Artist Portrait: Ola Gjeilo
Say hello to composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo. Ola’s concert works are performed all over the world and he recently finished a residency with the Phoenix Chorale. Both of his piano albums have been recognized for a wonderful spontaniety contrasted with contemplative melodic lines and rich harmonies. We audio chatted over Skype to bring you this interview.
Would you talk about the influences, or maybe I should say inspirations, for some of the pieces on Piano Improvisations and Stone Rose? I heard so many genres and styles and rhythms—from classical to pop, to country to Latin—running through your pieces.
I think that, in terms of pianists that I have been influenced by, I would definitely say Keith Jarrett. You might not necessarily hear that too much in the recordings, but I’ve always loved his playing and his improv has always been huge for me. I’ve always been a big admirer of his art.
However, there aren’t really any conscious style influences on either album. Whether they turn into more fleshed out, written down pieces or they’re just in the moment free improvisations, my pieces tend to just come out of nothing as I’m just playing around. So, it’s hard to pinpoint per piece.
I think my moving in and out of genres is not really something that’s planned (or on purpose, really) that’s just how it tends to come out. I guess I like the variety of it, and I like all those genres. I listen to a lot of different genres of music, and my taste is pretty eclectic, I suppose. So that’s something that tends to come out, probably more so in my piano music than in my other music. My piano music is probably a lot more crossover, I think, than my other concert music.
Your pieces have such interesting titles. I thought , when I heard them, that they must have interesting inspirations, but you work the other way, then?
Sometimes they are directly inspired by something, but because they come out of nothing most of the time or start out as some kind of improvisation, they usually aren’t necessarily inspired by something external. So what usually happens is that after a while of composing, or after I’m done, the music might remind me or make me think of something. The first piece on Stone Rose is called Snow in New York. That piece just made me think of snow fall in New York and how that makes me feel.
And then of course you have your Bach Fantasy on that album.
Yeah, that one was more obvious, I guess, because you can hear, you can definitely hear the parts of Bach’s theme. But again, that wasn’t something that was really planned. It was just an improvisation that happened. I started in baroquish fashion, and then eventually it seemed to want to incorporate his theme. But, it wasn’t planned beforehand at all.
In listening to the Piano Improvisations, I was struck by the fact Suzanne must be a very special person?
That’s my wife.
That is her middle name. We didn’t want to make it to too in your face obvious, so, we used her middle name.
You’ve written a lot of commissioned choral works, in fact you were in residence, up the road, with the Phoenix Chorale. Do you think of your multi-piano compositions chorally, orchestrally, or just as pure piano?
I see them orchestrally in a way—especially the two-piano and three-piano things on my piano improvisations album. That’s the only time I’ve ever done that. I don’t really think of them as compositions, in a way, because they were all improvised.
But I did think in the moment and I did think orchestrally rather than chorally. The main part was usually more in the middle of the piano, and the second or the third part were either focused on the top or the bottom of the piano so there wasn’t too much of a clash. Piano is such a percussive instrument that it can easily clash with itself if you don’t stay out of the way a little bit.
Right, it can get muddy.
Yeah. So that was definitely orchestral or maybe just a pianistic consideration. It was all rather in the moment, just sort of feeling out what would hopefully sound best.
Can you talk a little bit more about the process for recording multi-layer pieces? People might think it’s just a matter of playing along with yourself, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Did you have to do a lot of takes? How did you choose which improvs you liked best together?
We did a few takes. Usually more on the first, the main part, so we could really lay down the one that we were the most happy with. So yeah, while the first one was completely improvised, the next takes were based on that and I would just try a different things based on what I could remember from the very first take. It was really important to just lay that down and be happy with it so that we had a good foundation that I could improvise on top of. So then we did the same thing with the other one or two parts.
The whole idea was the producer’s, Morten Lindberg. He had the idea, because the record company 2L are really, really fantastic at surround sound, and have multiple Grammy nominations for best sound and best surround sound. Surround is not quite as effective when you only have one instrument, so he thought it would be a cool idea to have two or three pianos so that we could really use the surround effects. We would place the piano, then we would move the piano between the takes, so that one layer is in the front and one is in the back, and so on.
Wow. So when you go into the recording studio, you have an outline of what you think you’re going to do and then it surprises you?
For the last album, I didn’t have almost anything. For the piano improvisations album, I wanted my mind to be as free as possible. So, I didn’t really want to know anything before I sat down to record. Because I usually always feel like the improv is better the less you plan it, you know? It’s because if you have ideas before, or if you have certain ideas about where it’s supposed to go, then it’s easy to get tied up a little bit. And it doesn’t necessarily help the creative juices to flow. So, yeah, I really tried not to think at all, as much as possible.
But for the Stone Rose album, it was different, because a lot of those pieces were written beforehand. So, a lot of those pieces weren’t improvised at all during the recording sessions. I would record different versions of some and kind of play around with the pieces, but a lot of them were really written beforehand.
Were you always a musician at heart?
Yeah. I think so. I mean, I started really early. I think my grandmother gave us a piano when I was about one. And I think I just started playing as soon as I sort of, could. I seemed to have gravitated towards piano as a little kid. I just kind of started improvising and somehow, I had a good ear as a kid and I guess I could feel what seemed to sound good and what didn’t. Also, I could quite easily listen to things—hear things on the radio or whatever—and play it back. So I didn’t need to learn reading music until much later.
Yeah, I think it was just always there for some reason, and there was never really any doubt in my mind what I wanted to do. And I remember thinking, very clear thoughts and visions about it when I was a kid, like this is definitely what I want to do. So, I never really ever considered, even thought about doing anything else.
Who were your great influences & mentors growing up in music.
Well, I had a few piano teachers and I think I wore them all out. I was probably pretty stubborn and I wanted to do my own thing, just kind of following what I heard and saw. I was already used to improvising, which meant that I didn’t really need to learn to read music to have fun at the time. So, it was easy to sort of shy away from the hard work of learning to read music and learning pieces, other than just from hearing them and playing them back from memory.
Anyway, it took a while. It wasn’t until, before high school or so that I found a classical piano teacher who really taught me how to really use my arm, use the weight, and really play in a physically effective way. This was back in Norway, and she taught me a lot, (and she had a lot to teach me) and helped me a lot with my playing. But I never studied piano in school. It’s always been private teachers or just private study.
How did you find your own way and voice during your formal training in Norway and the US?
Well I think it was always there, in a way. Because I started improvising and composing so young, I was already developing a voice. I don’t know whether it was a good voice or not, but it was some kind of voice. So that made me focused, I think, all the way through school. I never wavered from what I wanted to express and what I wanted to hear. So, I probably wasn’t always the best student. I was pretty adamant about how I wanted my music to sound. In retrospect, I’m very happy about that because I think that it’s important to be very adamant—to be consistent about where you want to go with your own music.
With your specialty in choral & piano music, it seems like a natural thing for you to write a modern choral fantasy in response to Beethoven’s. Any plans?
Well, I guess I already have, probably not as a direct response though. I wouldn’t dare. But I’ve definitely, over the last few years, incorporated the piano a lot more into my choral music, and into my other, more symphonic, music as well. And, that’s definitely been something I wanted to do because I believe the piano has been relegated to a very anonymous roll in choral music, for the most part.
I wanted to write pieces where the piano was much more equal when the choir, and there was more of a dialogue between them. I’ve done pieces where the piano sometimes had longer solo parts and was accompanied by the choir, and vice versa. I have a piece called Dark Night of the Soul, that was written for the Phoenix Chorale by the way, which uses the piano in that way. I suppose that’s sort of a choral piano fantasy in a way.
I know the albums are available from retailers including Amazon, iTunes and Last FM. Where can pianists purchase the scores to your music?
Basically, the music from my Stone Rose album is what we have out, so far. We have a collection of five piano pieces and then there’s a collection of three pieces for cello and piano. So, those you can get pretty much anywhere. (JW Pepper, Sheet Music Plus, Music Room in Europe, or directly from the publisher Peters in the US or in Europe) We also did publish Madison separately, which is a piece for cello and piano from the Stone Rose album.
We’re also releasing one score from the piano improvisations album soon. I wasn’t really planning on releasing any, because they’re all free improvisations. A lot of those improvs are really free and not always that easy to notate or to transcribe. But, I kept getting emails about this one track called Chorale, which is a very simple, very slow piece that for some reason a lot of people want to play, so I figured I would transcribe that one piece. Edition Peters is going to publish that piece very soon.
It’s always great to have new pieces that are for multiple pianos.
I love the two piano sound. Some of my favorite pieces are, the Rachmaninoff Suites. He wrote some unbelievable stuff for two pianos. So yeah, I agree, that’s just a lovely sound. I wish there were more concerts with two pianos. I guess it’s hardest to sell scores for the three piano stuff, too, because it’s sort of rare that we get the opportunity to play three pianos at the same time. We probably won’t release any sheet music of the multi piano stuff very soon, unfortunately—again, just because they were all improvised so nothing was written down. But, in the future who knows?