Songs of Love and
Mezzosoprano, Lars Anders Tomter: viola; Ketil Bjørnstad: piano
2056 06025 175 7977 (4)
Nights in D-flat” – A conversation with Ketil Bjørnstad about
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
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
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.
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
Which, from a
modern perspective, 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…
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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 two write some new arrangements but “The Light” was
conceived for this trio right from the outset.
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.
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.
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.