Starting at the beginning, what originally drew you to becoming a composer after starting your studies in piano?
It probably sounds strange but it was literature that made me become a composer. Literature made me find the mental pictures I needed in order to create music.
Can you cite any particular works or composers who had a particularly strong influence upon your development as a composer, either positively or negatively (wanting to do the opposite to them)?
I have enjoyed the influence and inspiration from many composers and their works, so that would make a very long list! - But if I got stranded on a lonely island with the possibility of bringing with me only one piece of music, it would have to be J. S. Bach: St Matthew Passion.
What kinds of questions fascinate you most about music at the moment?
That must be how music intermingle and interact with texts, stage and society.
As a composer creating both electroacoustic work and pieces to be performed, what do you see as the relationship between the two in your creative work?
For many years I worked with electroacoustic music and performed music as if they were two separate worlds. But when I started working with opera this separation disappeared. Working with text and stage has opened up new possibilities of interaction between electroacoustic and performed music and I think this has to do with how text and stage has an ability to force you into plot and semantics. A word, a sentence or a phrase means something. All text has both psychological and physical contents and implications, which influence the process of composing on all levels. As a consequence it became natural, meaningful and necessary for me to fuse electroacoustic and performed music.
- Working with electroacoustic music has of course also influenced how I develop timbre and time in my instrumental music and probably more so than the other way around.
Can you tell us a little about the origins of A. - a shadow opera?
A. was originally a project between Paal-Helge Haugen and Iannis Xenakis who after the text was developed unfortunately was not able do it because age and illness took its toll. Paal-Helge then contacted me and after having read the text I was so stunned by its violence and beauty that I immediately accepted. We renamed the work A. – a shadow opera.
In what way is it a ‘shadow’ of an opera? What does ‘opera’ mean to you? Do the shadows in the title refer to other aspects of the work?
Well, it certainly is an opera created in the shadows of the big conservative opera institutions and their lack of enthusiasm and responsibility when it comes to developing a contemporary repertoire. As a protest we actually wanted to re-invent the definition of opera as a genre. But most of all, the title refers to the darker shadows of our minds through the monologue represented by Agamemnon.
How is Agamemnon featured, and what does he represent?
The monologue of Agamemnon is an inner monologue. But it doesn’t only represent Agamemnon it represents all people. A. is one man polyphonous. He is moving through history of war and destruction. - How can a father kill his daughter? How can neighbors kill neighbors? How can nations destroy other nations? The choir whispers and speaks: ‘It had to be. It had to happen. It was the Gods. It was an order. It wasn’t me’. Who is to blame if responsibility all the time is put elsewhere or even neglected? Agamemnon gradually understands that when killing he is also killing himself, as a human being. We are inside a tormented and restless consciousness, inside the mind of everyone who does not take responsibility when needed because the lust for power overshadows everything else. That is why the audience is seated on the stage. They are in fact seated inside the head of Agamemnon being part of his story and our common history.
Tell us about your choice of sounds and their treatments in the piece...
The piece is made entirely from recordings of the human voice and various sounds of metal. Fragments of the main text are copied and projected with time delay via loudspeakers, thus creating a kind of chaotic polyphony that enhances the restless and troubled mind of Agamemnon. The metal sounds are gongs and bells creating a dark relentless atmosphere in which the voices are imbedded.
Looking at the photos on your website, it looks as though the piece was originally staged with a performer: how will the new version with video by Torbjørn Ljunggren be a different experience for the audience?
The piece was originally staged with a butoh dancer. The new version with video is entirely different. The spoken texts emanating from the eight loudspeakers surrounding the audience are still mainly in an original Norwegian dialect. To solve the problem of translation, the video is based on an English version. Letters, words and phrases define the visual landscape in such a way that the translation fuses into the visual movements breathing together with the music and the spoken text. The auditive and visual elements create a polyglot, linguistic experience.
To what extent have you collaborated on the video, or left him to find his own interpretation?
We started out with talks and discussions. Based on these Torbjørn Ljunggren developed sketches and ideas. His background from the theater has made it possible for him to create a unique visual, multi-linguistic drama.
Seeing as though the work was originally written in 2001, have the 12 years since given you any new insights into or perspectives upon the work?
The work was premiered less than a month after 9/11. Today, 12 years later, the theme and drama exposed in A. – a shadow opera, is as valid and disturbing as ever. The combination of politics and religious narrow-mindedness has always been and will always be a dark, murky and lethal cocktail.
How do you generally choose the texts that you use in your music - what interests you about them?
When I started working with opera, my approach to how I perceive text changed dramatically. It forced me to work with semantics and psychology inherent in the text material I use. The text becomes my sparring partner, and even more, it triggers the music. The last 10 years I have also become gradually more political in my work. As a composer I find it extremely rewarding and enriching to explore the balance and interaction between esthetic and ethic decisions in my work.
Moving on to Come to the Edge!, can you give us an introduction to the piece?
Freedom of speech is a fundamental premise in the development of any democratic society and the entire text in Come to the Edge! evolves around this central theme. Quotes on freedom of speech by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, St. Catherine of Siena, Maggie Kuhn, Susan Jeffers, Lenny Bruce, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, William Shakespeare, Harry Belafonte and Pussy Riot constitute the main body of the text. In addition excerpts from the trial against Pussy Riot in Moscow 2012 are included. The poster-poem Come to the Edge! by Christopher Logue creates an overall form holding all the text fragments together.
In what way does it use texts from the Pussy Riot trials? Why did you choose these?
The punk prayer performed by Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow was an important and necessary stunt giving attention to the corrupt liaison between the Patriarch of the church and the Patriarch of the government in Russia. The authorities’ reaction to the punk prayer showed how they are gradually subduing and eliminating vital human rights. I chose excerpts from their closing statements during the trial in Moscow in order to shed a light on these undemocratic procedures. When dealing with the theme freedom of speech I wanted to be both concrete and general. I wanted to give support to the brave fight put forth by the Pussy Riot members and at the same time reinforce their viewpoints by using a diversity of texts from other important freedom fighters throughout history.
What can we expect from it musically?
Musically the piece is an outburst of shifting emotions from whisper to shouting, from vulnerability to protest and deep anger. I have not made an abstract work where the text is incomprehensible and subordinate to the music. All the text can and should be heard and understood. I wanted to create a more equal balance between text and music. And, yes, because it is a work of protest involving matters in society, I want the work to reach out of the somewhat narrow confines of traditional contemporary music.
What thoughts do you have on the relationship between music and political/human rights issues? Do you think work such as yours can change anything; does it aim to act as a commentary on the times, or is it just better than staying silent?
I realize this question is really a set of several large and complex questions, so really I’d just like to hear a few of your thoughts on how these issues inform your approach to work...
In order to change things you need to fight on different arenas in society and using the arts is certainly one of them. If many people protest hard and long enough using artistic expressions this might have an effect. Just look at all the campaigns on the internet creating change and even revolution. I have spent many years composing music inside a rather closed contemporary music environment and there is nothing wrong in that. But now I just find it more interesting and rewarding to participate in a larger context.
Lastly, can you tell us about your recent work Adam & Eve - a Divine Comedy?
What does it mean to be civilized? This is a question I have been asking for many years, first in the chamber opera Dead Beat Escapement (a piece criticizing death penalty) and then in the recent work Adam & Eve - a Divine Comedy. This last work, which is not yet performed, brings forth a harsh critique of how the three monotheistic, patriarch religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam have promoted the acceptance of violence against women throughout history and are doing so still today. When these holy books are interpreted literally they become a threat not only towards women but towards humanity in general. It is due time that we start discussing all the violence inherent in the holy texts. My opera is trying to do just that.
…and what you will be working on for the rest of 2013?
I am very much looking forward to working with the BBC Singers! The collaboration with Torbjørn Ljunggren on the new video-version of A. – a shadow opera is also something I am looking very much forward to. Outside that, the vocal ensemble Nordic Voices is first-performing a new piece called Toil & Trouble based on texts from various dramas of Shakespeare. And in spare moments I am looking at new provocative texts for future works…