Kjell Samkopf: An Idea of Sound

Kjell Samkopf (1952) is both performer and composer, as composers often used to be. However, they were seldom percussionists. Percussionists are not like other musicians; for them there are no subsidiary instruments, no sounds that are foreign to the music. "Percussion is an idea of sound", says Kjell Samkopf. "Composing is seeking out that idea and developing it."

Kjell Samkopf

Today, you don’t often find people expressing themselves at such a high professional level in both areas as Samkopf does. He trained first as a composer, taking his diploma at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in 1977. The following year, he completed his percussion studies. By then he had already made a name for himself as an outstanding performer in a variety of contexts. He continued to do so, and is today professor and head of the percussion department at the Academy.

Samkopf’s production and discography cover a broad field but do not include string quartets or sinfonietta pieces. They comprise more or less conventional instrumental works, musical-dramatic works, including six full ballets, happening-like creations and sonographic works that move far beyond our ordinary concepts of what music is.

When the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) commissioned him to compose a work to be performed at the Tokke power station, Samkopf went there beforehand to collect sounds and objects for making sounds which he processed electronically and took back to the power station in the mountain, combining them with other instrumental and electronic sounds.

Not all sources of sound are easily introduced into the concert hall; for instance, waterfalls and avalanches cannot easily be moved indoors. Thanks to electronics, such sounds can be transferred to become a kind of extension and continuation of the sound process.

He sometimes integrates both place and time in his music, as he did in Sandvika, which included sound sculptures, peals of bells, poetry reading, an electric guitar and Ondes Martenot. The event took place at one o’clock in the morning, “a time when the cultural scene in Sandvika is normally somewhat limited”. Sandvika, a small town on the coast just south of Oslo, has a charming town hall with a bell tower and a noisy motorway close by, all of which gives the place an identity and determined the shape of the work.

He is far from conventional in his sonographic works too, such as Mårådalen Walk and Mountain Listening, which he created during two seminars in the Norwegian mountains where artists and researchers were discussing the relationship between art and nature. Samkopf just turned on his tape recorder and let it run. The result was two CDs, both about half an hour in duration and both in nine parts. He restricted the amount of electronic processing, so natural sounds are easily recognisable. However, the way in which these parts are shaped and put together is important. This is the composer’s contribution, and it is essential. Samkopf does not wish to absolve himself from personal expression or allow external forces to decide what is heard – his presence is crucial.

This also applies to his use of numerology, familiar from many cultures – in the western world from Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle (who was rather more sceptical about it) – and used by composers from the Middle Ages to Mozart and Schönberg. Samkopf uses addresses, dates, place names and birthdays to determine everything from the main form to pitches and rhythms, right down to the smallest detail. This approach does not entail any limitation in his personal expression; on the contrary, it opens new doors, provides new opportunities for personal influence on the expression, the development of the idea of sound.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.8 - 2000 No. 1
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