Making music of Jon Fosse’s words

When Nils Henrik Asheim was asked to compose a piece for choir and orchestra at the Présences Festival in Paris, he found inspiration in the celebrated Norwegian author and playwright, Jon Fosse. On his most exciting assignment ever, Asheim is looking for the poetic connection between the young female voices and the orchestra.

Nils Henrik Asheim

“Fosse’s poems offer both simplicity and depth. The metaphors are open and accessible for everyone, something I appreciate with a poem, “ says the Norwegian composer and organist Nils Henrik Asheim, who is soon heading to France.
He has composed larger works before, but not for something as prestigious as Radio France's music festival Présences 2004 taking place 30 January till 14 February.

For Présence, Asheim has written Wind Songs for girls' choir and orchestra, inspired by three poems from the Dog and Angel (1992) book by Jon Fosse. Wind Songs will be premiered on 1 February in Montpellier. The choir parts are sung by Groupe Vocal Opera Junior de Montpellier and The Norwegian Girl Choir. The work will be repeated the day after in Paris. Asheim has been one of Norways foremost and most exciting composers of contemporary music for more than a decade. As a musician, Nils Henrik Asheim has worked as both an organ player and a pianist. He has performed with various chamber music groups and orchestras and has built a reputation as an adventurous organ improvisor. Twice he has received “Work of the Year” by the Norwegian Society of Composers, and in 2002, the composer was awarded the Edvard prize for Chase.

Representing Norway in France
Each of the Nordic countries was asked by the festival to choose a composer to represent the country. MIC Norway and the Norwegian Society of Composers decided for Asheim.
”He was partly selected because he has composed both for choir and orchestra earlier, and knows this genre. But also because we wanted to present a younger composer. Part of the goal is to display new Norwegian music to the French audience, and in that sense, Présences is very important, Morten Walderhaug, director of the Music Information Centre says.

Asheims tells that he had to move around some of his plans, but the festival is so large and important that he wanted to take part of it.
"The working conditions, the concerts, the radio broadcasting, the competent audience; there are so many good qualities about this festival,” says Asheim.

Where you conscious about the singers’ age when you wrote Wind Songs?
“For children’s choir it is important to be aware of the age. You have to be conscious about which words you put in the singers’ mouth, because they are the ones who shall express them. But the girls in the Norwegian Girl’s Choir are not small kids, they are between 15 and 17 years and they can interpret pretty advanced poems. Recently, at a rehearsal, we talked about the lyrics, and they had their own, independent, often complex reading of the text. Strange enough, my own interpretation seemed simpler. A boat trip may also be read as a boat trip!”

When you are composing music for a choir and an orchestra, how do you go about?
“I start from several sides. I am looking for key words and atmospheres that can define a musical room. A sound or ways to use the orchestra may come from motives in the text. Then there is the structure of the text. The poems I have used are melodic, I can hear them in my inner ear. Instead of rhymes the poet creates patterns of repetition, which have a distinct musical quality,” Asheim says, and adds that there needs to be a balance between the text and the music. Sometimes, the text is very clear, other times more covered by the music. Still, the musical dimension ought to be humble and give way to the poem.

How is it to compose for a choir vs. an orchestra, in other words, writing for voices vs. instruments?
I have tried to incorporate the sound of the choir in the orchestra, and I will hear whether the balance is right for the first time at the rehearsal on Tuesday. One part of the orchestra is intended to support the vocals, other parts work as fragments of a mirror or ramifications. Some places, the orchestra washes over the choir. I do not imagine that the choir is on top of the orchestra, like in traditional compositions. I imagine the choir is in the middle, as the core of the orchestral sound.”

Dream team
Asheim and the Norwegian Girls’ Choir are not the only Norwegians performing in front of a large French audience. Listed in the concert programme are also Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (BFO), BIT 20 Ensemble - Bergen Ensemble for Contemporary Music, accordionist Frode Haltli, composer Maja Ratkje, and folk music singer Berit Opheim. Works by four Norwegian composers, Arne Nordheim, Geirr Tveitt, Kjell Flem, and Lasse Thoresen will also be performed.

The strong Nordic attendance in Présences, how important is that for the Nordic music scene?
“Clearly, the festival is a door opener for Nordic music. Several performing artists and composers are present, and it is good to be part of a Nordic profile, which is widely defined. Our sound is not only associated with a blue sky and the nature any more. Nordic artists are perceived as interesting on the international art arena. I think the ease of movement between different genres and environment might be one explanation,” Nils Henrik Asheim says.
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