In an exclusive interview with Musicroom, acclaimed Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-Lo) sheds some light on his development as a composer, the art, music and lands which have inspired him, and his own future as a composer.
Based in the USA, Gjeilo divides his time between performing as a professional pianist and composing works for Choir, Orchestra and Piano. His albums include two piano collections, Stone Rose, released in 2007, and the more recent Piano Improvisations, recorded in ground-breaking surround sound. His latest album, Northern Lights, comprises a selection of his choral works recorded by the Phoenix Chorale. His recorded works have garnered high praise from listeners and critics alike.
MR: Ola, thank you for talking to us. For a start, can you give us an insight into the forces which inspired you to become a composer in the first place?
OG: My pleasure! Well, I started very young, improvising on the piano and eventually composing maybe when I was five. I had a good ear as a kid so I could easily hear things and play them back and improvise; hear which notes worked together and which didn’t. So I didn’t need to learn to read music until I was seven. I was kind of stubborn about not learning to read music for a while because I just wanted to do my own thing! I think this was actually good for me though, because it meant I wasn’t so dependent on reading; it gave me a freedom that was very valuable later in terms of improvising and composing. But there wasn’t a time when I specifically thought, “I think I’m going to become a composer,” there just wasn’t really the thought of doing anything else.
MR: So the journey to becoming a composer was just a natural progression for you?
OG: Yeah, I couldn’t really help myself!
MR: Are there any fellow composers who you’ve looked up to; who’ve influenced your music and its development?
OG: My later music – even though I’m not that old! – has been increasingly influenced by cinematic music, which is a natural reflection of having always been very fond of film music from when I was very young. So it was just the realisation, “hey, I’m always listening to film music, why doesn’t my music sound more like that?” Especially after I turned 30, this influence started to show up a lot more clearly in my own music. And most of my favourite living composers are film composers; I think some of today’s greatest composers in general are involved in the movie industry.
MR: John Williams spring to mind…
OG: Well, John Williams is in many ways the godfather of today’s film music field, and for good reason: he’s the greatest melodic writer of the past century, for my money. But in my writing I’ve perhaps been even more influenced by composers like Thomas Newman, Dario Marianelli, Alexandre Desplat, James Newton Howard and Howard Shore.
“I haven’t been to England for a while, but I always miss it; the British scenery and countryside are just really inspiring to me.”
MR: Would you ever consider composing a film score yourself?
OG: I would love to do that, definitely! I studied film music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with the thought of going into film music, and I’d still like to do that, but I realised that I really like – really like! – the freedom of concert music; it’s much easier to be yourself musically in concert music because commissions are usually very unspecific in terms of what you write, apart from parameters like instrumentation and length. But in a film score you’re completely beholden to the director, and whatever the director or studio wants you to do. And very often they might want you to sound like somebody else. So at the moment I like composing concert music – but in a kind of cinematic sounding style, which is hard to define, but I like a big, lush sound whenever possible, which I guess has “filmy” connotations. But, yes, I’d love to do movies; it just has to be the right thing.
MR: Norway is a very beautiful country with rich musical heritage and culture. How much does Norway and Nordic culture influence your work?
OG: I don’t think it does at all actually! I love it there, and it’s an incredibly beautiful country, but I think my musical style and taste has always gravitated more towards America and also to Britain.
MR: We’ve looked at your more American musical influences; can you elaborate more on how you’ve been influenced by British music?
OG: Well, I grew up being really interested in British culture, and I thought I was eventually going to end up there. I always wanted to move to England, so I studied for a bit in Manchester and then for two years at the Royal College of Music in London. I love the music of Vaughan Williams and Elgar and that kind of lush, melancholic symphonic music. I haven’t been to England for a while, but I always miss it; the British scenery and countryside are just really inspiring to me. When I lived in Manchester I would go out into the country a lot, which was great since Manchester is between the Peak District and the Lake District. The Lake District, to me, is just the most inspiring place. So both musically and in terms of scenery I feel very close to Britain.
Listen to Gjeilo’s setting of Ubi Caritas:
MR: You’ve touched there on your interest in choral music. I thought it would be good to focus in on this area as your choral compositions have of course been a huge success, both with the Phoenix Chorale album, Northern Lights (Chandos), and in terms of sheet music. Are there particular elements of choral composition that you particularly enjoy?
OG: My father liked to play a lot of things at home; he had a jazz background, but he also loved playing choral music. So I grew up with a lot of that music in the house and I just loved listening to it. Additionally, my first classical composition teacher, Wolfgang Plagge, is a very good choral composer, so that was a natural avenue for me to follow. And I felt it was also a good place to start as it’s a great way to develop good voice leading and other foundational aspects of composition. The combination of choir and orchestra or string orchestra, sometimes with piano as well, is probably my favourite soundworld to work with.
MR: Speaking more generally, we’ve seen some significant new choral composers on the scene more recently, including you, Eric Whitacre and Paul Mealor, for example. So there seems to be a general resurgence in the popularity of choral music. Do you think there are any key factors which have been behind this?
OG: That’s a good question. Well, more than anything else I think it comes down to the fact that there are so many people in choirs; it’s just such a major amateur movement, in addition to professional and school ensembles. So that means there are a lot of people who are interested in listening to choral music. But I think, also, there is a difference with some of the younger composers like Eric, in that they have a connection to younger listeners. Eric, for example, came to choral music having started out as a rock musician. Kind of the same thing with me, in that I came out of improv, and doing a lot of more cross-over stuff and being very influenced by film music. So I think a lot of us have a strong connection to today’s pop culture and popular music. And I think that’s something that perhaps speaks to a lot of people because, ultimately, a majority of people listen to popular music of some kind. So I think a lot of younger composers have really started to tap into that in a natural, organic manner, not in a sort of contrived attempt to be ‘hip’; but we grew up with that kind of music and it’s a natural part of our style and sphere of reference.
“I’ve always wanted my music to reach as many people as possible and to hopefully touch as many people as possible. I think that for a few decades that didn’t really seem to be the goal in a lot of classical music.”
MR: At the same time there is a level of interest in your music which helps it appeal to someone who may be looking for more subtle flourishes as well. I guess this is quite a fine line to tread.
OG: Yes, I definitely think it is. But I always think of myself as, and want to be, primarily a ‘populist’ composer. And I mean that in a good way, or I see it as a good thing. I’ve always wanted my music to reach as many people as possible and to hopefully touch as many people as possible. I think that for a few decades that didn’t really seem to be the goal in a lot of classical music. So that’s also part of the reason I think that, for example with the music of Whitacre, so many people connect to it: the actual goal is for people to connect to it deeply, in an uplifting, earnest way, without being superficial or sentimental.
MR: Can you tell us, from a publishing perspective, what we can be expecting from you in the near future?
OG: Oh, sure! Well, with Edition Peters, I’m about to publish some selections from my first piano album, called Stone Rose. That was originally released in 2007, so it’s taken a while to properly publish the sheet music for that. We’re publishing one score with five of the Piano pieces, and another with the three pieces for Piano and Cello. We’ll also be publishing one of the Cello pieces as an individual score, a piece called ‘Madison’. I really wanted to have that as an individual score as well because it’s been one of the most popular pieces from the album.
Listen to Madison:
MR: I was actually going to ask if you were planning to publish more of your solo piano and instrumental music.
OG: Yes! It took a while to find natural a home for those piano pieces. Peters have been great, and I also like them for sentimental reasons, partly because I’m Norwegian, and they were Edvard Grieg’s original publisher and the original publisher for all of his Lyric Pieces. That’s another nice connection for me because I love his Lyric Pieces and, again, I grew up listening to his piano music. So I’m publishing my piano music with them as well.
MR: And compositionally, are there any works which you’re working on which we might be seeing in the near future?
OG: I’m actually about to write my third wind band piece. It’s been commissioned by a consortium of colleges here in the US. I’m also writing a longer piece for choir, string orchestra and piano, which is the first piece of that scale I’ve written since my Sunrise Mass. That was about 32 minutes long, and this will be about 25. It’s called Dreamweaver, which is an English translation of a medieval ballad which is very famous in Norway. Charles Anthony Silvestri made a wonderful English version of the poem for me. So that’s very exciting. Dreamweaver will be premiered in the fall by the Manhattan Concert Chorale at either Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Centre in New York City. I’ve just become their composer in residence, they’re a fantastic new professional choir based in Manhattan.
Listen to excerpts from Sunrise Mass:
MR: Finally, a bit of a selfish question, if I may! As a classical guitarist I was wondering whether you’ve ever thought of composing anything for guitar.
OG: I just did, actually! In a choral setting. I got a commission from another consortium of colleges for a choral piece months ago. And I really wanted to do a piece which has an acoustic guitar in it, because I love the instrument, and it hasn’t been used with choir all that much. There are some pieces with just guitar and choir, but I really wanted to add piano and string quartet to support the guitar and to be a bridge between the guitar and choir as well. It’s called The Lake Isle because it takes two stanzas from the Yeats poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. So that should be available on Musicroom probably this year at some point. But there’s a live recording of its Los Angeles premiere on Soundcloud now. The sound quality isn’t perfect, but you get the idea:
Listen to The Lake Isle:
I’m going to be doing another piece with that instrumentation for the Spring, and I definitely want to do a lot more pieces with that combination as it’s just such a lovely sound.
MR: That’s exciting! I look forward to hearing more and seeing those pieces on Musicroom in due course. All that remains to be said is thank you for taking the time out to speak to us, and all the best for the future!
OG: Thank you very much!