Ragnhild Berstad Requiem Underveis 1
Photo: Roger Fossås

In transit

The 2012 Oslo International Church Music Festival featured no less than four premieres of new Norwegian orchestral works. One of these was Raghild Berstad’s Requiem – Underveis (In transit) which saw its premiere on March 10th.

- Death is a matter of separation and painful loss, says Berstad. To complement the traditional written mass elements, I’ve chosen to use texts that represents consolation, texts that speak of death as preliminary closure – of the path ahead – of new possibilities – of being in transit.

One example underpinning this is the use of Norwegian poet Paal Helge Haugen’s texts, one of which reads; ‘a door, a place, near the entrance of a new life.’ Is it the transition to the next life that you are referring to when you speak of being in transit?

-Yes, both that and the fact that we are all in transit, all the time. I my view, a requiem is something that is created for the survivors. They are also making the transition from one state of mind to another in the wake of a loss of a relative or close friend. At the time when I received the commission to write this work I had recently lost my mother. Parallel to all this, I also initiated a collaboration with glass artist Lars Kværne and composed In Vitro for glass and pre-processed sound file in remembrance of my mother. This also made it natural for me to feature use of glass in the requiem.

Glass can also be seen as an expression of life’s fragility; how sudden a life can come to an end. While working on the composition the unthinkable happened; the unexpected passing of glass artist Lars Kværne. – One day he was this powerful and innovative young artist – the next day he was gone, says Berstad. We worked closely on how to produce sound from glass; it’s challenging to produce an even pitch with instruments like the glass harmonica. The glass is blown to varying sizes and thicknesses so it’s almost impossible to create even tempered pitches. Lars and I focussed on how to produce various sounds from the glass pieces he created. Requiem – Underveis is written for mixed choir, a chamber music ensemble, electronics and glass instruments. The work’s accompanying electronic sound backing also features recordings of Kværne’s instruments.

The glass instruments used for the performance of Requiem – Underveis were created for the occasion by Vidar Koksvik. As one enters the church where the work was premiered, the glass instruments are what really draws the attention. The delicate shapes are subtly lighted to emphasise a character of fragility and beauty.

Ragnhild Berstad has been characterised as a poetic modernist. Equipped with an elegant sonorous palette, she has composed works for chamber settings, orchestras and electronics. Her Requiem employs a wide range of compositional tools. The glass performers are given a score which has no less than eleven different directions for how to produce the desired sounds from the glass instruments; where to play the instrument and how to rub or stroke it, with the tips of their fingers, palms, glass objects, wooden sticks etc. – Lars Kværne’s idea of sand-covered glass being stroked produces a kind of friction that serves as a metaphor for resistance; resistance against death.

The vocalists are given even more directions; the vocal expressions range from throat vibrato, overtone singing, quarter tones and variations of placement of the singers within the concert venue. Throughout a majority of the Dies irae movement, the singers whisper to recreate the anxiety and fear for the Day of Wrath that the text portrays.

Glissandi, used throughout the work, express the sense of insecurity that accompanies death. Not so in the final movement Lux aeterna: when sounds of shimmering glass and Mongol overtone singing unite, the work reaches ‘heavenly proportions’! –Is it the composer’s intent to recreate the divine glory? What remains certain is that the movement was divinely beautiful…

-Yes, replies a smiling Berstad. –the glissando and insecurity has vanished in this movement.

Wrote Thomas Erma Møller in a review of the premiere on Ballade.no:

‘Berstad’s sonic landscape is static as evidenced by the long, sustained and compact timbres. In parallel to this, continuous minute changes are made, small ripples in the sonic waves that make the work stand out as dynamic and gently shifting. Text diction, spoken as well as sung in addition to changes to the timbre colours and the gentle dynamic wave tops in the soft spoken expression propels the music forwards.

The timbre is essential for Berstad. Requiem – Underveis can be seen as being French-inspired and one easily associates the work with Messiaen as well as the Spectral school. Impressionism also springs to mind given the strong focus on timbre, subdued expression and an approach to composition characterised by intense listening. In addition to this, Berstad has added a unique sonorous dimension through her use of glass instruments.’

-This is hardly standard repertoire for the average countryside choir, Berstad?

-No. The Norwegian Soloist’s Choir is exceptionally skilled and a work like this probably necessitates a professional choir to be performed.

- And if any parties abroad approaches you with the intent to perform Requiem – Underveis – how to deal with the glass instruments?

- Those are fragile items so I’ve had some back-ups made in addition to heavy-duty flight cases for everything.

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Ragnhild Berstad Requiem Underveis 1

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