Ragnhild Berstad (1956) came late to composing. She had always wanted to express herself artistically but did not have the opportunity until, as an adult, she began to draw, write, play the guitar and compose.
After training as a guitar teacher and teaching for several years, her appetite for further musical studies led her to study music at the University of Oslo. Since the Institute of Musicology is situated close to the State Academy of Music, the students of both institutions have a number of lectures in common. That is how she came into contact with composition teachers Lasse Thoresen and Olav Anton Thommessen, who noticed her obvious talent and encouraged her to study composition. She took a lot of persuading, however. Olav Anton Thommessen finally had to take her by the hand and lead her to the office where the application forms were located!
When Ragnhild Berstad received her diploma in 1997, she was already an established composer. She became a member of the Norwegian Society of Composers in 1995 and her first contribution to a CD was released the same year. On Definitely Pling-Plong, a presentation of a new generation of Norwegian composers, Ragnhild was represented by Verto (1992) for mezzo-soprano, chamber ensemble and electronics. The following year, she featured on another CD with two compositions based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories: Hvordan kamelen fikk sin pukkel (How the Camel Got His Hump, 1992) and Hvordan hvalen fikk sin trange hals (How the Whale Got His Throat, 1993), both written for Norwegian children’s radio. She found writing for children a rewarding experience. After a performance of her works at the Ilios Festival in Harstad, she said, “Children are pitiless critics and far from polite: they boo if they don’t like something and are wildly enthusiastic if they do – adults clap anyway. My experience with children taught me that they are open, good listeners because their ears have not been polluted.”
In addition to the Ilios Festival, Berstad’s works have been performed at important Norwegian festivals such as Ultima in Oslo, the Music Factory in Bergen and the Stavanger Speculum. She has also represented Norway at the Young Nordic Music Festival and the ISCM World Music Days 1997 in Korea. In January this year, her Respiro (1994) for clarinet and electronic instruments was performed at the Focus! Festival at the Juilliard School in New York.
What is it that makes an established woman with a husband, children and a professional career embark on new studies and a new way of life? She says it is the need to express herself through something other than language. It is highly satisfactory to listen inwardly and concentrate on that. She seeks to further develop this concentration in her music by focusing on the interior of sound. She is fascinated by the possibility of creating polyphony in sound, alternately allowing it to emerge from and be absorbed by the texture. Noise and harmony are therefore not contrasts but elements of a meaningful polyphonic interplay whose development you can follow over time.
Berstad believes that the composer’s function is to make people stop and listen. Modern man is surrounded by noises that he cannot de-select. This may be one of the reasons why contemporary composers work so much with noise; it is necessary to process it. This does not mean that her music is noisy. On the contrary, it makes pleasant listening and is well composed whether it is chamber or orchestral music.
She always uses a combination of electronic and acoustic instruments because she feels that these two sound worlds complement each other. She wants to compose more for larger ensembles, and will have the opportunity of doing so in a piece for choir and sinfonietta commissioned for the Year 2000 celebrations by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.