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“Nordic Nights in D-flat” – A conversation with Ketil Bjørnstad about „The light”

“Life in Leipzig” was issued a few months ago, now comes “The Light” – after the outgoing even physical music from the duo with Terje Rypdal this sensitive and tender Nordic atmosphere. Are these the two faces of Ketil Bjørnstad?

Yes, in a certain way, however it makes an enormous difference if you are playing and combating with an electric guitar like Terje’s or if you have a viola-player like Lars Anders Tomter by your side. The instruments tend to define the soundscapes already and of course I have to relate to these soundscapes even if I’m playing my own music. Of course we could have been much more poetic even with Terje, but it simply came out this way after all our touring together.

“By the Fjord”, the third piece on the present record, figures prominently on both albums. What is so special about this song?

I actually wrote “By the Fjord”, “Sommernatt Ved Fjorden” already in 1978 and it has been a real radio hit in Norway ever since, which strikes me as quite unusual given the fact that it has nothing to do with pop music but is rather close to romantic art song. The text is related to my novel “Oda” but I never thought about that in a strategic way.

Still, it seems to demonstrate how closely interconnected your activities as a musician and as a writer really are.

In the earlier years I used to separate the two areas quite strictly, I was very eager to define the different territories because I didn’t want to be regarded as a superficial artist, leaning on both fields. Now, since I’ve begun to write novels about music, it has become much easier, but it really took some years to recognise that, since it’s me who is doing both, things are very much tied together. The central aspect about the text of this particular song – and I’m more conscious about it now than ever – is the fact that nature and light are really doing something with you when you live in the north. People are sleeping very little during these weeks in summer and they tend to be extremely exhausted when autumn comes. There is an enormous intensity in social life, and that’s very obvious in the “Oda”-novel because very much there happens in summer time.

Summer opens your heart to the most authentic emotions…

In a way…and then we are living in a fringe area in Europe, we are not in the centre, I always compare that to the theatre pieces by Anton Čechov, where the people are far away from Moscow and are constantly longing for Moscow because they are so bored. In Norway we are not bored but we feel we are far away from the cosmopolitan centres.

Which, from a modern standpoint, you really aren’t, considering all these artists so well established in central Europe. In this respect Norway rather seems to be omnipresent, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s right and there are manifold reasons for that. But, in fact, it was ECM that has done so much for the understanding of our culture for so many years, that’s really something very special.

Coming back to your Four Nordic songs: Are these images of midnight sun, fjords and boats, this Munch-like complex of love, fear and despair still graspable in your environment today? Despite all the clichés that have developed?

Even if they have acquired aspects of a cliché, I’m not really afraid about that. My house in Nordstrand, a southern part of Oslo, from which I’m talking to you, is a mere 300 metres from the sanatorium where Edvard Munch stayed and painted some of his famous pictures. Very often I walk the streets he walked so it’s very easy to think of him, and the very setting of “By the Fjord” and of some crucial scenes in my novel “Oda” is just here. It’s what I’m seeing from my window and what you see on the CD cover. This is all part of my biography these impressions form our everyday life. It really makes a huge difference if you live in Spitzbergen or in the south of Italy…

Oda, the protagonist of your 1983 novel, fights for her independence both as woman and artist, comparable maybe with Alma Schindler the latter wife of Mahler and Werfel. Has she always been such a widely known figure in Norwegian culture?

No, not really, it was this song “By the Fjord”, in which Oda figures so prominently which brought her to a wider awareness. In her unabashed search for her own way she has something very contemporary. Still today, when I try to portray Nordic light and landscape, this song is very close to me it feels as if it was written just a week ago.

While, in fact, it stems from the late seventies. Haven’t your style and your sensibilities developed a lot during these thirty years?

A decisive moment for me came when I met Manfred Eicher in 1993. We first did “Water stories” together and kept discussing how many notes we really have to play in our music and what we can omit as purely ornamental. On the other hand I’ve always tried to be truthful to my melodic concept, because I’m not the kind of composer who feels that everything should be new from project to project. Without trying to make risky comparisons I think that people like Mozart and Schubert pretty much worked with a constant set of elements for most of their lives, that’s why you immediately recognize their personal style, whereas today one tends to constantly ask artists to come up with something totally new and astonishing in order to get interest and attention, which I think can be rather dangerous. For me it’s really a life project, and I admire those painters who come back to the same motive again and again, even people like Edvard Munch who painted some of his motives again and again in the course of his life.

A certain kind of obsession is needed if you want to make truly strong art… But tell me one thing: All these melodies pouring so lushly in your song cycle, where do they come from?

That’s like writing short stories or poetry – all of a sudden you have this idea, very often just a tiny detail, so you think, I should do something in B-minor. I don’t have perfect pitch but I recognize the different colours of the keys on a grand piano. “By the Fjord” was conceived originally in D-flat major, which is a really strange key for me.

Do you consciously aim at writing “northern” melodies?

No, not at all, but of course that’s part of my personality, I grew up with Grieg and with Norwegian folk music and composers such as Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen are in my understanding extremely important in the development of a characteristic Nordic musical language. But I’ve always felt equally attached to Slavic music and even to Asian sounds.

What was your approach to the poetry by John Donne, this poet and preacher who lived and worked around 1600?

I had been working with different Donne-texts for many years so I knew, there were a few of them I wanted to really go into, and when I started work on “The Light” in autumn 2006 I completed the twelve songs within two or three months basically. In a way I need complicated texts which defy an easy access, and here even the understanding of the words can be tricky. But still, there is an expressive simplicity that is always very direct, almost like a Rock’n-Roll poet, very open and frank. I love that combination of sophistication and ornamental wealth with a very passionate and powerful expression. So I have enormous respect for that poetry but I think it has to be kept alive by not leaving it just to university professors but showing how contemporary this thinking actually is.

What made you include both piano and viola next to the voice?

Two reasons basically. Firstly I am very much in love with the viola, and I particularly like the two Brahms songs op. 91, “Gestillte Sehnsucht” and “Geistliches Wiegenlied”, which, too, are set for this rare ensemble. On the other hand I wanted to collaborate with Randi Stene and Lars Anders Tomter in an intimate musical set-up. Both of them I first heard in the late eighties, and in both cases I was immediately taken by their performances, Randi was singing the alto part in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Lars Anders was playing in the famous E-flat Divertimento for string trio by Mozart. We became friends very quickly and since then have played together in various live-projects. For the Nordic songs I had to write some new arrangements but “The Light” was conceived for this trio right from the outset.

Interview: Anselm Cybinski

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Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad embarked on an early career as a classical musician before devoting himself to jazz. Next to his activities as a composer, arranger and performer which are documented on some 50 recordings and have often been used in movies, Bjørnstad has published more than 30 literary works. Numerous novels have been translated in all major European languages; “To music” was an international bestseller.

Mezzo-soprano Randi Stene studied in Oslo and Copenhagen and figures today among the foremost singers in Scandinavia. She makes regular appearances at major opera houses such as Bastille, Covent Garden and the Met. As a concert singer she has performed with, among others, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Paavo Järvi, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Philippe Herreweghe.

Lars Anders Tomter whom the British “Strad”-magazine once labelled as “the giant of the Nordic viola” was a disciple of Max Rostal and Sándor Végh. His international career as a soloist took off after he had won important prizes in competitions in Budapest and Lille. Tomter plays a rare viola by Gasparo di Salo from 1590 and is professor at the Oslo music academy.

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