Going Against the Flow

In a streamlined world that aims for the international mezzoforte, the kind of music that doesn’t offend anyone, pianist Håkon Autsbø constantly goes against the flow, as he has been doing since his début at the age of fifteen in 1964. He will still be doing so when he celebrates his fiftieth birthday this year.

Håkon Austbø

Håkon Austbø’s guiding lights right from the start have been, first, Olivier Messiaen and, second, Alexander Skryabin. He also likes to expand the concert format with drama and poetry, and in Skryabin’s case with the composer’s visions of colour and light as well. All this is reflected in his concert schedule for his fiftieth year.

He is currently in the midst of a five-year project for NAXOS which includes all Messiaen’s piano works, the only production of its kind since the composer’s death and a milestone in the Messiaen discography. Three of seven CDs have been released already and when the series is complete Håkon Austbø will have left a kind of legacy.

The first recording in the series, the gigantic cycle Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus, was elected the best version on the market by Classic CD. The second, the complete Catalogue d’Oiseaux, was voted winner of the 1998 Edison Prize in the instrumental solo recitals class, and the prize itself will be awarded on 1 November in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in connection with Austbø’s fiftieth birthday recital.

The Norwegian celebration of his birthday will take place in Oslo in February 1999, with Fin de Siècle, a programme he has designed in cooperation with actress Juni Dahr. They have previously achieved considerable success together with the melodrama EddaDa, based on the ancient saga Håvamål with music by Olav Anton Thommessen. This time they will be giving a cultural-historical view of the turn of the century with texts ranging from Rimbaud via Norwegian symbolist poet Obstfelder to surrealism and the music of Debussy, Ravel and Scryabin.

“Something tipped over at the turn of the century. I regard the epoch from 1870 to 1917 as a kind of arch, a graphic presentation of a number of elements that have affected our entire century – from Baudelaire’s pathological longing to the contemporaneous will to achieve a new reality. What were the visions of the new reality, or of a different reality that is not here and now? How was this expressed in words and music?”

With this question alone, the pianist reveals that his spiritual universe has focused little on ploughing through the musical metropolises with a repertoire of Grieg, Brahms, Beethoven and Tchaikowsky.

Håkon Austbø has always gone his own way, always fought for his kind of music. He has made choices during his career that have led him away from the pianists’ Paradise – if this Paradise is synonymous with five fully-booked seasons ahead, solo performances with the most famous symphony orchestras or frequent recitals in Paris, Berlin, London or New York. Any musician starting out on a career dreams of this, and Austbø’s beginning, including his Norwegian début, was spectacular.

He subsequently won first prize at the Conservatory and received his performer’s diploma at the École Normale de Musique in Paris in 1971, continued his studies at the Juilliard School in New York and the Music Academy in Munich, and studied in London under Ilona Kabos and Peter Feuchtwanger. He was the first foreigner to win first prize at the exclusive Concours de la Guilde Française des Artistes Solistes (Paris 1970) and his breakthrough came when he won the international Messiaen competition for contemporary music in 1971.

Austbø was certainly tempted by an international career after he had played and received rave reviews in the most important musical centres of the world. Nevertheless, he chose to specialise in chamber music and contemporary music. Has he ever regretted this choice? “Perhaps I have been too absorbed in my own interests. Music is communication and I isolated myself in difficult times, thinking ‘If they don’t want it, it can’t be helped!’ By being inflexible and unwilling to adapt to the market, I have made life artistically difficult for myself. I have always taken risks, never played it safe. Considering all that, I haven’t done so badly. In the meantime, the market has also changed, and I have become less rigid.”

Both personally and in his playing, he shows that an intellectual approach is not synonymous with a lack of feeling. There is a volcano under the bleak analysis and molten lava in the music he has chosen to play over the years, often the musically ecstatic and colourful. He was born in 1948, the year Messiaen, his musical mentor, completed his Turangalila Symphony – a milestone in musical history. At the same time, much of what happened after the turn of the century – dadaism, the twelve-tone scale, cubism – had not yet been digested. That process is still going on, almost a century later. In Austbø’s case it put down roots and flourished.

His artistic interests were kindled in Paris in the 1960s. Before he left Norway in 1966, Håkon Austbø was a good boy from a respectable, bourgeois, small town background and at the Paris

Conservatoire he followed all the rules, practised a lot and came to lessons punctually with his Prokofiev under his arm. But with the student revolt in 1968 and the occupation of the Conservatoire, when a new ideology and new thoughts about music emerged behind the barricades, and when he even found a girl-friend, his whole life turned upside down. Above all, he discovered the music of Messiaen and also became acquainted with that reclusive French composer, who called the Norwegian pianist “an ideal interpreter”.

Messiaen, who was so focused on tone and colour, was also one of the people who suggested that Håkon Austbø should play Skryabin. Now Austbø is Vice-President of the International Skryabin Society in Moscow and, not least, artistic director and driving force behind LUCE, the first really authentic realisation of the colour in Skryabin’s orchestral poem Prometheus, which was first performed in The Hague in 1994 and also performed at the 1997 Bergen International Festival.

This work, composed in 1910 and based on hovering, rootless chords, created a new tonal language and predicted the use of colour with music. The composer was way ahead of his time, and only with modern technology is it possible to perform Prometheus in accordance with his vision. Austbø has regarded it as his life’s work to turn that vision into reality.

For the first complete performance in 1994, Austbø and his colleague, multimedia artist Rob van de Poel, designed the lighting effects on the basis of Skryabin’s own instructions and notes which they found in hidden places in Moscow and Paris. They built a colour keyboard that projected light onto five vertical translucent screens, two metres wide and eight metres high, with a second voice on a horizon at the back. The project is still in progress and still being developed, particularly with a view to the Year 2000, since the composer, with his megalomaniac ideas in this his ultimate work, crossed to the beyond – he actually believed that the whole of humanity takes part.

Much of Austbø’s involvement in this form of musical expression is based on the period around 1968; it released the part of his artistic nature that transcends everyday life and has to do with spiritual needs. For some people it chrystallises into football mania, for Austbø it turned towards ecstasy and Nirvana.

To mention a few of his more earthly pleasures, three of his recordings were nominated for Norwegian Grammy awards and all of them won prizes – in 1990, ’92 and ’95, and in spite of spending twenty-five years abroad, he was awarded the Norwegian Critics’ Prize in 1989 and was voted Performer of the Year by the Norwegian Society of Composers in 1992. Since 1974, Håkon Austbø has been based in Holland where, in addition to an intense international concert and recording schedule and after many years teaching at the Conservatory in Utrecht, he is now head and coordinator of the piano faculty at the Amsterdam Conservatory.

“When I left Norway, I had no choice. The environment, the musical life, the challenges had no perspective at that time. The life-style didn’t suit me. The rather narrow provincialism, the lack of vision and tolerance, even the boring cuisine forced me away. Today Norway has become part of the world in every way and my choice might have been different.”

In his exile, Austbø has been in continous contact with Norwegian composers. He was the first pianist in Europe to play Arne Nordheim’s Listen, the composer’s only work for piano, he has premièred many Norwegian piano concertos and has cooperated with several composers on new piano music. On tour, he is pleased to note both growing interest in Fartein Valen and the fact that Grieg’s Slåtter generate enormous enthusiasm when he plays them, particularly in France.

Håkon Austbø’s relationship with Norwegian music is the same as with all other music: he plays nothing from a sense of obligation but only because he wants to perform it. The same attitude has carried him through lean years and fat. He has always refused to conform to the demands of market forces. Now that the market is suffering from a surfeit of the same old musical menu, the music Austbø has to offer is increasing in value.

He is well prepared. Håkon Austbø has spent his life seeking and perfecting the avant-garde. Now the spirit of the time has changed and the world is seeking him.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.6 - 1998 No. 3
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