake now is the internal level.” The hippy-ish context of that most late-60s/early-70s artwork, ‘the happening’, and the references to mysticism throughout Christiansen’s statement tend to make one suspicious of this assertion, but it is not so distant from Lacanian thought around language’s alienating effects – most basically (so one is given to understand), that there is a fundamental, irresolvable disconnect within each one of us that leads to an innate dissatisfaction, and language (as an external system) bears much of the responsibility. While the then-fashionable quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo contained in Christiansen’s 48-year old statement is to some degree validated by tracts of poststructuralist theory, it is really a tautology, irrelevant. As interesting as the sleevenotes are, and as fascinating as the original artwork/performance is, the song resonates all the louder by itself.

Hesteofringen lends some voice to that alienation, without resolving it. That language here has to some degree broken down - become repetitive, twisted, obsessive - is surely no coincidence; not understanding the literal meaning of the words (though the repetition is obvious) actually enhances this sensation of alienation. That the voice, piano and violin all sound slightly misaligned, disjointed, heightens the sensation further still; but the voice alone transmits this alienation well enough, and the loneliness conveyed makes one a voyeur. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, spying on private trauma.

“Oh, just the whole world was a dead horse.”

Crawling inside your “dear, dead horse” won’t bring it back to life; it may protect you from the elements for a while, but the world remains outside.

This may make the record sound horrific, unbearable, unlistenable, but it is far too beautiful to honestly deem it so. Hesteofringen is undeniably stark, strange, discomfiting; but its hypnotic melancholy cannot help but get under your skin.

Hesteofringen is out now on Holidays Records, in a limited edition of 350 copies. Thanks to Low Company Records for bringing it to our attention.

Andrew R. Hill


Bibliography

Ghosh, Mallika. “Lacan and Post-Structuralism.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology (IJSSA), Dec. 2016, pp. 85–89., http://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0e8b/d896781fe72f4533098794afbc64b4586949.pdf.

Harwood, Mark. “Nature and Culture.” Surround, Apr. 2014, surround.noquam.com/nature-and-culture/.

Hvidt, Annette Rosenvold. “About the Work: The Horse Sacrifice.” Statens Museum for Kunst, 22 Mar. 2017, www.smk.dk/en/visit-the-museum/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/2010/bjoern-noergaard/about-the-work-the-horse-sacrifice/.

Lechte, John. “Jacques Lacan.” Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: from Structuralism to Postmodernity, Routledge, 1994, pp. 77–81.