updated 29 January 2024
© Lars Svankjær

Simon Steen-Andersen

Danish composer born 24 April 1976 in Odder.

Simon Steen-Andersen was born in Denmark in 1976. From 1998 to 2006, he studied composition with Karl-Aage Rasmussen, Mathias Spahlinger, Gabriel Valverde, and Bent Sørensen in Aarhus, Freiburg, Buenos Aires, and Copenhagen.

Since 2008, he has taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark, where he became associate professor in 2018. In 2013-14, he taught at the Oslo Music Academy, and in 2014 and 2016 at the Darmstadt Summer Courses. In 2017, he was a guest professor at the Berlin University of the Arts (UKB). He currently lives and works in Berlin as a composer, performer, and creator of sound installations. In 2016, he became a member of the German Academy of the Arts. His catalogue includes instrumental works, electronic music, and multi-media and performance pieces. He has also been teaching composition and musical theatre at the Bern University of the Arts (Switzerland) since 2018.

Since the late 2000s, his work has become more focused on the physical and choreographic aspects of instrumental performance. His scores regularly call for amplification, along with the use of samplers, video, household items, and homemade instruments.

He has been commissioned and performed by ensembles and orchestras including Ensemble Recherche, Neue Vokalsolisten, SWR Orchestra, Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, Ensemble Ascolta, JACK Quartet, Ensemble Modern, Oslo Sinfonietta, 2e2m, ICTUS, Ensemble intercontemporain, and Klangforum Wien, and by festivals such as Donaueschinger Musiktage, Ultraschall, Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik, and ECLAT.

Awards, Grants, and Prizes

  • Mauricio Kagel Music Prize, 2017
  • Siemens Composers Prize, 2017
  • Nordic Council Music Prize, 2014
  • SWR Orchestra Prize, 2014
  • Carl Nielsen Prize, (Denmark) 2013
  • Kunstpreis Musik, Akademie der Künste (Berlin), 2013
  • International Rostrum of Composers, 2010
  • DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm Residence, 2010
  • Kranichsteiner Music Award 2008

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2024


Edition·S, Copenhague.

By Michèle Tosi

Composer, performer, sound artist – the terms Simon Steen-Andersen uses to define himself as a creator tie him to a community of artists involved with sound and the space in which it is sculpted. He is content to be surrounded by this experimentation, and he ascribes great importance to gesture and the visual perspective of actions taking place: “My goal is not to situate myself in a place (music) and then to add something else (visuals) but to situate myself inside the music, and then to hear it from that location1”. In his pursuit of the concept of audio-visual music, Steen-Andersen uses every trick of the imagination to show the music as much as making it audible. While amplification and video play a key role in his compositional work, he avoids anything resembling technological sophistication, preferring to find solutions in the score itself or with “low-tech” tools he sometimes builds himself and can operate in real time. Without ignoring traditional frameworks and models, Steen-Andersen strives to make them evolve, even to reinvent them, according to his own compositional vision. With some sixty works in his catalogue, which began in 1998, Steen-Andersen pursues his work with the same conviction, in a highly personal artistic universe, targeting ever more finely the point at which the sonic and the visual converge.

Showing movement

In 1999, while still a student in Aarhus, Steen-Andersen wrote his first string quartet, demonstrating from the outset his interest in strings, and, more specifically, in the movement that the bow makes as it moves through space. “I considered energy to be the only base material,” he says, to explain this short work of his youth, already emblematic of what was to come. Both form and the musical material are burst open in the piece’s four parts, as Steen-Andersen was most interested in the trajectory of sound and the energy propelling it. Even in these early works, he felt the need to bring music out of its abstract sphere and give it a physical existence by showcasing the gestures that bring it into existence and the source that produces it. In this, his approach bears some resemblance to that of Helmut Lachenmann and his concept of “Musique concrète instrumentale”. Pression for cello is in this sense emblematic of the German composer. In it, the stringed instrument appears as “an object to scrutinize, to dismantle, and whose function still remains to be discovered,” wrote Martin Kaltenecker in his authoritative work on Lachenmann2. This approach to the instrument, as an object to explore, and even to dismantle, as one sees the performers doing in In Spite Of And Maybe Even Therefore (2007), is part of Steen-Andersen’s artistic approach, which is a reflection on how to visualize the “operation”, seeking balance between what is seen and what is heard. Study for string instruments #1-3 (2007-2011) is a significant set of pieces with regard to how his work has evolved in the field of audio-visual music: “The movement of sound or the sound of movement?” he asked in the program note for Study #13. Only the movements (of the bow and the left hand) are noted in the score, which, for this reason, can be played on any stringed instrument (or even on instruments from other families). “It is a choreography for a performer as much as it is music for an instrumentalist; in other words, a kind of choreographic game, or even a sort of dance that accompanies itself,” he continues, in his introduction to the work. Study #1 limits the field of investigation to the glissando, a gesture-movement much prized by the composer: “A glissando is a beautiful and neutral material. There is no harmony, nor even necessarily a beginning or an end, it remains freely suspended. That is why I frequently use glissandos […]. If it is done correctly and well-balanced, the glissando lends itself to doing things where one can no longer tell what came first: the idea of the movement or the sounding result4”. In the version for trombone (with mute) and cello (practically unpitched), the movement of the slide is the counterpoint to the movement of the bow in a duly constructed space.

His series of thirteen “translations” titled Next to Beside Besides (NTBB for short) was a long-term adventure for the composer. Written between 2003 and 2006, it originated in the cello piece Beside Besides. The piece asks that the cellist employ specific, minutely-crafted performance techniques for the bow and the left hand, and Steen-Andersen pulls the instrument’s sound (it is fitted with a metal mute) toward noise, thus showcasing the carefully choreographed gestures. This gave the composer the idea of using these movements, “translating” them for all sorts of instruments without thinking about the sound itself. “I enjoyed upending the hierarchy of movement and sound,” he explains5. Thus began the series Next to Beside Besides #1-13 (2003-2006), “choreographic translations” (for piccolo, accordion, violin, saxophone, piano, guitar, etc.) in which the same motions are reproduced on different “sound bodies.” Placed beside the cellist, the percussionist playing the amplified snare drum (NTBB #4) uses their right hand to rub “furioso” the shell of the drum while their left hand holds three drumsticks in tension over the batter head, executing the finest variations in the score6. Here, gesture is no longer dependent on the sound produced (typically, intention precedes the instrumental technique or gesture); nor is it an agent of the composition. Instead, it is considered in and of itself, and may – or may not – result in a sound. The translation for miniature video camera (NTBB #10) is in fact completely silent. It should be added that each instrument is prepared (muted, muffled, or otherwise diverted from its habitual sounds) as a way of drawing the listener’s attention away from the instrument’s referential sound and to the movement operated on the instrument itself. The thirteen versions of this series can be played separately or performed at the same time, as an ensemble of pieces in “unison mode” in which the like and the unlike cohabitate.

Steen-Andersen’s second string quartet (2012) has a similar goal: it is “a bow quartet,” as he puts it, which jolts habitual listening modes and calls forth a new genre. Radical and pathbreaking in its approach, the composer brings a new perspective to writing for strings that upends the process of modes of production; in other words, the active role of the left hand (position, intonation, vibrato, etc.), which is dependent on the activity of the bow, is displaced by giving this active role to the movement of the right hand, and thus to the bow itself. In this way, all of the timbral qualities sought in the traditional performance of a string quartet are wiped away and replaced by a noisy substance which is hardly differentiated from one instrument to the next. In this “bow quartet”, the wood of the bows are prepared and equipped with captors to get “closer” to the friction of the bow against the strings. What results resembles the zoom lens of a camera, with a striking lag between what might conceivably be audible in this context and what is actually heard thanks to the amplification. A similar phenomenon occurs in Rerendered (2003-2004), in which the piano is “under construction”; unexpected things – the “impurities” that interest Steen-Andersen as much as pure sound does – burst forth by chance depending on the gestures and the resistance of the different materials. What emerges is a universe of precise sounds, whose rhythmic features are surprisingly diverse: rubbing, creaking, granulations, parasitic noises, tiny patches of roughness or crackling – everything is meticulously noted on the score, and conducted through actions produced by short processes. The composer evokes the Amiga 5007 of his younger years in the acoustic quality of the bows, which for him recall the sounds he discovered on his four-channel sound generator. In this way, from synthesized sound to acoustic reality, the String Quartet N. 2 shows a passage from the abstract to the concrete so sought after by the composer.

Lo-fi, low-tech…

With his feeling for the practical and a fondness for objects he can manipulate, Steen-Andersen scrupulously chooses his tools and models his sound devices with vivid imagination. In On And OFF And To And Fro, he uses three Velleman M25SFM megaphones (bell-end megaphones with rectangular microphones), which are no longer being manufactured – “a historic model, a bit like a Stradivarius,” he jokes8. Standing on stage beside his violinist partner, in Study #2, the composer operates his Whammy pedal9 in time with the movement of the performer’s bow (gesture synchronization with no Antescofo!), sculpting the instrument’s sound in real time. Steen-Andersen, a fan of the low-tech, uses a surveillance camera relayed through QuickTime in his video work. “Having both perfect cinematographic quality, high resolution, and intense color is not a good idea. It sends you back into the ordinary hierarchy between film and background music”, he notes10. In Run Time Error (2009), a favorite of the composer’s, in which he performs, he is filmed wandering around a hotel basement (or any other carefully prepared space), equipped with a microphone he uses to investigate any surfaces/objects/textures that might catch his ear. A kind of nutty percussionist, he tests, bumps, and scratches anything that might react to his drumstick, in a kind of acrobatic – and sometimes comical – hunt for sounds and noises for his microphone. One also perceives the performer’s nervous energy as he pants for breath. In concert, the resulting audio-visual material is projected onto a screen through two video channels and a stereophonic sound installation. The double projection is “played” in a sophisticated canon, or, more precisely, a highly virtuosic “two-part invention”. Controlling the production is Steen-Andersen himself, who, in real time, reworks the images projected in each channel using two video-game-like joysticks.

The electroacoustic space for his mixed pieces requires a “sampler” that the composer has been using in his work since 2008. That year, he composed Chambered Music, which uses twelve instruments and a sampler. Similar to “Besides” and many other titles, “Chambered Music” is a term invented by Steen-Andersen for his own purposes. The meticulousness of the engineering is equalled only by the diversity of materials used to set up the interactive field between the visuals and sounds, between the real and the virtual. Here, the sound depends on the place it has been “chambered” into (piano, various containers) and on the opening movement that might set it free. The goings and comings incarnated in the gestures of the performers (open/shut) as well as the sounds themselves, set the balance between music and movement. Pretty sound (2008), subtitled “up and down”, takes this experiment to piano keys, which are pressed down and released by a piece of wood that Steen-Andersen built himself and operates live. In Korpus for three of Harry Partch’s instruments (Marimba Eroica, Chromelodeon, Bloboy), the composer pays tribute to this brilliant American inventor in a work-performance in which four assistants, seated next to the performers, prepare the Marimba Eroica live onstage. Composing, as Lachenmann said, means building an instrument.

The back and forth often evoked in Steen-Andersen’s titles (On And Off And To And Fro, Up and Down, In-Side-Out-Side-In, etc.), like the concept of duality, stimulate the composer’s imagination. Other, no less evocative titles bear witness to this inspiration — Self-simulator, Self-reflecting Next to Beside Besides — evoke the idea of the doppelgänger and its aura of mystery and ambiguity. The heart of the experience of Study for String Instrument #3 (2011) is a pre-recorded video of the cellist, which is projected onto their body over the course of the performance. The gestures of the two cellists (one real, one virtual), fall slowly out of synch, setting off a series of unexpected and fanciful “choreographic variations”. “Really”, the composer acknowledges, “my pieces are not simple at all. And when you want to enter them choreographically, rather than simply performing the actions, when the movements take on such significance that they have to be practiced in front of a mirror, well, then, everything becomes very difficult […]. And when you see that the video is signalling or directing a bit and that the musicians react by grooving together, the authentic feeling of chamber music emerges11”. In Double up (2010) — whose title also has a double meaning —the sampler becomes a partner to the orchestra. It is placed downstage, as a soloist, in an inversion of points of view that the composer is particularly fond of: “Normally one speaks of an ensemble or an orchestra with tape. In reality, here we have a sampler accompanied by an orchestra12”. The digital instrument is thus the conducting element, to which the orchestra must react. Steen-Andersen had recorded some hundred sound samples in the outside world and in everyday life. They are “reflected” in the orchestral writing, which enlarges certain details or distorts the material to “blur” perceptions. The original idea was to question the idea of “son concret” (what Luc Ferrari would call “sounds of everyday life”) as having meaning (what it evokes) and as sound matter (the abstract musical dimension). The first part of Double up is supposed to tell a story, with a sequence of events that emits a number of sound “signals” (the breathing of a sleeping person, alarm clock, shower, steps in a staircase, ambulance siren in the street, etc.) which are then repeated, amplified, and transformed by the instrumental writing in a micro-montage that is both virtuosic and unsettling. Steen-Andersen plays around with the narration, defies linearity, and seeks to create ambiguity between what comes out of the sampler and what is being played by the orchestra. The second part of the piece repeats the same sampled sounds but this time considers their “musical linearity,” always vis-a-vis its orchestral doppelgänger. Scales of pitches and noises are varied to return to the realm of abstract music. In Double up, the “concrete” sound is “remusicalized” to create a never-ending back and forth (abstract-concrete-abstract) that is at the core of Steen-Andersen’s approach.


If Steen-Andersen, like his “brother in irony” Mauricio Kagel, takes a critical stance toward tradition and musical genres – as his “bow quartet” illustrates well – the composer nevertheless does not disdain the concerto form, and in 2005 added Amongst, for highly amplified guitar and large orchestra, to his catalogue, followed by Ouvertures (2008-2010), a fascinating work for Western ears written for Guzheng (Chinese zither), sampler, and orchestra13, where the gestures of the performer and the sound universe they create are amplified and echoed in the orchestral portion of the piece. In 2014, the unexpected dimensions of his Piano Concerto, with sampler, video, and orchestra, a commission from the Donaueschingen festival, appeared to confirm the composer’s commitment to working in the world of audio-visual music. “I like complex moments that are very energetically charged,” Steen-Andersen announced14, such as the opening – and rather traumatic – image of a piano smashed on the ground projected in silence on a screen at the beginning of the concerto. Using video and “slow-slow motion” techniques (a kind of time microscope), the composer zooms in on the moment of the instrument’s fall and the resulting destruction. “Huge energy is released from the instrument without its being played […]. That is what music in general and my music in particular are about: the up-close observation of intense moments15”. The orchestra begins to play at the moment the instrument smashes, in time extended to echo the slow-motion of the image: a huge, shifting, tutti cluster, held for a long time before the sound mass is progressively filtered, a slow inflection that accompanies the phase of return to rest. This striking preamble is the root of the concerto itself, as the smashed piano is “restored” and later appears, life-sized, on the screen beside the real grand piano. It is played by the evening’s soloist16 – a virtual Nicolas Hodges – who shares the spotlight with his real double. Wearing black fingerless gloves in anticipation of the many glissandi that will be played on the keyboard, the live pianist plays their part as well as the virtual piano part using the sampler placed above the keyboard. In this work, Steen-Andersen is in some ways continuing the adventure he started in Double up, and the orchestra absorbs and reproduces the warped, noisy, distorted, and highly untempered sounds coming from the damaged piano: “For at that moment, it is not music in the sense of abstract expression; to the contrary, it becomes concrete: it is the imitation of a broken instrument17”. This is how the composer sums up the destructive process of an action that could have caused even more damage. A music of highly discontinuous gestures and a slight disarticulation, often looped, reproduce the often jerky and de-humanized movements of the pianist in the video. In another “energetically charged” moment, a “pas de deux” between the orchestra and the piano projected on the screen creates rhythmic “back and forths”, this time more comical than traumatic, before and during the destruction. The sound body observed in slow motion and in its three dimensions (several cameras were used for the filming) takes on an unexpected sculptural quality.

Stage music

The stage as a performance space is a Steen-Andersen space par excellence, which the composer seems to call forth in each new work with the theatrical gestures he employs, as well as the choreographic dimension of his work. The boundary between concert piece, musical theatre, or stage actions is quite porous for the composer, and Steen-Andersen sometimes locates his work at the margins of all known genres. History of My Instrument (2011) for harp (prepared and amplified) and video tends toward musical theatre with the caustic humor of Kagel. This audio-visual performance, weakened by disastrous technical issues, is several times plunged into darkness. With virtuosic agility, Steen-Andersen mixes real time and flashbacks, live performance and playback, engendering a jubilant slippage between real and virtual, with a dose of detached humor. Both sight and sound are called upon for Black Box Music (2012) for solo percussionist, amplified box, fifteen instrumentalists, and video, in which Steen-Andersen shares a strange outlook on the world and its conventions. The scenography is limited to a black box that becomes a kind of puppet theatre. The performer puts their hands and forearms into the box, making gestures in a slightly unsettling way toward the instrumental ensemble, which is placed behind the audience. The live video image projected onto a big screen gives the performance its broad spatial scope. “Black Box could be said to be a deconstruction of conducting and of puppet theatre” – it implodes at the end of the third act – “as well as an exploration or exploitation of the audio/visual relations inherent in conducting and staging,” the composer writes in the notes for the score. His whimsical imagination can be seen at work again in Inszenierte Nacht / Stage Night where he “stages” works by Bach (Schlummert ein), Mozart (der Hölle Rasche), Schumann (Traumerei), and Ravel (Scarbo) using an ad hoc instrumental and stage device (lighting plays a central role) as well as deformations-slippages applied to the musical material. In this way, Steen-Andersen gives new life to a number of masterpieces of the classical repertoire – he quotes widely but never completely literally – using contemporary visuals and sounds. Without any disrespect, the parodic aspect of the piece allows the composer’s great tenderness for his peers to filter through.

Buenos Aires (alias “Good Airs”) is a significant step away from Steen-Andersen’s usual style, even though the live video and even the “Self-Simulator”18 integrate some of its elements. The idea goes back to 2003-2004, when the composer was studying with Gabriel Valverde in Buenos Aires. The work premiered in Oslo in 2014, during the Ultima Festival. Steen-Andersen initially described it as a chamber opera, and then as “Music Theatre”. The piece was performed by five vocalists – the Stuttgart Neue Vocalsolisten — and four instrumentalists (clarinet, cello, guitar, and percussion) from the Asamisimasa Ensemble, a tight-knit Norwegian group with whom Steen-Andersen had been working for several years. Listening to the piece, one cannot ignore that the characters do not actually sing in Buenos Aires, and indeed the genre of opera is strongly called into question, notably in the first scene, titled Aria, in which one of the characters points out the absurdity of singing as a form of communication. The sound experience consists more in real-time modifications to spoken voices, with electronics executed by the composer. He in fact appears in the fourth scene (Mi manca la voce) to explain directly to the musicians what he wants them to do. The composer wrote the libretto himself, and, “as the title indicates,” Steen-Andersen noted, “Buenos Aires is about good air. As well as bad air […]” – in other words, about dictatorship in all its forms, a denunciation that ironically infiltrates the piece’s dramaturgy. Never before has a political message been formulated so clearly as it is in this protest piece.

To question, to divert, to deflect, to destroy, to restore, to reinvent: movement spurs the very process of creation for Simon Steen-Andersen – a back-and-forth movement. This is indeed Steen-Andersen’s leitmotif, planted at the heart of each new project, which oscillates unceasingly between critical stance and innovation. Offering deft variations on the concept of audio-visual music, in 2016 Steen-Andersen designed If This Then That And Now What for the Munich Biennale, “Stage Music” for four actors and eighteen instruments, which he created entirely on his own – dramaturgy, scenography, lighting design – as well as directing. This new opus broadened the semantic field of his titles, while the work itself reached for the balance he seeks between sound and visual using a specially designed system through which sound is perceived when light reveals it. Here, the “black box” has been expanded to fill the stage, with two levels (“up and down”) linked by stairwells stage left and stage right. Twelve stringed instruments (violins, violas, cellos, and double basses; three to a part) are lined up downstage, from one end to the other. Two trombones sit beside each other above them, framed by the four percussionists. The scenography is revealed very slowly, as the instruments, all of which are amplified, are left in darkness when they are not played. As in baroque opera, whose music is referenced in the work, the “prologue” has an allegorical dimension, expressed by the comings and goings of a character opening and shutting a door stage right, setting off both the light and the sound: “Open/shut, back and forth,” one might say, in the language of Steen-Andersen. The German text, written by the composer, is spoken by actors, and functions as a kind of aesthetic lecture, even if this “concert-lecture,” backed up with sound examples, transgresses its pedagogical thrust and overflows the boundaries of the genre in order to push the sound and visual experience as far as possible, often buoyed by an undercurrent of humor. Evoking many earlier pieces whose central concepts he brings back to life, If This Then That And Now What is a manifesto, a dialogue between the sound artist and his own artistic goals, which give the measure of both his mastery and his dazzling imagination.

  1. Simon Steen-Andersen, Musique transitive, published by 2e2m, “à la ligne” Collection, 2014, p. 9.
  2. Martin KALTENECKER, Avec Helmut Lachenmann, Van Dieren, Paris, 2001, p. 45.
  3. All scores (with the exception of String Quartet N. 1) may be consulted through the website Edition.S music-sound-art.
  4. Simon Steen-Andersen, Musique transitive, op. cit. p. 33.
  5. Ibid. p. 34.
  6. cf. NTBB for cello and percussion on YouTube, performed by the UME duo.
  7. The Amiga 500 is one of the first computers in the 1980s to come with a sound card.
  8. See on this subject Martin Kaltenecker’s analysis of this work in Simon Steen-Andersen, Musique transitive, op. cit. p. 55-76.
  9. Simon Steen-Andersen, Musique transitive, op. cit. p. 33.
  10. The Whammy pedal, a favorite tool of Steen-Andersen’s, is a digital effects pedal designed for electric guitar, the first one to feature a pitch-shifting effect.
  11. Simon Steen-Andersen, Musique transitive, op. cit. p. 39.
  12. Ibid. p. 37.
  13. Steen-Andersen was the winner of a competition organized by the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival for which each composer was asked to propose a project that used a traditional instrument and a Chinese melody. The concerto premiered in 2008 and was expanded under the title Ouvertures; the new version was performed in 2010 by the soloist Liu Le and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.
  14. Excerpts of an interview with Simon Steen-Andersen by Bernd Künzig in the liner notes to a DVD available on the Neos label (2014).
  15. Ibid.
  16. A reference to the DVD of the premiere of Piano Concerto with Nicolas Hodges and the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; conducted by François-Xavier Roth.
  17. Interview with Simon Steen-Andersen by Bernd Künzig, op. cit. An excerpt of interview transcription is available here: https://jajajamusic.com/magma/simon-steen-andersen/ (link verified 23 December 2021).
  18. Designed by the composer in 2009, this device uses a camera and captors placed on the performer’s body to project their virtual double into the space with them.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2019


Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en juillet 2020).


  • Pierre ROULLIER, Rasmus HOLMBOE, Bernd KÜNZIG, Michèle TOSI, Martin KALTENECKER, Simon Steen-Andersen : Musique transitive, éditions 2e2m, 2014.

Discographie sélective

  • Simon STEEN-ANDERSEN, De Profundis (Version for soprano saxophone and percussion), Xelo Giner, dans « De Produndi », avec des œuvres de György Kurtag, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Carlos David Perales, et al., 1 CD Naxos, 2021, 8.579094.
  • Simon STEEN-ANDERSEN, Piano Concerto, dans « Donaueschinger Musiktage 2014 », avec des oeuvres de Peter Ablinger, Chiyoko Szlavnics, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino, Friedrich Cerha, et al., 1 SACD + 1 DVD Neos, 2015, Neos 11522-24.
  • Simon STEEN-ANDERSEN, « Black Box Music », 1 DVD Dacapo Records, 2014.
  • Simon STEEN-ANDERSEN, On And Off And To And Fro ; Rerendered ; In her Frown ; Pretty Sound (Up and Down) ; Study for String Instrument #2, ensemble Asamisimasa, dans « Pretty Sound », 1 CD Dacapo 2011.
  • Simon STEEN-ANDERSEN, In-side-out-side-in, dans « Within », avec des œuvres de Bent Sørensen, Jeppe Just Christensen, Niels Rønsholdt, 1 CD Danacord, 2011, DACOCD 711.